What is it like sending your kids to local school in France and Italy – part 2

Written by on February 17, 2021 in Blog, Education

Friends in school

What is it like sending your kids to local school in France and Italy – part 2

Our move from Northern France to Italy in 2014 was mainly driven by Anita’s job as export manager for AD Fashion, a family owned clothing producing company based in Torino. She had been working for them remotely for years, taking care of their exports. They had recently had a re-organisation and were offering her the chance to join the head office team for a while. The obvious choice of where to live was Torino itself and so we made the 10 hour trip there in the car from Inxent to see what it was like.

Seeing as Olly had been in the French school system for 3 years we initially considered taking advantage of the presence of a very nice and not too expensive French international school in Torino, the Lycee Francais International Jean Giono. It is located in the Sassi suburb next to the river Po and caters for French kids and some Italians, from the age of 7 all the way through to 18 and the baccalaureate.

Torino evening view of the town

It would have been ideal in many ways but we were hesitating. For various reasons Anita and I are a bit prejudiced against the idea of the ‘expat’ life, international schools included. It probably goes back to our days together in Hungary when our existence was a kind of hybrid between Anita’s local family and friends and me being a part of the foreign worker community.

In Hungary Olly had naturally gone to Hungarian school, Hungarian being his mother tongue. In France, at 8 years old he had faced the challenge of joining the local village school and having to learn the language from scratch. If we moved to Italy we would ideally like him again to join a local school and make local friends but were afraid that it might be a step too far, especially seeing that he was that little bit older. At 11 you are going to be more self-conscious than you were aged 8 so fitting in and making friends is going to be more complicated. Plus school work is going to be more sophisticated, requiring a higher level of language skills to be able to keep up with it.

Which is how our thoughts turned to the town of Aosta, in the beautiful Aosta Valley, roughly an hour’s drive from AD Fashion HQ. For historical reasons the Aosta Valley, a semi-independent region, has both Italian and French as it’s ‘official’ languages (the local ‘patois’ is a strange sounding mix of the two). From a very young age the kids here do lots of French learning at school, with a number of the subjects taught entirely in French. We figured that with so much French around it should be possible for Olly to find his feet in a local school here while he absorbed some Italian.

To cut a boring story short, following a quick visit and a meeting with the very helpful regional school’s officer, we ended up enrolling Olly at the ‘Istituzione Scolastica Saint-Roch’, or the ‘School of Rock’ as we called it, located just outside the old town on Corso Ivrea.

media school building

Whereas Le Regroupement de la Vallee de la Course had been charmingly villagey and quaint, Saint-Roch is a much more typical urban school, a featureless, no frills concrete block on a main road surrounded by shops and apartment blocks. Very similar in fact to ‘le College du Bras d’Or’ in Montreuil sur Mer which Olly would have moved onto in a year’s time had we stayed in France.

As a ‘scuola media’ – middle school, Saint-Roch looks after kids from 11 to 13 years old. Here they attend classes from Monday to Friday, from 8am to 4pm, whereas all the other Aosta middle schools had Wednesday afternoon off and school on Saturday morning. Why Saint-Roch was the exception we never discovered.

At the end of their 3 years at middle school the kids take ‘l’esame terza media’ in all subjects, comprising both written and oral tests, all of which they have to pass with a minimum of 6/10 in order to move on to ‘le scuole superiori’. Quite a few of them fail one subject which they have to retake in the summer. One or two fail more than one subject and are ‘bocciato’ – held back to repeat the year. I am happy to say that Olly managed to pass the exams with an 8/10 and was accepted into liceo – high school.

first day at school

Olly’s first week at Saint-Roch was tough on him and on us and I confess to feeling extremely uncomfortable and upset about what we were doing to him. We were all very wobbly in our new situation and the urge to pull the plug straight away and run back to the Pas de Calais almost won the day.

One of the things that persuaded us to hang in here and give things a chance was the warm and friendly reception we had received at the Aosta Valley’s one and only rugby club, the mighty Stade Valdotain. Right from the first u12 training session that Olly attended, the boys and girls, the coaches Fabrizio and James (over from England), Club President Francesco and all the parents couldn’t have been nicer or more enthusiastic to have Olly, and us on board.

activities in media school

I am happy to say that Olly did thoroughly enjoy his 3 years at the modest and kindly Saint-Roch. After a daunting first couple of weeks when frankly I am amazed he didn’t point blank refuse to go to school at all, he somehow found his feet. He got adopted by a little gang of three nerdy misfits comprising Andrea, Sasha and Oscar and the four of them stuck together throughout the whole 3 years. The cooler kids, who could have made life difficult for a strange new boy from abroad, were nothing but welcoming and friendly. But I think that the crucial factor that made Olly relax and feel at home was, as in France, the kind, supportive and easy-going atmosphere created by all the adults at the school, from the ‘bin ladies’ to the headmaster.

friends at school

One of the reasons we were sent to Saint-Roch by the school’s officer was because it is part of the ‘classe de neige’ system that supports kids who do competitive winter sports. As a member of Ski Club Aosta, Olly, together with the 3 or 4 others skiers in his class, missed most weekday afternoons from December to May to go training in Pila. At the weekends they had more training or were away competing somewhere or other in the region. They therefore missed lots of lessons and had a hard time keeping up with all the homework. Olly really struggled and there were occasions during the season when it all felt too much. But the school were very encouraging and thanks to the extra tuition that they provided during the off-season he managed to catch up with everything in the end.

