THE FRENCH SCHOOL
Why some parents are choosing to send their kids to international schools in SA over public schools
Smaller classes, better resources and more individual attention are among the reasons some people choose independent over public schools in South Africa.
Parents and caregivers are increasingly reaching for a further trump card in the battle to help their children carve out a better future by exploring schools with international accreditation. This affords them a competitive edge not only in terms of access to universities abroad but a global network of alumni, better career prospects and enhanced economic opportunities.
The benefits of an international education extend far beyond the classroom: they last a lifetime by shaping the way that children learn to think about themselves, their place in the world, diversity and work after school.
With the 2024 academic year looming, Daily Maverick is looking at a few international systems of education, open to South Africans, that could potentially help give children an edge within their homeland and, more especially, abroad.
The French School
You might not know the difference between La Marseillaise and Marseille or have visited the City of Love and Lights, but if you send your children to the Cape Town French School, they could matriculate with two of the most widely spoken languages in the world: French and English.
Provided they are highly motivated and put in the effort, your children could opt to sit both French (Baccalauréat Français International, or BFI) and English Baccalaureate exams that would certify them as fully bilingual in English and French at matric level.
Earlier this year, the French School of Cape Town was awarded the Baccalauréat Français International (BFI) accreditation for both the school and high schools, enabling pupils to choose whether they wanted to sit both exams.
Cambridge International Advanced Subsidiary Levels (AS Levels) and Cambridge International Advanced Levels (A Levels) are subject-based qualifications usually taken in the final two years of high school. Each exam focuses on a level of the Common European Framework of Reference, helping pupils to improve their speaking, writing, reading and listening skills.
While students already sit the Cambridge English exam to confirm their mastery of English, with the new BFI, French School matriculants’ entire qualification will be considered bilingual, rendering the Cambridge exam optional. The school also offers Spanish and German as second or third languages.
The “ordinary” baccalauréat is fully recognised in all EU countries and most countries in the world (including England, the US, Canada and other English-speaking countries), but French students who apply also need to prove English competence, which is why the French School offers the Cambridge tests for its students.
Some subjects are partly or completely taught in English:
- World knowledge (connaissance du monde, completely in English)
- Culture and language (Approfondissement Linguistique et Culturel, completely in English)
- History and geography (50% in English)
- Other subjects can be taught in English, as long as 50% of the teaching remains in French
With the BFI, some universities will lower their entry requirements, which means fewer entrance exams, preferential entry to English-speaking universities and additional credits afforded.
The BFI helps students get easier entry to top universities in the US, Canada, the UK and France, such as Concordia (Canada), Imperial College in London, Trinity College, Cambridge and Oxford. Students who decide to study in France now have an advantage with the BFI, at universities such as Louis-le-Grand, Henry IV, Janson de Sailly, the Sorbonne, and Sciences Politiques.
Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron’s election pledges came into force, rendering maths and science compulsory subjects up to matric, as well as 30 minutes of daily sport for primary school children.
Cape Town French School principal Samuel Jourdan explains that the French system focuses on honing fundamental knowledge skills, which is why art, the sciences and physical activity are extremely important from a young age.
France has long punched above its weight in the sciences: It has a powerful tradition in maths and science. Maths is taught using the Singapore method, a three-step, highly visual method that encourages children to master limited mathematical concepts in greater detail through concrete, pictorial and abstract examples.
Developed by teachers in Singapore in the 1980s to discourage rote learning, the Singapore method is highly visual, focusing on teaching children how to problem-solve from the age of two. In the Programme for International Student Assessment — a triennial survey of 15-year-old pupils that assesses their key knowledge and skills (measuring proficiency in reading, mathematics, science and an innovative domain), and students’ well-being — Singapore scored the best in the world in maths.
Once children reach high school, they know maths well and do not have to continue using it, but they cannot drop maths as they have at least two hours of the subject. The sciences are extremely important for the rest of their life so they never drop maths and sciences, spending a minimum of two hours a week on the subjects.
“It’s a system where the teaching is very much balanced. You will learn skills, you will learn to read and write, of course, but you will also learn about what your body can do. For example, we don’t do much sport but we have about four hours of physical activity a week. Physical education is really important, as is eating well. Our children learn how to live, use their bodies and develop their own values,” said Jourdan.
With 566 French schools in about 140 countries, children learn French alongside local languages, but the focus is on mastering at least two.
“There’s something very special in the French system abroad, and it is that we do part of the teaching using the local languages. So here, it’s English. I used to work in China, so there, some teaching was also in [Mandarin]. All our students are fully bilingual and fully bicultural. If they are not bilingual when they come in, we help them attain a balanced mastery of both languages.”
Scientific subjects are central to the French system, he said, adding that from his experience in Canada, the US and South Africa, French students are well ahead of their peers.
Jourdan says students have progressed remarkably well since attaining their bilingual accreditation.
“When I arrived here in 2021, we had no certification. Within a year and a half, we attained certification for the primary, Collège (middle) and Lycée (high) schools. Our three schools are among only about 250 schools in the world that have this certification.”
About 30 nationalities are represented in the school, with 80% of students being local or having mixed heritage, he says.
Once they are competent in both French and English, they can choose to study — in many cases, for free — at top universities in Europe or funded through scholarships or bursaries.
The French School is small, with about 350 pupils enrolled from the ages of two to 18 and one class per grade. Healthy eating and physical activity are important at the school, which offers sports, competes against the network of French schools in Cape Town and abroad, and includes numerous cultural activities like history clubs, spelling bees, debating, charity events and shows. BM/DM
This article is part of a four-part series on international schools in South Africa.