This post describes what happened at our annual academic inspection, a compulsory academic check on children who are educated at home in France. Exactly what happens on the day seems to be a location lottery, but theoretically all inspections or contrôles should be similar.
There is also a 2-yearly inspection organised by your local Mairie (town hall), but this is for the purpose of checking your reasons for not schooling, and also presumably to make sure your home environment is safe.
At the end of the post we have also made a list of things that helped us prepare, and we mention proposed legislative changes to home education in France for the future.
If, one day, you need to prepare for an inspection yourself, we hope you find all of this helpful.
Jen and Katie x
Katie is 12 and would ordinarily be in Cinquième (or second year of “collège”). After going to the local primary school, she missed the final year (CM2) because we were away travelling in a campervan for a year, but she did go to first year of secondary school.
This was our first collège inspection. We were nervous: it was like trying to draw an elephant without ever having seen one, we’d heard some horror stories of other inspections, and the rules of the game are in the process of changing, but not in a good way. In particular, the legislation says at the moment that the child must reach a common standard (“the socle commun”) by the age of 16. The new rules require learning to be aligned with each year of the school curriculum, effectively negating a learner-led approach at the child’s pace. That strikes at the heart of a common reason to home educate. Do you get a black mark or an enforced return to school if you don’t meet a random standard according to age?
We didn’t know how strictly the new more prescriptive rules were going to be applied this year, and we’d heard anecdotal evidence about inspections being quite stressful events. Some inspectors were, for example, demanding on-the-spot references showing that unschooled kids could get a job when they were older. Unschooling is where you don’t follow a curriculum at all, whereas homeschooling is school at home. Or inspectors who lectured that structured lessons at a set time each day was the way to go. I wonder what evidence these inspectors could pull out guaranteeing a job for kids post school?!
And then there’s the ultimate sword of Damacles: fail the inspection and a reinspection and you’re back to school in 14 days.
THE NOTIFICATION LETTER
In terms of the current legislation, although the intended default location for an inspection is supposed to be at home, the education authority generally sends a letter telling you to come to one of their offices: given that home is where the learning takes place and it is familiar and less stressful for the person being inspected, that’s a shame.
We got a letter in May (giving 30 days notice) telling us the inspection was to be held in the education department offices on the top floor of the tax office. Proposed changes to the law will remove the parental right to ask for an alternative location or time (despite legitimate reasons such as work commitments), or for home to be the default as it is supposed to be now. The locations chosen by the education authority may be up to 75km away, or 150km round trip.
THE DAY OF THE INSPECTION
We arrived at the tax office just before 2pm. It’s not the cosiest of venues, but we knew the other families called in for the same time so it was good to see familiar faces. We were allocated the room we were to go to first according to a timetable. There were 4 sessions and each was timetabled to last about 30 mins. Three families were there, rotating round the rooms in a different order. We were all finished at about 4.30.
The structure of the afternoon was pre-determined. There wasn’t a choice regarding how it was going to run. There were chairs for the child and both parents (if there) so it must have been assumed that the child would be accompanied. We didn’t have to ask, as you are entitled to do. Some parents, in written inspection reports, have been criticised for wanting to remain with their child.
Our first session was called “orientation” and was with an educational psychologist. We went into her office and she took notes on a computer of Katie’s (and our) responses to her questions. Every now and then she would reread what she’d typed and ask us to confirm that what she had written was correct.
Most of her questions were directed at Katie but she opened it up to a discussion where necessary, or if we added anything. Her first question was whether this was our first year unschooling. Then she asked about a typical day, what time Katie got up, did she work more in the morning or afternoon? Katie explained it was different every day, depending upon what we were doing. The interviewer tried to push for more specificity but once she’d been given an average getting-up time (which also varies), she moved on to recording the fact that most of Katie’s learning was in the form of different sizes of projects that she initiated herself, trips to local places and places further afield, and that she sometimes used the Hachette curriculum workbook. She asked why we/Katie had decided to homeschool. How had school been last year? What sort of things did she like doing? What sports and clubs did she attend? What her thoughts about her future path were? Whether she considered herself to be sociable, happy to mix with big groups, liked working on her own?
It was friendly, with the interviewer making positive comments which encouraged Katie to speak. She asked if we had questions at the end. We asked a couple, mainly practical ones, for example about the ASSR (road safety certificate) which is normally done in school, at Katie’s age, and is a compulsory part of the socle commun. It was a lot less stressful than we had anticipated. There were no questions about the effectiveness of unschooling or opinions given about our choices. It was very much a fact gathering exercise. That doesn’t always appear to be the case in other areas.
Then we saw the maths inspector. Katie was really nervous. Although there wasn’t much humour in the room, the inspector handled Katie well. He encouraged us to continue linking maths with real life and was much more concerned about how in her head she had reached an answer than the answer itself. He handwrote a couple of algebra questions on a piece of paper, and he reexplained what he was looking for. He did the same with simple area and perimeter questions, and some proportionality and fraction questions. He helped as needed, and was again more interested in the understanding of the concept. He looked at the projects Katie had done on Fibonacci numbers, and some science experiments. He asked about one of them. It helped to have a prepared table of the socle commun subjects with us and how the projects fitted into them: it gave him a prompt about which he could ask questions and explore more about what Katie had done in the year. He could see she was more animated and confident when he turned to science questions – they weren’t in depth, he mainly asked if she enjoyed learning about eg. the solar system, or about plants and animals etc. and what sort of things she did to learn more.
