Ask any French adult if he looks back on his schooldays with warmth and affection, nine times out of ten the answer will be puzzled perplexity - that’s not what schools are for, they proclaim. Inflexible education, especially in reading, writing and arithmetic, describes the French education system. It does, therefore, have the reputation of being one of the most thorough systems in the world.
As a resident in France and paying taxes, you are entitled to benefit from this thoroughness. Public or state education is free at primary and secondary levels and attendance from the age of six to sixteen is compulsory. Universities are public and tuition fees are nominal. Two systems exist: ecoles publiques (public schools) which are staunchly republic and definitely non-denominational, and ecoles prives (private schools) many of which are run by the Catholic Church and actively encourage Christian values.
A recent report in The Economist revealed that out of the top 29 schools (Lycees) in France, all but one were private. The majority (85%) of schools in France are public and free. The partially subsidised private schools, whose teachers are paid by the state, charge a very small fee for attendance, ( for example 55- 60 euros per month at college and 45 - 50 euros at primary school in our local gersoise town). Religious instruction does not feature on the curriculum of either type of school although traditionally this is what Wednesday mornings were reserved for.
Nursery School (La Maternelle)
Education can begin at the age of two in La Maternelle (Nursery School) where the children are grouped by age into three sections. Due to the high percentage of women in the workforce 88% of French children are placed in La Maternelle, thus learning to adapt to social norms very early on in life. At six, they leave La Maternelle well prepared for the rigorous work to come in primary school.
The main objective of the primary school is for the children to achieve a standard for acceptance into the first year of the Middle School or College. The primary school lasts for five years and from ages 6 – 11. Writing from my own (British) family’s experience, it can be a very happy and fulfilling time, in spite of the steep learning curve as a foreigner. However, in line with everything in the French administration, the government aims to achieve uniformity of education throughout the country and no consideration is given to local needs or peculiarities. A child from the south of France in CM2, the last year of primary school for example, will be studying exactly the same thing at approximately the same time as his or her counterpart in the north of France.
Secondary School (College)
Primary school gives way to the College (equivalent to secondary school) for the ages of 11 – 15. Subjects are taught by specialist teachers, foreign languages are offered and daily homework becomes serious. In the second year of college, Latin is offered to the brighter students and physics and chemistry are introduced. The third and fourth years of college culminate in the Brevet a national examination which it is necessary to pass to continue into the Lycee and Seconde.
Marks or notes now assume unrivalled importance in the child’s life. Tests or controles become commonplace and an average or moyen, a word with very powerful undertones, is calculated. The marking of these exercises is almost mechanically oppressive. Marked out of 20, a 14 is considered a good grade: 10 is a pass and 20 is nonexistent, except in maths. This severe grading policy can enforce a feeling of failure in those accustomed to milder marking policies. Parental and child obsession with these marks, however, can mar many years at college. Privileges are withdrawn by a parent if the child’s moyen is poor and if this continues, the child will have to repeat the year. The parents, however, do have the power to refuse but rarely do so.
There is no stigma attached to this practice, known as redoublement, in fact 30% of school age children will have repeated a year at some stage in their school lives. For a country which prides itself on its revolutionary nature, pupils are very accepting of these rules. Perhaps because diplomas are everything in French society and as one specialist (Patrick Fauconnier) pointed out in a recent book on French education failings, these days you need the baccalaureate to be a supermarket cashier!
High School (Lycee)
From the ages of sixteen to eighteen, pupils attend the Lycee, which teaches an academic three-year course in higher education leading to a specialised baccalaureate or ‘bac’ examination. Pupils are guided into three basic specific subject areas based first upon academic strength and then upon personal choice. A bac ‘S’, possibly the most prestigious, specialises in maths and sciences, a bac ‘ES’ in economics and a bac ‘L’ in languages and literature.
The first year at Lycee is known as Seconde where pupils are guided into specific subject areas; for the bac ‘L’ pupils a third foreign language must be chosen. At the end of the second year, Premiere, all pupils take the French language and literature portion of the baccalaureate exam, both written and oral. In the final year, Terminale, pupils are tested in the remaining subjects of their chosen bac and philosophy is introduced as a course. A pass in the French Baccalaureate will allow entry to a British university.
