I've got the back-to-school blues

Share

September is here again, the cruellest month for all parents of school-age children in France.

September is here again, the cruellest month for all parents of school-age children in France. After a hard-earned holiday, watching the rain-clouds circling over Normandy like stacked aircraft, you come straight back to a school examination, set by sadistic teachers.

This is an examination designed to test the ingenuity and patience, not of the children, but of the parents. The exam paper takes the form of an extensive, abstruse list of fournitures scolaires (school equipment) that the child - to avoid teacherly rage - must possess on the first day of school.

In theory, education is free in France. In practice, primary schools provide nothing but bare walls, desks and a teacher. The parents must supply everything else: pens and pencils, of course; gym clothes, naturally; but also the textbooks, the exercise books (of precisely stated dimensions and characteristics), the plastic exercise-book covers (in specified colours), the ink, the paper, the sticky tape, the rolls of wire, the paper plates, the shoe-boxes, the scissors, the paint brushes, the paint, the painting paper, the tracing paper, the paper hankies and the glue. Lots of glue. French teachers are addicted to glue.

My 10-year-old daughter Clare needed 48 items to start the final year of primary school in Paris last week, including three different kinds of loose-leaf paper, 18 exercise books of four different specifications, and five plastic exercise-book covers (blue, red, yellow, green and transparent).

Grace, aged six, had a marginally shorter list of much greater complexity, including pink and orange exercise-book covers (extremely rare, now stocked only by the most specialised dealers), and a pencil-case with two pockets, "both capable of holding a 20cm plastic ruler".

Every year, there is a fuss in the French press about the length and cost of the school lists. Every year, parents associations protest and suggest that it would be much cheaper, and simpler, for schools - even school districts - to buy all this stuff in bulk. Nothing changes, except that every year, the lists grow longer and more fiendish.

I have a notion (maybe not entirely fanciful) that the teachers in each school convene a coven-like meeting at the end of each year to draw up the list of fournitures scolaires for the next. At this meeting, the teachers put on their pointed hats and then scan stationers' catalogues, several years out of date, to identify the most outlandish items.

First teacher: "We should ask for two exercise books for practical work in big format..." Second teacher: "Hee, hee, hee, yes, but with the bigger squares and with 96 pages, no more, no less..." Third teacher: "Ho, ho, ho, yes, and we should specify that the size must be 24cm by 32cm..." Fourth teacher: "Yes, yes [wiping tears from eyes] but only, in the non-spiral version..."

My daughters' school offers a service in which they supply you (for a large fee) with all the equipment required in a cardboard box. We have been down this cowardly route in recent years, but found that the equipment in the box does not entirely match the list. We have ended up, at the last minute, searching Paris for the last " cahier de travaux pratiques, grand format, grands carreaux, 96 pages, sans spirale, 24 x 32".

This year, therefore, we devoted the last Friday of our holidays to a trip to a hypermarket near Caen in Normandy, with a floor-space three times the size of the Vatican. This shop claims to have the cheapest and most comprehensive range of fournitures scolaires in the nation.

After three hours of searching the football-pitch-length aisles, and fighting off other equally desperate mamans and papas, we emerged with a trolley full of gear (cost €268.77). However, we did not have the six exercise books with alternate blank and ruled pages, in small format, non-spiral; we did not have the pink and orange exercise-book covers; and we could not find Grace's pencil-case with two separate pockets over 20cm long.

It took trips to three other shops to locate the exercise books and plastic covers. Finally, I located what appears to be the last double-barrel pencil-case in France. It said "Harry Potter" on the side, and carried a picture of Hedwig, Harry's owl.

In triumph, I presented it to Grace. "No good," she said. "It's a boy one. Only boys in France have Harry Potter pencil-cases."

Has anyone out there got a twin- bore pencil-case? Must be 20cm in length and pink.

Tête-à-tête with Top Gun



Little information has leaked out from the most extraordinary meeting of political minds of the French rentrée. The other day, the finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who plans to be the Next Big Thing in French politics, met someone even more famous than he is: the actor Tom Cruise.

What on earth did Top Gun have to say to Sarko? According to the minister's staff, they met at Cruise's request and discussed world politics. Nothing, then, to do with the fact that Mr Cruise is a supporter of the Church of Scientology, which is classed as a sect in France and misses out on the fat tax benefits granted to religions?

Not even mentioned, Sarkozy's people said.

What's in a name?

Most schools in France are named after famous dead people: politicians, war heroes, scientists, writers, artists, actors or pop singers. The newspaper Le Monde has drawn up a list of the most commonly chosen names. The Resistance hero Jean Moulin scores well; so do the writers Albert Camus and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Only two foreigners are high in the charts: Leonardo da Vinci and Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer/songwriter. Half of French schoolchildren, one presumes, are girls. School names are almost always those of men. Marie Curie is the only common exception. Why no Lycée Edith Piaf?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific