Here are some key facts about the French education system that will help you understand it.
While British kids are divided into different groups per subject, depending on their level, French kids stay with their class across all subjects. As a result, students sometimes get ‘lost’ in the class, when their level in different subjects does not make sense when they are mixed with others.
What happens then? If they do not hit the pass mark (10/20), they need to do something almost unheard of in the UK - ‘redoubler’ - which means to repeat the year. The problem is that kids doing this receive no special support during their second year: they just get to redo the same program with younger kids, which can be quite demoralizing.
The French equivalent of A level is called the Baccalauréat. The range of subjects students are required to study is broader – including French, geography, history two modern languages, philosophy, maths and the sciences. However, there are three ‘strands’ of Baccalauréat that students can choose between, where the proportion of time spent on these subjects is different. ‘S’ gives the biggest weight towards the sciences, ‘L’ gives most time to literature and philosophy, and ‘ES’ is the social sciences option, which gives more time to sociological studies. The common perception is that the ‘S’ route is the one for more academic students.
The French method of teaching is quite different from the ‘child-centred’ method which has been in vogue in the UK for years. In his book, ‘They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They?’ British-born journalist Peter Grumbel says, ‘The way children are taught is very much ‘sit down and shut up’. Interaction is not encouraged, and instead of being seen as something to learn from, mistakes are pounced upon and punished’. Grumbel thinks that the French system breeds anxiety and under-confidence amongst pupils.
This view is leant some weight by the system of the ‘classes preparatoires’, which train the most academic students for two or three years after high school before they apply for the elite universities. These years are notoriously tough, and – in the name of preparation – are said by many to systematically destroy students’ intellectual self-confidence.
One might argue that these teaching methods are not necessarily the same across all schools, but in fact because the education system is very centralized, it it is difficult to experiment. Schools even have to study the same textbooks.
Finally, another major criticism from British parents about French schools is that they do not put as much emphasis on extra-curricular activities. Arts, music, drama and sports are largely seen as the responsibility of parents rather than schools.
Nevertheless, with its strong emphasis on mathematics, reading, writing and science, France’s challenging education system provides a solid foundation for those who ‘survive’ it. It is certainly a model which has spread internationally: outside of France there are more than 480 primary and secondary schools located in 130 countries in the world, reaching 310,000 students. Of these, only 115,000 are French.