Primo (or Nouveaux) Arrivants

Julia Witherspoon describes her experiences of moving to France and her struggles in trying to find the right school for her children.

Very little is to be found on the internet about Primo Arrivant classes for older children arriving in France with little French, who require an education, and I wanted to pass on our (very positive) experience in order that other families might be able to benefit from knowing about it. My children are both ‘college’ age; this note doesn’t really apply to children coming into France under the age of 11, where they can easily join their local primary school whatever their level of French and pick the language up more easily than older children. I also don’t know for sure whether every department in France runs such courses.

We moved from Surrey to Perpignan (dept 66) in early July 2007 having decided to change our lives (hopefully!) for the better. I am divorced with two children (James aged 13 and Rebecca aged 11). My ex-husband now lives hundreds of miles away from the children in Northumberland and didn’t object to our move. My partner’s children (two sons, aged 13 and 8) already live in Perpignan with their French mother, Mike’s ex-wife, hence the move to this particular part of France. They had been here around 4 years since their separation. My children therefore were less apprehensive perhaps than most children about making the move (in fact were as keen as Mike and I) as they had two ‘friends’ to whom they were very close here already.

My main concern was their schooling of course and after hours and hours of research, via the internet mainly (but I also had estate agents finding out information for me, ex-teachers, friends of friends of friends, web forum contacts; you name them, I asked for their help), I had three options 1) If we lived near or in Perpignan, they could enrol on Primo Arrivant courses (held in 5 colleges in Perpignan) where they would have specialist French tuition for a year, then could join their local college (or stay where they were) 2) If we lived a distance from Perpignan, they would have to attend their local college, unless we wanted to drive into Perpignan every day 3) We could apply to local private schools. The third option was never really an option (more a fall back) as I’d heard they all had waiting lists anyway.

We eventually found a house in a great area (co-incidentially where Mike’s children live – not planned!) and I had heard that the local college there was very good. (Mike’s boys attend a private school in Perpignan).

However, after talking to James and Becky, we all decided to give the Primo Arrivant course a try. I tried to ignore the fact that ‘Primo Arrivant’ means ‘first generation immigrant’ and put to the back of my mind that we were unlikely to come across many other English speaking children on the course. We were after all immigrants ourselves. The classes are run by a body called CASNAV Centre Academique pour les Scolarisation des Nouveaux Arrivants et des enfants du Voyage – this again had me panicking, thinking that my children were going to be mixing with gypsies/travellers. But we HAD to give it a chance. So I registered them before we actually moved here as I think the whole place shuts down for the summer! This I did at the Inspection-Academique in Perpignan (with the help of Mike’s ex-wife acting as translator!).

We enjoyed a lovely, long, warm summer so by the time September came round, James and Becky were quite well settled into day to day life here. Nevertheless we were all nervous about what was to follow.

We had received a letter from the Inspection-Academique for the PO area outlining what would happen during the initial ‘welcome’ week. At this point I may add, we didn’t even know which college the children would be going to. The Primo Arrivant classes are held at 5 colleges in Perpignan. My research had told me that three had good reputations and two had very bad. We fortunately lived on the right side of town for the three good ones, so hoped they wouldn’t be sent to one of the remaining two.

We were to have a welcome chat (with interpreters) on the Monday afternoon at a Lycee in Perpignan, the children would sit tests on Tuesday (in French, Maths and their own language), Wednesday would be a day-off and Thursday, after an organised day trip out for the children, we would find out which schools they were going to. They would start at their respective schools on the Friday.

The three of us were very nervous as we drove towards the Lycee and I have to confess, when we approached the gates, I nearly turned the car round and drove straight to the college near us to beg them to take James and Becky! There was about 50 other children there with their families; 70% Arabs, the rest were Polish, Turkish, Spanish, Chech, Portugese and the three of us. It was truly surreal.

