Ask any French adult if he looks back on his school days with warmth and affection, nine times out of ten, the look will be one of perplexity – that’s not what schools are for, they proclaim.
The French education system offers an inflexible approach to education; one where the teacher has absolute authority, tough grading and rote learning are the norm, and high academic standards are demanded in reading, writing and arithmetic. The French don’t expect children to have ‘fun’ at school. 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 three to sixteen is compulsory. There is generally no school uniform and the child’s grade is determined by the calendar year of birth.
Two systems exist: écoles publiques (public schools) which are staunchly républicaines and definitely non-denominational, and écoles privées (private schools), many of which are run by the Catholic Church and actively encourage Christian values.
The majority of schools in France are public and free. Universities are public and tuition fees are nominal. However, despite the centralisation of school education in the country, there are still quite a few private schools. These schools are under contract (sous contrat), whereby the government pays the teachers’ wages, the school follows the national curriculum and fees are reasonably low. Children have school every day except for Wednesday afternoons (with some local variations). Religious instruction does not feature on the curriculum of either type of school.
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 a positive attitude. French teachers see their objective as purely the transmission of knowledge: pupils copy from the board, learn by rote and ask few questions.
This encompasses nursery and elementary school.
Education will begin at the age of three in La Maternelle where the children are grouped by age into three sections. Due to the high percentage of women in the workforce, close to all French children are placed in La Maternelle, thus learning to adapt to social norms very early on in life. For instance, my four-year-old boy was told to sit outside the classroom for having forgotten to say the obligatory “Bonjour Madame” to the teacher. By the age of six, they leave well prepared for the rigorous work to come in elementary school.
The main objective of the école élémentaire is for the children to achieve a standard for acceptance into the first year of the Middle School or Collège. Primary school lasts for five years, and in line with everything else in the French administration, the government aims to achieve uniformity of education throughout the country with no consideration 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 (Collège)
Primary school gives way to the Collège (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 fact, it becomes so labour intensive that you sometimes don’t see your child in the evenings.
The four years of collège are actually split in an unusual fashion. The French system is organized in cycles, with the first starting in nursery. The sixième (first year of middle school) is grouped with the last two years of elementary school; the aim is to consolidate learnings in that year before entering the cycle which will lead to the Brevet, a national examination which it is necessary to pass to continue into the Lycée. The subsequent three years are the last cycle of collège.
School hours are capped at 26 hours, split between the core subjects, personalized support and practical inter-disciplinary projects. Modern languages are introduced, jumping to two in the second year of middle school. Latin is offered in the second year. The third and fourth years of collège culminate in the Brevet. A reform in 2016 introduced ongoing assessments and changed the nature of the test to allow for an oral presentation.
Grades or notes now assume unrivalled importance in the child’s life. Tests or contrôles become commonplace and an average or moyenne, 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 to average grade: 10 is a pass and 20 is nonexistent, except occasionally 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 collège. Privileges are withdrawn by a parent if the child’s moyenne 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, close to 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 (Lycée)
From the ages of sixteen to eighteen, pupils attend the Lycée, which teaches an academic three-year course (seconde, première, terminale) in higher education leading to the baccalaureate, or ‘bac’, examination.
2020 is the last year of the old bac following a major reform by the government under what is know as the Loi Blanquer. In fact, the old system pigeonholed students into specific subject areas from the seconde, which is the first year at a Lycée. The new Bac is aimed at giving students greater choice and focuses on developing regular work. It is almost a ‘à la carte’ approach which can easily confuse even the brightest amongst us. The second most important change is that continued assessment will figure highly (40%) with the remainder grade allocated at the final exams.
In the seconde year, students are asked to select three specialty subjects from a wide-ranging list, which will be added to a core list of subjects intended to pass on general 21st century culture based on sciences, humanities and fluency in two languages.
Once in Premiere, pupils will have 16 hours of tuition of core subjects with 12 hours allocated to the specialty subjects. In the Terminale year, students continue with two specialty subjects still accounting for 12 hours per week. Orientation/careers guidance is provided for each pupil, in addition to optional subjects such as sports, arts, maths (if not selected as a specialty).
At the end of the Premiere, students will take the French bac and be assessed in one of the specialty subjects which is not carried over in the final year. In 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 into most universities and the name tag ‘bachelier’.
Success in the baccalaureate exam gives an automatic entry into university. However, many French parents have traditionally pinned their hopes on their child not attending university but rather gaining a place at one of France’s 500 grandes écoles, considered far more prestigious than university with the possible exception of the Sorbonne. These écoles 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 écoles 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, ‘la prépa’, 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 back home. The prepa years are not for the faint-hearted and the students are nicknamed ‘moles’ for the long hours spent studying.
Interestingly, there is an increasing trend for the bachelier to study abroad with a third of university students considering the option.
Alternatively, there also exist the ‘professional’ lycées which offer the bac techno leading to a definite trade or skill which can be further advanced with university study. Often, pupils who underachieve during the college years are guided towards a trade at a professional lycée.
According to the British Council in Paris, entry to a British university with the bac techno is possible, but unusual, and only if the grades are high enough and if the student is sufficiently competent in English.
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 but half an hour per week will be spent playing the instrument while another hour and a half 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.
There is little leeway for a foreign child adapting to the French education system: it is done the school’s 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 quite large with only one teacher for over 30 children. Very little learning support exists for the able, or less able, child. Non-French 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.
In summary, the French system, while tough, works ands works thoroughly. For the expat family willing to immerse their children into the French language and culture, there are many bi-lingual schools on offer, mainly in Paris and surrounding areas (see our city articles). The crux of schooling children is, as we know, finding the right educational environment, which can often be a great challenge.
Glossary: Key terms
Ecole publique - public school
Ecole privée - private school
La maternelle - nursery
Ecole élémentaire - elementary school
Ecole primaire - primary school
Collège - middle school
Brevet - national exam at end of middle school
Moyenne - average of grades
Redoublement - repeating of school year
Lycée - high school
Concours – competitive examination
Bac professionel - trade centered baccalaureate