students in a classroom

France’s Education Nationale

If I told a French person I would try to explain France’s Education Nationale to foreigners, they would probably reply “C’est tout un programme!” (That’s an all-out program!)  

But I will begin with a disclaimer concerning my subjectivity. With my American background and French citizenship, I obtained the much sought-after position as Maitre de Conférences (approximately associate professor) in the French university system as a teacher-trainer in English for both primary and secondary teaching. This means I was fully involved in the training system with French-born trainers and that I was among the few allowed into French classrooms to observe the teaching.

The following, then, is a contrast (not a comparison) of the two types of schooling based on my own observations of the French classroom, given my American upbringing and differences in teaching, which would seem to arise from a dissimilitude in culture.

Begin at the End

Probably, the most noticeable divergence is that the French system counts grades backwards. Middle school begins in sixième (sixth grade) and children move up to cinqième (fifth grade) quatrième (fourth grade) and so on to première (first grade) and terminal (senior year). There are three grades in kindergarten beginning age 3, petite (small), moyenne (middle) and grande (big) section, and 5 grades of primary school: CP, cours préparatoire, CE (Cours élémentaire) 1 and 2, CM 1 and 2 (Cours moyen). For much more detail on the subject of the system, there are some very good sites on internet beginning with the official French governmental site, The French Education System: Welcome to France, and many others: e.g., The French school system explained, The French Education System: A guide for expat parents, The French school system explained: 3-18 years old, just to get you started.

About three decades ago, I attended a presentation concerning education by a representative of the American Embassy. He claimed that the best American schools are better than the best French schools. However, the worst American schools are worse than the worst French schools. And I totally agree.

Curriculum Rules

Probably the reason for this is that the French system is national, whereby the American system is local. In France, the powers that be write up the national curriculum for every subject at every level that is to be taught in the schools from kindergarten (école maternelle starting at age 3) to senior year in high school (terminal). This is published every year in a journal, the Bulletin Officiel (B.O. for short). Teachers are then expected to totally follow and fulfill the directives therein. It was once said that if a child moved from Paris to Nice over the weekend, he or she when entering class on Monday would be picking up exactly where he or she had left off on Friday. The truth of this theory is, of course, open to question, but it is anchored in the French belief system about its schools.

That some states in the U.S. can decide to teach creationism rather than the theory of Darwinian evolution could never happen in France. On the other hand, teachers have their eyes on the curriculum rather than the children’s learning as they are expected to teach all and every point that might be mentioned in a particular subject, whether all the children can keep up or not. 

Emphasis in class, especially as concerns middle and high school, is subject-oriented, rather than learner-oriented. This means that children’s needs are secondary to the necessity of approaching a subject in accordance with the pedagogical material as presented in books that have been written and published in France and which religiously follow the B.O. 

The notion of learning styles and teaching styles is almost non-existent. Every subject is to be taught in a given way to everyone. And take heed, the teacher who strays from the path of prescribed teaching methods!  When the inspector comes to visit and grade the teacher in class, any deviation will be noted and cause for criticism and a bad report. 

In a course I once gave on good performance during oral exams, a student in philosophy presented an excerpt of a text by Alain concerning education. I was stunned by Alain’s notion that teachers should not attempt to make lessons amusing; the learning itself should purely be its own reward.

Brutal Learning

French schools tend to be very hard on their kids.

In another class, I asked student teachers to finish the sentence, “If you praise a child’s work, they will…” my expectation was something like “apply themselves more,” “develop self esteem,” etc. In fact, the majority of the class came up with endings of the type, “stop working.” 

Grading is based on a twenty-point system from a theoretical zero to twenty where a grade of ten is passing and anything below ten is a fail.  However the full system is not employed. Grading is not according to specific criteria, but according to an underlying social theory. No child can get a twenty, as this represents perfection, and nobody is perfect. 19 is not utilized, as this represents the teacher’s ability, and no child is ever as good as the teacher. This is how, bilingual English-French children only get 18 in English, as teachers cannot admit the children speak better than they do. 

An example of the epitome of this system was when my son was in fifth grade. The criteria for the subject of English was to be able to say things like: “It’s a book,” “It’s green, ” “My name is,” etc. He could, of course, carry on conversations with native speakers on any subject that would come up. But he only received a 19.5 for the course. This grade speaks more about the teacher than about the student.

American Discount

As another example, for a written paper my son only received a twelve, but his classmate, whose English was much less good, got a 14. When he asked the teacher why this was, she replied, “You got a twelve for being an American.” The grading system can unexpectedly become skewed to make sure students’ grades can be kept down. 

On the other hand, the grades 0, 1 and 2 are never used, as no one can be all bad.

Thus a 20-point system is reduced to 16 possibilities, emphasizing to children that they can never reach the top.

“Grading on a curve” has no translation in French and the notion is foreign and unheard of. It is not unusual for the average grade on a test to be below 10, in which the majority of the class fails the exam. Teachers take points off for any mistake, sometimes heavily, and what is left after subtraction is the student’s grade on a given test or work. Even with a high number of failures, there is no question of whether the test was too hard, or that the teacher had not sufficiently worked on the subject being tested. The test represents an ideal, and if the students do not reach this ideal, it can only be due to their inadequacy.

Brutal for Teachers and Students

Typically French teachers (and parents) go heavy on correction and negative reinforcement (in class sometimes to the extent of humiliation) and shun positive reinforcement. Very early on, children develop defense mechanisms against disapproval which makes it hard to accept correction or criticism, and they do not learn to accept compliments either, which are often considered as not possibly true.

Once, after a student teacher had given a class, I complimented her on her relationship with the children which came across as warm and benevolent. To my surprise, she burst into tears saying, “That’s the first compliment I’ve received in my full two years at the teachers college.”

Much about the system is dysfunctional. For example, teachers are supposed to have 2 years of training: the first year is to prepare them to take the licensing exam, (professor des écoles for primary school, CAPES or Agrégation for middle and high school).  The test is considered to be a “contest” (concours), where only a given number of students pass, the number to be decided upon by the needs of the school system in the given year. Everyone is ranked. Those who rank within the number of new teachers to be taken into the system will be trained the following year. Ranking then continues for those who were not accepted; this is called the liste complementaire, a sort of waiting list. It is from this waiting list, in order of rank, that substitute teachers will be taken: should a classroom teacher fall ill, one of those not good enough to be taken immediately into the system will be put in front of a class overnight to teach for the rest of the year. They will then have gained the right to be trained the year after. The pupils, however, will finish their year with an untrained substitute body in front of the class, who is doing the best they can, in a best-case scenario. 

Teachers are given tenure after a single year of internship. After that, no one can be let go, whether or not they become good teachers, not even if they become alcoholic. For 40 years, 30 students might pass through the classes of an inept teacher and it is considered that “nothing can be done.”

Promotion or movement in the system comes through a point-system, mostly based on seniority and very little on merit. Even the choice of primary school teachers who might want to specialize in English teaching and go from school-to-school rather than having a class of their own, is based on points earned, not on best competence in English. 

For all these reasons, children who have begun growing up in an American or British system will have great difficulty adapting to the strict French system of education. Even French parents, when they come back to France after bringing children up in another education system need to be aware of this and plan for their children’s support.

For those who like to think that Europe has everything figured out and America is hopelessly backward, on this particular issue they are in for a rude awakening.

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