October 1, 2013

How the French school system works (Part 1)

Having undergone my entire schooling in france, I do have to say I've got a whole lot of knowledge on the subject. And, I have to say, it is a tough system, not just for TCKs (third country kids) like me, or many of my friends, but for French students as well. I thought maybe some of you would like some insight into the situation, so I've decided to do a series of posts on the subject... just for further information.
Maybe some of you are thinking of moving to france and putting your kids through the public school system here? Hopefully, these posts will help you know what you're getting into.

Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start)

How do the French view their education?
Two men stand at the base of the system: Napoleon Bonaparte, and Jules Ferry. Napoleon instituted many of the "obligatory courses" you see today, as well as starting the Baccalaureate system (1808), the end of high school diploma one must have to pursue a university degree. Unlike the American high school diploma, the Baccalaureate does not depend on the grades during the year, but on a 30 hour long written and oral exam at the end of the last school year. More on this later.
Jules Ferry is known of the man who made the French public school system "Free, obligatory, and Laique". Laique is the separation of religion from schools: no kid will wear any kind of religious sysbol (cross, head scarf) onto school grounds, and no teacher will teach religious beliefs.

The french pride themselves on how their schools create a meritocracy - since no one pays for their education, anyone can be what they want to be (so they say). Many French presidents have even come from farming backgrounds.

The thing about French schools is that it's all about the child's success. Grades are everything. There's no arguing with the teacher, or what they're teaching. The child goes to school, learns, and the parents are kept at arm's length. You have one or maybe two parent teacher meetings a year, and then, that's it. I remember filling out my own paperwork when I was in 3rd grade, asking only for my parents to sign. That's just normal.

The French also place an extreme importance on method: there are no multiple choice questions until university (or language courses in high school). You are graded on how resolve problems, not the answer you find. My parents could not help me with homework when I was a kid because their methods of revolving equations was different from the way I was taught in class, and I was penalized for it.

Kindergarten lasts for three years: PS (little section), MS (middle section) and GS (big section) are the class names.
Elementary/primary school lasts 5 years: CP (primary class, 1st grade), CE1 (elementary class 1) CE2, CM1 (middle class 1) and CM2.
Middle school lasts 4 years: From this point on, the grade numbers count down. 6eme (sixth grade), 5eme, 4eme, and 3eme. You then take the Brevet, a 15 hour exam, your first diploma (though you don't get any physical diplomas).
Finally, High school: 2nd, 1ere, and Terminale. Those last two years are Bac years and intense!
I will give you a lot more detail on that later.

Evert 6 weeks of class translated to 2 weeks of vacation. We sure need it, after all those hours of classes!

So let's walk though what it's like to go to elementary school, shall we?

L'ecole Primaire

For me, primary school was a joyful experience. I went to a tiny school in the St Marc commune, which had so little students that two classes were always taught together, and even then, we were no more than 20 or so students. The school's much larger now, but that was then.

But what I learned there was that competition was key. We were graded on a 10 (or sometimes 20) scale, 10/10 being perfect, 8/10 being average, 6/10 being poor or even a fail. And that little number was everything. To all of us.
You were never a Nerd for knowing too much: you were admired. You were pitied if you failed. If you had half a point higher than your best friend, you wouldn't talk for days. It was competition.
Of course, my parents not knowing the system, I never got the stress my friends were put under. Their parents would ground then for an 8. My dad would just look confused and ask me what it meant.

But other than that, we had a normal education. We were normal kids. We played games, loved marbles, scoobidoos (lanyards), and pokemon cards. Guys played soccer during recess. Once, a friend found and killed a worm - our whole year gave it a funeral. It was all very normal.

We started class at 9 and ended at 4:30, except on wednesday, which ended at 12, so that kids could do their extra curricular activities.

Lunch was out of this world. The cooks made full french meals, perfectly balanced, with an appetizer (salad of some sort) main course (veg, rice or coucous or pasta, and a meat, fish on friday - so much for being laique) dairy product (yoghurt or cheese) and a desert (pastry, cake, fruit...). We drank water (unlike milk in the states) and sometimes the town hall would have left over coke after a party, so if we were good and finished our plates, we could have  about a shot glass worth of coke. It was bliss.

Kids start learning English in 1st or 2nd grade, in the hopes that they'll be bilingual by high school graduation. The real emphasis was put on maths and french, with a poem being memorized every month or every two weeks.

The system is not perfect: the problem is subjectivity. I can remember in 2nd or 3rd grade, France was very opposed to a new war in Iraq, and, being the only american in the school, I got a full bulk of hate. It all started when the teacher told us to watch a news special on TV on the war. I didn't have french TV, so she said listen to the radio (didn't have that either), so I asked my parents what it was about, and they let me read news articles on google (THEY LET ME USE THE COMPUTER, AWESOME!). The next day we were told to write an essay. I got a meager 4/20 - I had never had anything less than a 16, so I was shocked. She then lectured me in front of the class about how the Americans - and I - were so, so wrong. I went home in tears.
But that's just how it is.
That same year, the teacher printed "official French ministry" papers (for april fools) announcing that we wouldn't have spring break because of "AMERICAN WAR". The 5th graders marched around the playground for the whole day chanting a song of their own creation, which basically translated to "Bush, you killer, you assassin: we want our vacation!" It got a little out of hand, but the teachers managed to call them down and assure them it was just a joke before I got to bad.

You also get one week long field trip every year: your "green class" as they call it (mountains), "Blue class" (sea), or "White class"(ski). I'm lucky I got to try them all out. The first year, we went sailing and kayaking in the Mediterranean . Second year, skiing in the french alps.  Third year, biking those same alps. It was pretty awesome.

These are the years where you get pushed up classes or held back classes. there is no summer school option. I have a friend who skipped both CE1 and CM1, meaning she had her Bac at 16. The youngest person in france to ever have his back was 13, and he was in my high school. But it's more difficult to skip classes once you reach middle school.

The biggest difference between french elementary and american primary school is how the french just.... manage. I had one teacher for everything. No money for music? we sang and used our tables. No money for sports? we all run "track" in the forest.
But it's the stage of the game where you're beginning to learn how to think, but how to think like a frenchman. You learn how to follow method.
You learn how to write with an ink pen. Your favorite fountain pen.
You learn fancy cursive with that fountain pen. And then, how to solve math equations, while showing every single step of the way.
You recite your poems every month in front of the class. And while there is no show and tell, you sometimes have to present topics in front of the class as well.
You learn how to be the you that can fit into the french world.
You learn how to work. Because you will never stop working.
You learn how to grow up.

There was always work, always homework, always competition. But it was nothing compared to the next 7 years of my life.

Next: French Middle school

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