Before integrating into the French school system, children who have just arrived in France must take an evaluation test.
In the Val d’Oise department, these tests take place in Information and Orientation Centers, or “CIOs”.
There, teachers meet newly arrived students and families and identify kids who don’t speak French or whose education has been interrupted.
The names of the children in the story have been changed.
On a March morning, Charles, his big brother Trésor and their father are some of the first people to arrive at the CIO in Sarcelles, a Parisian suburb in the Val d’Oise district.
The small family sits patiently in the waiting room. Aged 11 and 13, the boys seem very impressed by their surroundings. Originally from Congo-Brazzaville, the boys have just joined their father in France, where he has been living for the past ten years.
As the minutes tick by, seven other families from all over the world file into the waiting room and join Charles, Trésor and their father.
Today, they will attend initial meetings and take part in an orientation, which will determine their children’s educational path.
Some of the kids in the waiting room, like Charles and Trésor, have joined family members who were already established in France. Others have just moved to the country with their families. Others have come to France alone. These unaccompanied minors are being cared for by social services, or have been placed in group homes or foster families.
"Welcome, everyone!" It’s 9:30 a.m. when Anne Schoetter welcomes the new arrivals with a big smile.
In the Val d’Oise department, Schoetter is in charge of coordinating these orientations, which take place several times a year.
For the past ten years, an organisation called CASNAV, (Academic Center for the Education of New Arrivals and Traveler Children), which is run by the ministry of education, has been in charge of evaluating the educational levels of migrant children between the ages of 11 and 18 who will integrate into French schools.
Today, Schoetter has teamed up with three French-as-a-Second-Language teachers (known in France as FLS or Français Langue Seconde), who’ve come to help her evaluate the kids.
She explains that she and her team will be making placement recommendations for the kids. Then, she lays out the program for the next few hours.
"The morning will be divided in two,” she says. “First, you will meet with our social workers to talk about your situation. Then the children will take placement tests."
Charles and Trésor seem stressed, but their father is confident.
"My children were educated in a private school in Congo-Brazzaville -- now, they are going to prove themselves in a French school!,” he says proudly.
An FLS teacher named Julie Sapmaz invites them to sit at her desk. During this private meeting, she will try to determine where Charles and Trésor left off their schooling, as well as what their migration experience was like.
""Even if the children come from a French-speaking country, the French education system is very specific,” she says. “If students don’t have the same level as their peers here, then we will refer them to transition classes, where they can get a little boost before landing in the regular curriculum.”
The conversations between families and teachers take place behind closed doors.
"Sometimes, we hear very difficult stories,” she says. “We know that some families are undocumented. Other children are alone in France. Our job is to educate them no matter what their circumstances are.”
In France, it doesn’t matter if a child speaks French or not -- he or she must attend school between the ages of six and 16.
About 15 minutes later, the two boys leave the meeting room with Sapmaz and go to a room filled with square tables. Six other young kids are already crouched over the desks, working on exercises.
These tests will determine their level.
"When we talk with the family, we get an idea of the student’s level,” Schoetter says. “Based on our conversations, we choose what we think is the appropriate test. A child who doesn’t speak French can take a test in his or her language. We have tests in Portuguese, Arabic and Persian, for example. It is important to know if the child knows how to read and write in his own language.”
Charles was still in primary school in Congo-Brazzaville. But now he is 11 -- too old to be put in a class with little kids.
"We try to put them with kids of their age as soon as possible,” Schoetter says. “The same goes for Charles, but he has some catching up to do.”
So Charles will be enrolled in a UPE2A class to help him catch up. Same for his brother, Trésor, age 13, who needs to catch up a bit before he can integrate into a French junior high.
UPE2A classes were first launched in the 1970s, but many people don’t know about them. These classes, which are available at both the primary and secondary level, allow migrant children to spend one year gaining the skills they need before enrolling in a normal curriculum.
Students in UPE2A take part in intensive French classes (12 hours per week). These classes are flexible, meaning that students of varying age or ability can integrate them at any time during the year. In Val d’Oise, there are 47 UPE2A classes, 40 of which are in junior highs.
As the student progresses, he or she will then be integrated into regular classes. Throughout the year, for example, a student in UPE2A might start attending history or math with other students in his or her age group.
