France may be one of the world’s top holiday destinations, with more space and fewer people than the UK, but what’s it like to actually live and work there, and what are the opportunities and challenges for Brits? We spoke to Dr Steffen Sommer, headmaster of the British School of Paris (BSP), to find out more about his school and about working in France generally. Read more.
Could you start by giving us an introduction to The British School of Paris?
The BSP is a co-educational British school based just outside Paris in a prestigious western suburb close to Versailles in Croissy sur Seine, on one of the most beautiful stretches of the Seine outside of the city centre.
We are a high achieving school – if we look at examination results we consistently achieve GSCE and A level examination results that are comparable to high achieving independent selective schools in the UK, yet like all British international schools we’re not selective.
We’re catering predominantly for the British expat community in Paris – or that was certainly very much the case up until nine years ago. But the expat climate and community has changed quite significantly because the major employers are employing fewer Brits, which has had an impact on the BSP. However the result is simply that we are more ‘international’ than we used to be.
The crux is that we are very proud of the Britishness that we uphold here: we teach a completely British curriculum, and what you find at the BSP is exactly the same as you’ll find at any independent or state school in England, but the cohort we have is very international: we’re 38% British with 50 other nationalities represented. We start at the age of three and go up to the age of 18, and we have one big campus and two sites – one for the junior school, and one for the seniors, which shares with administrative offices in the oldest part of the school in a château. There are roughly 400 children in each school.
The campus is breathtakingly beautiful!
How are British schools recognised and monitored?
We’re one of the biggest and one of the very oldest British international schools, and we’re a founding member of COBIS – The Council of British International Schools. We’ve been fighting hard to get the level of recognition by the British government that we are now enjoying. Now we have statutory inspections in all British international schools, whereas previously the label ‘British’ seemed to be available to anyone founding a school, regardless of the kind of place that it was.
Now the British government, very much like the Americans and Australians, actually say “No you can’t call yourselves ‘British’ unless you do all of this”.
What opportunities are there for UK teachers?
The vast majority of our teaching staff are from the UK. However our staff turnover is minimal. The reason is that it’s a fantastic place to work, in one of the most beautiful areas you can imagine. The school is also extremely well appointed, with state of the art facilities. I wouldn’t ever say that teaching is easy, but one can live out one’s professional ambitions completely without having to focus on mundane things like discipline! The students are extremely well behaved, and we uphold British standards, with a uniform code and so forth.
We’ve fought very hard within COBIS to be able to accept newly qualified teachers, and I think that before too long it will be possible. We’ve also had very close relationships with British universities, and have accepted students for work experience.
Although we’re in France, we’re very conscious that with the train link between Paris and London, we are actually much more conveniently placed for insets and so forth than many schools back in the UK. So all our in-service training and examination training takes place in the UK. No one coming to Paris to teach would miss out on anything they have in the UK.
It sounds very competitive because it’s such a great place to work!
Well our documentation is very upbeat, in our adverts we say who we are, where we are, that we are a high achieving school, that our class sizes are very small, and that our students are very well behaved, so yes – even for shortage subjects like maths or physics: for example this September we had a physics post going, and I received 74 applications, out of which 10 were appointable.
That’s not the case all the time: we had an ICT vacancy recently and there weren’t many in the cohort applying, and they weren’t of the calibre that we normally get. But certainly our location is a major attraction.
Could you tell us about the opportunities in France more generally for UK teachers?
There are two British schools in France: the BSP, and the Mougins School, which is a fantastic place to be, very close to Nice and Cannes. It is a smaller but very popular school in a more rural and exceptionally pretty location.
There are a fair number of international schools: here there’s the International School of Paris, and the American School of Paris which tends to employ American teachers who understand the American programme. The International School would be more generally focused, and you’d end up with ‘the international experience’. It’s a different environment of learning, which is less formal than at the BSP. But they also employ British teachers, who would be in a staffroom comprising many different nationalities. You’d have a melting pot of all kinds of experiences of different teaching and education systems, which comes along with its own complexities and difficulties. Here or at Mougin, by contrast, you’re more likely to have predominantly Brits and some other Anglophones.
Are there many particular bureaucratic hoops for UK teachers wanting to work in France?
There aren’t any particular stumbling blocks. France like the UK is a member state of the EU, therefore you have freedom of movement, and freedom of employment – there is no problem at all. If you apply for the job and get it, you’re there. But I always ask at interview of our many applicants what they know about France. They don’t have to speak French because the lingua franca is English here, but living in France is different from being on holiday in France. It is not as easy a country to live in as the UK. Bureaucracy is rife, it always takes time, and it is very very difficult to lead an adequate life – although it is very pretty and very nice – without speaking French.
Having said that, at BSP we have our own community: many of our parents are expats, who may only come for a year or two, and our community is a bit of an enclave. So not only are we a school, but we also provide opportunities for parents to take part in activities – including learning French – and we involve the whole family, providing opportunities for them to meet each other, to speak English. And those who are not British join in with this: they choose British education because they like our values.
What would you say is the biggest attraction for someone in the UK trying to get a job in France?
It is ‘widening the horizons’, while having the comfort zone at the BSP of ‘knowing the system’; there’s nothing here that would be alien to any British teacher. At an international school, a lot of things would be alien. So if you come here you have the added complexity of being in France, so it’s a challenge for your own personal life to live outside the UK, but there’s the comfort zone that the job offers. We also help with finding accommodation and ‘setting people up’, but then they lead their own lives. So for those who haven’t worked in another country before, it’s quite a nice thing to do, to have a comfort zone, and also opportunities to ‘have done something else’ – the opportunity to have lived in France for some time.
It’s also a valuable experience for teachers who come from areas that aren’t highly urbanised and who aren’t used to teaching a mixed national group… and our students come from all kinds of education systems: they might have spent two years in an American school in Houston; they might have spent a couple of years in a local Vietnamese school for example.
It’s also good for teachers to see first-hand that the majority of our students are at least bi-lingual; some are tri-lingual or speak four or five languages. That makes these students very different kids: not more intelligent than others, but they just come with a ‘worldliness’… they have travelled the world. They go about life with ease – even if they don’t speak French that well because they’ve only just moved here – but they go about with an ease that inspires teachers. Nothing ever really stops them – they are quite prepared to make the very most of life in a global environment. Because they are living global lives.