An Education

Through the university, I’m taking a class called Comparative European Education. We have an hour of class once a week when we talk about the education system in France and will soon move on to talking about broader European policies. The other half of the class requires us to volunteer once a week in a French elementary school leading an English class. This coarse has been an eye-opening one, and I want to try to run through some of the differences between the American and French school systems today.

First, my experience teaching at the French elementary school has been quite chaotic. My partner and I are teaching a group of 15 to 20 fifth graders once a week during their lunch time. They are a cute group and are very enthusiastic and excited. The problem is the excitement runs wild and they get out of control. The first day we taught, I had a cold and lost my voice during class from trying to talk over them. They aren’t very confident in their English, so they insist on repeating everything we say back to us in French to make sure they’ve understood. We try to ignore it and discourage them from doing it, so instead they ask their neighbor if they understood. They have no problem understanding, but they refuse to try to speak in English with us.  We’ve gone over classroom rules, but when we tell them during class to stop talking and wait for us to call on them, they continue to talk in French about what we just said, ignoring the fact that we told them to be quiet. We kicked one little boy out of class yesterday, and he ran away and we didn’t see him again, which of course got the rest of the class all riled up. We have them for 40 minutes, and it takes 30 minutes for them to get calmed down, so the last 10 minutes are always great.

Onto the French system in general! Like the rest of France, the schools are ruled by the idea of liberté, égalité, fraternité. This means everyone in France had the right to the same education. The entire country has the same system led by the federal government. 25% of all tax revenue raised in France goes towards education, and half of all civil servants are teachers. Other fun facts: women in France now have an average of two kids (that’s high for Europe!) 30% of marriages end within the first 4 years. 52% of children do not have married parents. The average income per parent in France is 15,000 euros.

French school starts at age three with maternelle, or preschool. Preschools are the gem of the French school system and are much like a Montessori school. 99% of French children go to maternelle. Since 90% of French mothers work, it was designed to give mothers a place to take their children during the workday. Maternelles are very warm and welcoming and everyone loves the program.

However, the fun ends when students move up to Élémentaire. The elementary school is completely different. Students begin at age six and stay for the next five years. Teachers are much colder and all business. They aren’t very interested in making class fun because they feel that they need to prepare children for the real world. The average book bag weighs 15 pounds! Students start first grade with no knowledge of reading or writing and are taught by Christmas break. Each week, students are required to have nine hours of French, five hours of math, three hours of social studies, three hours of art, three hours of sports, two and a half hours of handwriting, and in the upper grades they start learning English. It is very common for students to have to repeat grades, so the schools have been designed into cycles, so first and second grade are a unit and third and fourth grade are a unit so that students are less likely to repeat. There is little support for students with dyslexia, ADHD, or Autism.

It is very common for French students to have anxiety problems. Teachers are very strict and always have a list of bad students on the board, assign students lines as punishment, or send them to stand in the corner for talking. According to my teacher, it’s pretty normal for students to see a psychiatrist to deal with the stress brought about by school.

The French equivalent of middle school is Collège. All students are given a laptop to ensure that each student has equal access to computers. The course load is similar but there are more electives. During these years, students are studying for an exam, which sorts them into different lycées or high schools.

Lycées are a big deal. There are various types: the three main ones are general, technological, and professional. There are smaller ones for certification in things like horticulture. Lycée prepares students to write their baccalaureate or exit exams. The bac gives students basic certifications to get jobs. The French grading scale is 0 to 20, 10 is passing, and a score of 12 on the Bac guarantees a spot at the university. Students write their bac in all subjects, but their chosen core subjects count heavier. The overall score is an average of all subjects. One out of five students leave school before completing their bac since school is only compulsory until age 16. Last year, 80% of students who wrote their bac passed.

There are two levels of French university. The lower level is normal university. Anyone who gets a 12/20 gets into college. However, every year 90,000 out of the approximate 750,000 students drop out of college. From day one, college is designed to weed people out. Anyone who fails a test is automatically kicked out or has to change their subjects and start over. As a result, only 15% of French have college degrees.

French universities are free and everyone can start their studies because the French live by the rule of equality. As much as I like to complain about paying tuition at home, after seeing French universities, I’m glad I pay some money. I have to go to the French university here to use their language lab for my phonetics class. The building is old, dirty, and falling apart. Teachers are often on strike or on paid leave but never replaced. Students can’t demand better conditions since they don’t pay any money for school. Here are some pictures of the French university here.


the stairwell's lovely paint job

the language lab

a lecture hall

The other half of French universities are Grande Écoles, or great schools. To get into a grand école, students have to take special prep classes at the lycée. These students are called “moles” because they are buried in books. Their schedule is crazy! In one week, they have 40 hours of class, two hours of oral exams, four hours of written exams, and two written homework assignments, usually each 15 page papers. I would die!!! I would not have even attempted to go to a grand école- that stress is not worth it!

However, grande écoles are very, very prestigious for obvious reasons. 15% of the student population goes to these schools, and they weed out students each year like the universities. It’s easier to get into some grande écoles than others. For example, last year 27,000 people applied to study math and physics and 23,000 were accepted. But to study humanities, 6,000 applied and 260 were accepted. Each student has to study and do an internship for a year in a non-French speaking country. The grande écoles groom people to take over the top positions in companies and in the government. All the politicians have gone through the same grande école, the ENA. Sarkozy, the current president, went to this school but he failed his final exit exam by failing his English oral. Ouch. He was so close!

Long story short, here is a list of pros and cons for the French system.

-Everyone has equal access to education according to the principle of égalité
-All French students leave school with the same basic knowledge unlike in the US where everything varies district to district
-Everyone gets the same education, from the subjects taught to the textbooks used
-There is an emphasis on skills like foreign languages, French grammar, and handwriting, which I think could use some work in the US
-Teachers love it because they have a well-paid job
-Education is free!

-School is super stressful, students often have panic attacks and anxiety issues, two 15 page papers a week, really, is that necessary?
-Even if you get in to college, you are not likely to stay very long, the system is designed to weed people out
-Teachers are not held accountable; once they have their post no one checks up on them to make sure they are doing their job well
-Does not encourage creativity; it’s all about memorizing and conforming
-Schools don’t have arts programs or sports teams
-Education is free

Overall, I’m glad that I was not raised in the French system. I feel like if I had, I probably would not have done very well or at least enjoyed it. I thought high school could be stressful at times; after seeing the French kids, I’ve realized my stress was nothing. I am also convinced people that go to grandes écoles are crazy, and I have so much more respect for people that go there. Any thoughts or reactions to this really long post?

I spent the day in Arles and St Rémy walking in Van Gogh’s footsteps. Pictures will come soon!

One thought on “An Education

  1. I mean that American students take their campus for granted in that it exists for them because and only because it was bought and paid for by their tuition with the help of the athletic association and graduate research departments. Because of this, students cannot make demands of their university system that are valid on their own merit. If they did make demands that were valid on their own merit, they would also be equally valid for someone who has not paid tuition. Therefore the demands that are made are always already reduced to the process of haggling over the price of goods and services. “We deserve such and such amenity at the student center because we paid so much in student fees.” Demands can be made of the university to be sure, but only up to point – and that point is determined by the price of the bill.

    If people are entitled to an education, as they are in France, then they are free to make demands of their universities that are based on their own merits, because there is no bill of sale. These beautiful, ideologically pure demands, expressed in the form of a cold hard brick sailing through the air, are then never acted upon because that place is a bureaucratic nightmare where nothing ever get done.

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