Next the English inspector. She joked as we went in that this was going to be easy, and unlike some non-native English teachers who can become a little defensive, she was very open and complimentary about Katie being bilingual. She reminded us of the value in maintaining full bilingualism in all of the 4 language skills. She looked at some work in Katie’s folder (eg. the same project written in both languages) whilst Katie did a gapfill on a Simpsons text (American English so when she came out she asked if a dummy was a comforter). She was asked to read a short text about a dog and dog breeds out loud, and then translate orally a text from English to French, to check for possible L1/L2 interference issues I imagine. We briefly talked about the other languages Katie had looked at over the year.
Finally, the French inspection. The inspector was Katie’s old (lovely) French teacher from the year before. That put her at ease, and it was a very informal, encouraging meeting. Katie showed the inspector a list of books she’d read, and talked about the défi-lecture (like a book quiz in teams) she’d been to which had helped to get her reading fiction books. They discussed in quite a bit of detail the latest book she’d read, and what Katie thought of it, why she liked it, what the ending meant. Then there was a Harry Potter excerpt to read aloud, and a few simple questions about what it was about, and the parts of speech in the text – find the verb, what tense is that, why did they use that tense, what word helps you know the castle was a difficult place to find? Finally, Katie chose from 2 prompts – to write a few lines continuing the description in the text or imagining she was a new pupil at Hogwarts. As she wrote, we had a chat – who helps with Katie’s French? Does she write much at home? Is everything going ok?
The whole inspection was far less confrontational than we had expected, in fact it was professional and friendly. There were no aspersions cast or opinions given about home/unschooling. We consider ourselves fortunate. From other inspection tales, it really seems a hit or a miss how it’s going to go.
SOME OBSERVATIONS AND THINGS THAT HELPED US
1. We took along a folder with samples of things Katie had done in the year, from drawings, to copy blog posts, some experiment write ups, lapbook projects… Some of this recording occurred naturally (a blog post for example), some of the things were done as evidence for the inspection. This recording of what you learn (for the sake of recording it) is a departure from pure unschooling, but it means you have some “evidence” with you, ideally across the spectrum of the socle commun. If you’ve never been at school, I imagine it must be strange to record things for no other reason that to create written evidence, but Katie’s done that at school before and could see the value of it when sitting across from an inspector who won’t likely know you and has half an hour or so to assess you.
2. We would have really struggled had we not spoken good French. Maybe the communication would have been adapted, we don’t know. We’re just glad it didn’t have to be.
3. We made a table with two columns: on one side the 7 sections of the socle commun (French, foreign languages, maths etc) and on the other, examples of what we’d done, fitted into that frame. Sometimes the same thing appeared in a few categories as you’d imagine with project and task-based learning. The table was handy for a few reasons. It let us and Katie see if there was a section that might have been a bit overlooked (we did the draft a month or two in advance, and finalised it nearer the time: we don’t recommend still doing it half an hour before the meeting, we’ll be better organised next time!). The second reason it was useful was because it opened up a dialogue and acted as a prompt for the inspectors, and Katie knew the answers and was confident about them because she had made the table with us. The third reason is it will be a written record for us for next year (the current rule is that you have to show year on year progress at the inspections). We didn’t hand over a copy to the inspectors and we weren’t asked for one. It was just a useful document to have, least of all to show we and Katie know what’s included in the socle commun. I’d say that was the final reason – Katie being able to see herself what sort of things she’s expected to be able to do by the time she turns 16 in order to be allowed to home educate in France.
4. Although we don’t ordinarily do worksheets, have set study hours, do the history or science or whatever prescribed in the curriculum, we’ve dipped periodically into a curriculum book. You can buy these in most bookshops for each school year – they’re deathly boring, especially the language ones which are mostly grammar based, but it sure seemed to smooth the way at the inspection. For us, it’s been a worthwhile compromise for the small percentage of time we use them, having the reassurance at inspection time.
5. A rigid comparison of a child every year against a national bench mark based on a set curriculum, instead of the current requirement of “progression” towards the socle commun, is a very retrograde and restrictive step indeed. How that pans out we don’t know yet.
6. A united front helped. It’s not always possible, but going to the inspection as a family helped us.
7. Katie was prepared for the sorts of questions she might be asked, and she was a lot more confident as a result, having had time to think about her answers.
8. She did the talking as much as possible. Being able to express those views independently and confidently in front of the inspectors was received well.
THE WRITTEN REPORT AND THE FUTURE
It took nearly a month to receive the formal report of the inspection in the mail. If the inspection hadn’t felt like it had gone well, that would have been a worrying time. If the report is critical, there’s the opportunity to address any highlighted concerns, then have a reinspection. If that is not favourable you receive a formal demand to return your child to school (post appeal). My impression is that you are very much at the mercy of the inspectors – those who don’t support home education could potentially make your life very difficult. We were lucky – our inspectors this year were supportive and respectful of our decision. Who knows what will happen next year or how much more aligned with the yearly expected school outcomes it will be.
The report itself was divided into the same four sections as the inspection, with a conclusion at the end that the level attained was satisfactory. The nicest word in the whole report, which made us really happy and much more confident for next year, was “épanouie” which means blossoming :). That’s all anyone wants really.
So next year here we come!