We often get asked by our guests what education is like in France, and how it is different from where they live. Now that between them our boys have experienced all levels of French education from ‘petit section’ (first year of nursery school) through to university, I thought I would describe the system of state school here. This is very much our personal experience and I understand that school hours/systems may be slightly different throughout France, but hopefully this will give you an idea.
Compulsory education in France begins at age 6. However, all children from age 3 are guaranteed a free nursery school place and so most children start earlier than 6, albeit maybe on a part-time basis. The 3 years of nursery school are called petit, moyen and grand sections and emphasis is on learning through play. School hours are from 9.00am to 4.30pm four days a week, with an hour and a half break for lunch (at this age, certainly here in a rural area, most children go home for lunch). In petit section, Max and his classmates all went to a little dormitory after lunch for a sleep.
Primary school runs for 5 years, to age 11. The hours are the same and still 4 days a week; here our boys had Wednesdays off. Starting from 2013 or 2014, this is being changed to 4 1/2 days, to include Wednesday mornings. Emphasis at primary age is on learning the basics - lots of French grammar and conjugation - plus the introduction of science, history/geography (one subject), art, music, English, computer studies and sport. At our boys’ school desks are arranged in rows facing the blackboard and work is in the main done individually with little talking (too much and you are moved to a desk by the teacher - we know this from experience...!). The children are tested often, at the end of each 'module' and in all subjects (including sport).
Collège (senior school) comes next; 4 years of study with everyone following the same syllabus and subjects. School hours are now 8.30am to 5.00pm four days a week, plus 8.30 to 12.30 on Wednesdays, all still with a 90 minute lunch break. At our boys' college there were also lots of lunchtime clubs - Adam was involved in a cinema club which produced a film at the end of the year, and Max's rugby team recently came 2nd in the regional competition. Constant testing continues through collège, culminating in the Brevet exam - French, Maths, History/Geography, plus an English oral exam and computer skills testing.
After collège, students have a choice – the main options being academic or vocational Baccalaureats, or other vocational qualifications intended to lead to a specific career or work. We only have experience of the academic Bac – which for Adam (having chosen the science stream) involved studying French, maths, physics/chemistry, biology, history/geography, English, German, sport and , in the final year, philosophy. Study was for 3 years, school hours 8.00am to 6.00pm four days a week and 8.00am to 1.00pm Wednesdays. Still the same constant testing and a final exam in all subjects – to pass you have to gain an average over all subjects of at least 10/20.
Whilst the vocational study route often leads to a job (or job hunt these days) at the end - although students can of course opt for further studies – an academic Bac is seen as a stepping stone to further studies only, usually a minimum of 3 years. Again there is a choice of route – for those students with a clear idea of their future career this is often at a specific ‘school’ (engineering, medical, business, law); otherwise the route is university. For this latter the entry requirement is a pass at Bac; for the other options there is usually a more selective process which can include Lycée (high school) results, an entrance exam and/or an interview. Interestingly, for medical school only a Bac pass is needed; halfway through the first year there is an exam process and failure at this means you leave medical school immediately.
Most students at this level choose a school or university close to home and many travel daily to their studies whilst living at home. On site campus accommodation is rare so students wishing to live away from home usually have a privately rented apartment (studio/bed-sit/cupboard with a bed and toilet!!).
After a 3 year ‘licence’ (degree) students can enter a job at certain prescribed levels; further study (masters or the equivalent) opens opportunities at a higher level (and the chance to progress further). This prescribed system of linking qualifications so closely with career progression - as opposed to experience or aptitude - means that many years of study ‘post-Bac’ are common; jobs are usually advertised with qualifications stated as Bac+ a number – representing the number of years study beyond the age of 18 – and Bac+5 or more is pretty common. So the fact that state university is (for the moment) free tuition-wise is a big bonus for those of us just setting off on this stage of our childrens’ education!
Whether the French system is better, worse or just different from the UK is impossible to quantify; Adam was 8 when we moved here so really we have only experienced the French system. They do of course have the benefit of being bilingual and, to some extent, of experiencing both cultures. How much of a benefit that is to them in adult life, only time will tell…but its all part of the adventure.