“This class helps prepare them to integrate into regular classes. The goal isn’t to stay in it,” says Schoetter.
Seven of the UPE2A in Val d’Oise are specially structured for children who’ve had very little or no schooling. They are known as "UPE2A-NSA".
"These classes are for children who have never been to school before or those who had a long break in their studies -- maybe because of their journey to France, for example,” she says. “We also take children who learned to read and write in very different school environments, for example, in churches or Koranic schools.”
Students in these classes spend 18 hours a week in intensive French classes.
In the testing room in the CIO, another FLS teacher, Charlène Hamdi, is working with Imed, a 17-year-old from Tunisia. His scores are good, but not good enough for him to integrate into a regular high school immediately.
"We ask young people in his situation to think about a concrete project,” says Hamdi. Based on the student’s desires, they will attempt to craft a special education plan.
Imed already has a few different ideas. One is to prepare for a business-oriented bac, an academic qualification which French students take after high school. He’s also thought about doing a vocational high school course to train as an electrician.
Verdict: No need for UPE2A for this boy, who already speaks French well and wants to enroll in a vocational training program.
Instead, Hamdi recommends that he be sent to a "MODAC", a special course for teenage migrants over the age of 16 that helps them map out a direction for their studies.
Hamdi, Schoetter and their colleagues recommend that almost all of the students they meet that day -- except for Imed -- enroll in UPE2A to help them transition into French public schools. However, before the kids can enroll, these recommendations have to be validated by others who review the case files.
There is one more hurdle: there is limited space in the UPE2A, as each class is capped at 30 students.
In the special sections for children who have had little or no formal education previously, the number is limited to 15.
"We do everything possible to find a rapid solution to get them in school as quickly as possible. In Val d’Oise, we have a lot of new arrivals because we are so close to Charles de Gaulle airport. Some families are housed here temporarily before going to other departments," says Schoetter.
If the classes are all full, then the CASNAV tries to come up with other solutions.
"Sometimes, we direct them to associations that we know that can give them French classes to help them improve their language skills until space opens up,” Schoetter says.
In Val d'Oise, the number of requests has been on the rise. Officials have decided to open up a new section for kids with little experience with formal education.
Charles and Trésor’s father seems a bit overwhelmed by all the information that he’s received in the past few hours at the CIO.
"I have a lot to learn about how school works here,” he says, without losing his smile. "It’s not easy, but we’ll hang in there.”
The last national statistics on UPE2A are from the 2014-2015 school year, when 52,500 foreign-language speaking students were attending French public schools. More than half were in secondary school.
No matter how much schooling they’ve had in the past, 75% of these students will start in a UPE2A. At the junior high level, the number is even higher, with 91% of foreign-language students starting with a UPE2A class.
The demand for these classes is growing. According to a report from the National Assembly, their number increased by 20% between 2010 and 2015. However the demand isn’t the same all across the country. In the Val d'Oise department, for example, there is a high demand. An estimated 1% of students are foreign-language speakers who need UPE2A support. In fact, it has the third-highest number in France, coming just after Seine-Saint-Denis and Paris, where 1.5% of students are integrated in UPE2A classes.
- If you have arrived in France from another country and you have a child over the age of 11 who you want to enroll in the French public education system, you should get in touch with the CASNAV in your district. They will be able to give you information about how to enroll and set up an initial appointment.
A guide to all those tricky acronyms:
- CASNAV: The body in charge of orienting and evaluating migrant children between the ages of 11 and 16. (Acronym for “Academic Center for the Education of New Arrivals and Traveler Children” in French)
(Check out a list of all the CASNAV offices)
- MODAC: The body that provides educational support and direction for minors over the age of 16. (Acronym for "Welcome and Support Center for Children Over the Age of 16" in French)
- UPE2A: Structures set up in both primary and secondary schools for children recently arrived in France who speak little or no French, to help them gain the skills needed to integrate into a regular curriculum. (Acronym for "Pedagogical Unit for Foreign-Language Speaking Children" in French)
- UPE2A-NSA: Structures set up in both primary and secondary schools for children recently arrived in France who have had no or little access to formal education.
- CIO: These centers, which are run by the Ministry of National Education and help to orient and evaluate migrant children within the national education system, exist all across France. (Acronym in French for Centers for Information and Orientation)