Success in the baccalaureate exam gives an automatic entry into university. For example, anyone with a bac can begin studying medicine but 90% do not manage to continue past the second year exam. French parents pin their hopes on their child not attending university but gaining a place at one of France’s 500 grandes ecoles, considered far more prestigious than university with the possible exception of the Sorbonne. These ecoles train France’s elite and have the best resources. A diploma from the ENA (National School for Public Administration) or the Science Po in Paris guarantees an influential managerial or administrative position in the private or public sector. And lack of such a diploma makes it almost impossible to secure one of those positions.
However, entry to these ecoles is by concours (a competitive examination for a limited number of places). Only one in ten candidates is successful. Up to two years of cramming classes, ‘le prepa’, are necessary preparation for this examination at the students’ expense and there is no diploma at the end if the students fail. It is at this point that foreign parents think very carefully about the pros and cons of sending their child to a university in their home country. The prepa years are not for the faint-hearted and the students are nicknamed ‘moles’ for the long hours spent studying.
Alternatively, there also exist the professional lycees which offer the bac professional leading to a definite trade or skill which can be further advanced with university study. Often, pupils who underachieve during the college years (ages 12 – 15) are guided towards a trade at a professional lycee.
According to the British Council in Paris, entry to a British university with the bac professional is possible, but unusual, and only if the grades are high enough and if the student is sufficiently competent in English (The bac professional is not highly academic). They recommend a foundation and access course at specified language schools in the UK in order to achieve an appropriate level of English. As for American colleges and universities, the bac professional might be accepted by less competitive schools (or for universities awarding degrees in the professional trades). However, students may be asked to take some pre-courses or may be accepted contingent on completing particular courses before enrolling in a four-year program.
Obviously, the earlier an expatriate child integrates into the French education system, the easier it will be and the more fluent in French the child will become. However, the French approach to education tackles more what the child does not know rather than emphasising a child’s talents. French teachers do not regard childhood as an age of innocence, more as an age of ignorance. Theirs is a completely teacher-centered approach, and education for the masses. Pupils are sponges expected to absorb a huge amount of information and recall it at a given time; they are not able or expected to apply, compare or contest this knowledge.
The Anglo-Saxon approach to education is perhaps the exception rather than the norm: when educating the child it attempts to impart not only knowledge but also understanding, skills and attitude. The French do not proceed past the first post. French teachers see their objective as purely the transmission of knowledge: pupils copy from the board, learn by rote and ask few questions.
There is little leeway for a foreign child adapting to the French education system: it is done their way or not at all. The primary years in a French school can be very challenging but also stimulating and rewarding. For example, the discovery class is a unique French experience where the whole class moves to a new venue, perhaps the ski slopes or seaside for up to a week or longer thus broadening the children’s horizons. However, as the child progresses and the workload increases, uniformity raises its head and very quickly you realise how hard it is for a child to attain his or her true potential. Class sizes are larger than in the UK, with only one teacher for over 30 children. Very little learning support exists for the able or less able child. British parents, rightly or wrongly, tend to criticise the French system for its rigid teaching methods but most of all dislike the lack of opportunity for creative self-expression.
French state schools provide a lower level of extracurricular activities than that normally enjoyed by children from other European countries. This is particularly true with drama, music and sport. Music schools exist in almost every town where it is possible to learn an instrument. But half an hour per week will be spent playing the instrument while another hour and a half per week must be spent on compulsory music theory. A variety of sports clubs also exists in every town and it is left up to the parent to decide in which direction they want to spend their child’s time and their own money to develop such activities.
In summary, therefore, the French system works ands works thoroughly. Our personal experience would recommend, for a British parent, the French maternelle and primaire, the college to Brevet then the International Baccalaureate (at a recognised school). Alternatively, the French system up to the equivalent of Year 9 followed by a transfer to the British system would ensure a good cross-cultural experience without risking university entrance requirements. Whether a return to the UK (or boarding) then follows is a decision for the parents concerned. Indeed, the crux of schooling children depends upon balancing the two arms of parental expatriate life with a child’s experience in the resulting educational system.