When you finish middle school aged 13, assuming you pass the leaving exams, you move onto either liceo – high school or an ‘istituto tecnico o professionale’. Olly chose to go with his strengths and enrolled at the liceo linguistico which focusses heavily on languages. The other liceo options were those focusing on the classics – ‘classico’ and the sciences – ‘scientifico’.

liceo high school building

Whilst the 3 years at scuola media had been very happy and successful ones, Olly’s experience of liceo was much more challenging. He lasted a couple of difficult months at Liceo Edouard Berard before the dry weight of language study, which he wasn’t really interested in on an academic level, combined with the introduction of Latin and an awkward relationship with his English teacher convinced him that it wasn’t the place for him. So he decided to take advantage of the 3 month ‘transfer window’ that is in place to cater for exactly this situation and enrolled at the Liceo Regina Maria Adelaide to study ‘scienze applicate’ – applied sciences. Thinking that even though maths and science didn’t come easily to him, at least they might be more interesting and useful in the future than Latin.

Initially this seemed to have been a good move but it quickly became evident that keeping up with the work at this higher level was going to be a real struggle for him. This was partly because he is not a particularly gifted or enthusiastic student, partly because his Italian was still not up to the level of the others and partly because of the teaching methods, which suddenly had become a lot less friendly and a lot more demanding.

ski and rugby teams

Unlike Saint-Roch, the Liceo wasn’t the slightest bit interested in supporting extra-curricular activities. Olly was still with Ski Club Aosta and during the ski season was training every day and doing lots more races at weekends. And when not skiing he was playing rugby, with training at Stade 3 evenings a week and matches on Saturdays. He was also by now in the Piemonte regional rugby squad which involved attending extra training sessions in Torino on Monday evenings. School finished at 13.20 every day, which in theory should have been helpful for sporty people like him but the reality was that the teachers loaded every afternoon and evening with huge amounts of homework. Combined with the endless ‘verifiche’ and ‘interrogazioni’ and the ruthless grading system, where one bad mark early in the term could destroy your hopes of achieving the magic 6/10, the poor lad just couldn’t cope and was becoming more and more despondent by the day.

He made it through the first year but by half way through year two it really had all got on top of him and something had to change. We hated seeing him so demoralized and unhappy so promised to take him out of liceo at the end of the year and send him instead to boarding school in England to do A’levels.

Clearly this is just our story and everyone else who has come from abroad to go to school in Italy will have their own different experiences. I am in no way saying that there is anything wrong with liceo or that you shouldn’t send your child there just because we found it difficult. And it goes without saying that because we had a good experience at middle school doesn’t mean that others will too.

The good news for us is that Olly has been very happy in his new school, Bloxham in Oxfordshire and is doing well under the English A’level system. So it seems that the change of environment was the right thing to do for him at that time and we are very grateful that we had that option.

There were a couple of alternatives here in Italy that we could, perhaps should have taken. One was the Liceo Linguistico Courmayeur – FISI Ski College, a little, friendly private international school that specialises in looking after skiers and other winter sports competitors. We did seriously consider it and went for an interview with the charming and dynamic head master Franco Cossard, who is also director of Liceo Juventus International School in Torino. In the end we rejected it due to the logistics involved, with it being an hours bus ride away from Aosta. But given what subsequently happened at Berard and Adelaide we probably should have done whatever it took to manage that, including maybe even moving house. The other alternative would have been for Olly to go the academically less demanding ‘istituto tecnico’ in Aosta to concentrate on computer science. A few of his mates were there and I think it probably would also have suited him very well. But once the England idea had taken root and he got offered a place, it was too hard to resist.

First day at school for little boys

What will now be interesting for us will be seeing how Olly’s young brother Marcel, now 7 years old, progresses at school here in Italy. He is currently in year 2 of ‘scuola primaria – Chevrot’, near here where we live in Gressan, just outside Aosta. When we arrived in Italy in 2014 he was just over a year old. He went ‘asilo nido’ – nursery school, straight away (which cost a fortune) and then to ‘scuola infanzia’ when he was 3. So he knows nothing other than going to school in Italy and has no issues with the language. He is totally integrated with the local kids, some of who he has been with since nursery. He plays football for the local club Aygreville and skis with Ski Club Pila so already has a wide circle of Italian friends. If we stay here he will grow up as one of the locals, whereas at roughly the same age Olly was taken out of his natural environment and started out on his adventures as a foreigner.

Read part 1 about sending your kids to local school in France.

Later in Part 3 of this blog I will talk about our experiences of Olly doing 6th Form in England and of Marcel going to asilo nido, scuola infanzia and scuola primaria here in Aosta.

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