Anyway, they grouped us into languages spoken – so there where the three of us and a Romanian family with a girl about Becky’s age who could all speak a little English – and we were then split into two rooms. The welcome chat was very informative and well organised and we were left in no doubt that France takes the education of every child (whatever their nationality, colour or background) extremely seriously and all the children in those two rooms would be treated exactly the same as every other French child in the country.

Our interpreter was actually one of the English teachers from one of the 5 colleges. She told us that most of the children are put into whichever of the 5 colleges is closest to our homes. I knew this was the best one of the 5 so was crossing my fingers this would be the case. I had looked at them all on the internet and this one had a particularly good website. It had an English section as well, probably because the website designer was actually one of the English teachers at the school – whose name made it highly likely that he was English. (He is!)

The children and I were a bit shell shocked by the time we left but we agreed to see the end of the week through and make a final decision about whether to go ahead when we knew which school they would be going to. My back-up plans of a private school (I had contacts at 2 in the area which I hoped would be enough to get our feet through the door (with hindsight, it probably wasn’t)) or the local college in our village where becoming a real possibility though at this stage.

They duly sat their tests on the Tuesday, had a nice trip with the other children on Thursday morning and then we all bundled into one room at the Lycee to learn our fate!

James and Becky were indeed going to go to the college we had hoped for (along with about 10 or so of the other children in the room) so we were pleased about that. We met several members of staff from the school (plus the school nurse) who were there, including the French teacher who would be teaching them and who had overall responsibility for them for their first year.

We should go there the following morning to register, look round and would be given that dreaded stationery list…! The kids would start properly on the Monday – about three days after the term actually started.

We are five weeks into their education at their allotted school now and I am the first to admit that, as everyone who has done it will know, it’s far from easy. We had tears from Becky every evening and every morning for (only) the first week. James was fantastic and very brave and grown up and mature though I knew he was struggling inside. Two weeks in and the tears had long gone; they don’t rush to get there in the mornings (do many children?!) but are already used to the long days (though I bring them home for lunch 2 days a week), heavy bags, not understanding anything – except their English lessons! They’ve made friends, everyone is very nice and understanding. Becky would have found the transition in the UK from primary to secondary school pretty hard anyway and her major problem the first week wasn’t the language barrier so much as all those bigger, older children, long days, every lesson with a different teacher in a different classroom and the much bigger school.

They have a timetable which gives them (sometimes together, mainly separately) and the few other Primo Arrivants who were allocated the same school, 8 hours of French-as-a-foreign-language lessons a week, the rest of the day they are with their class doing whatever their class is doing. Becky has a long swimming lesson once a week and James is in the ‘sporty’ class and does 6 hours of sport a week. He is already in the school basket ball team and is loving the other sports he is doing; Judo, Boxing, Volleyball, Rugby and Running. Becky has had a trip out during triple ‘science project’ class once a week as well so far.

I have no idea how their French is doing because they refuse to speak it at home but it’s very early days and I know they will get there. It will continue to be an uphill struggle with some bad days and some extra good days but I want to highly recommend CASNAV and the Primo Arrivant system. Yes, I realise we have benefited from the kids going to a very good college because we live nearby, but whichever school they had gone to would have given them 8 hours of intensive French tuition a week, surely an easier way to learn the language than being thrown completely in at the deep end with no extra lessons or help at all, which they would have had to do if they had gone to any other school outside of this system? James and Becky have the option of staying at the college they are at after this academic year is over or moving to the local college where we live. I am going to leave that decision to them – so long as they make the same decision!

Anyone put off by the meaning of CASNAV or Primo Arrivant – don’t be. The advantage of the schools running these classes is that the pupils in the schools are used to new foreign children every year coming into the school and no-one has an issue with it; yes there are many nationalities at the school (but not anywhere near 70% Arabs!!) but I think this is a positive thing and hopefully James and Becky will grow up with far fewer prejudices than perhaps I had at the beginning of this process. They are becoming truly international children and I am incredibly proud of them.


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