The bac: 203 and still going strong

It is the lynchpin of French education, often mooted as a replacement for A-levels, but what is really involved?

25 October 2010
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The Baccalaureate is the final exam of a school pupil’s life: the diploma that acts both as an assessment for the three years of secondary school (lycée) and as a doorway to higher education.

It was created by decree in 1808 and the first Bac’ students, all aged over 16, were tested on rhetoric, Greek and Latin authors, history, geography and philosophy. There were 31 “bacheliers” or Bac’ holders that first year; in 2009, 539,100 pupils were admitted to the Baccalauréate – passed their Bac’ – a success rate of 86 per cent.

The Bac’ was an oral exam until 1830, when written assessments were put in place. The first foreign language exam was set in 1853.

Today it is divided into three sectors: General, Technological and Vocational (Générale, Technologique and Professionnel). The general sector is the best-known and gets more than half the overall number of candidates, with the remainder equally split between the other two.

Pupils spend seven years in senior schools: the first four years at collége and then three at lycée. The years are numbered in reverse order: 11-year-olds start in sixième, then move on to cinquième, quatrième, then troisième for 14-year-olds.

Once in troisième, decisions will be made at the collége on which lycée the student should attend: either a school for general and technological specialities, or a lycée professionel, which is for vocational studies. Parents can object to the inspecteur d’académie over the proposals if they disagree with what is planned.

The first year at lycée is called seconde, and is a general or foundation year with common subjects. Once the students start the next year, première, they will have decided their specialisations within the general, technological or vocational sectors. By the end of the year, they will also have taken some preliminary Bac’ exams – such as French or some science subjects, depending on the sector – to help spread them over two years.

Terminale is the third and last year of secondary and essentially prepares pupils for the Bac’, which takes place in June, at the end of term.

The general, technological and vocational sectors are split up into different branches, called séries, for the specialisations of children with different interests and career plans.

General’s séries have been in place since 1993 and are: Litéraire, called L – philosophy, literature, history, geography and languages; Scientifique, S – maths, biology and physics; finally, the half-way house of Economique et Social, ES – economic and social studies, maths and history and geography.

S is commonly seen as the “best” série to take, because it opens more doors, although there is nothing to prove those students do best in their future jobs. In the past session, 85 per cent of pupils in L série passed the Bac’, compared with 86 per cent in ES and 88 per cent in S.

Bright pupils are often pushed towards the Scientific série, which leads to engineering, trade, banking and related careers, while L students are often more keen on academic professions or the arts. The result is that the sections are very unequal in terms of numbers.

In 2010, for instance, there were 164,677 candidates for Bac’ S, 102,639 for Bac’ E and 53,714 for Bac’ L.

Bac’ exams can last up to four hours and come in various forms. PE is the only subject that is marked throughout the year and does not get an end-of-year exam.

The other subjects are assessed either through a practical test (for chemistry, biology etc), an oral or a written exam. Some written exams are based on a series of questions and documents to analyse; others can be based on a single question.

For instance, the 2009 Philosophy exam for the série Litéraire asked students to answer one of the following questions: Does language betray thought? Does the objectivity of history imply the historian’s impartiality? If neither of those fired the imagination, they could choose the final option: analyse a short extract of a Schopenhauer text on desire and privation.

In Geography, the choices were between the economic power and land diversity of the European Union, or the Mediterranean as an interface between the North and the South.

In History, students had to analyse a text about Charles de Gaulle as seen by Henry Kissinger, or a text on the Bandung conference of 1956.

Modern languages often involve both a written and an oral exam, which consists of answering questions in front of a panel of teachers.

The Bac’ exam assesses students on each subject studied in Première and Terminale. Any candidate can have up to 13 subjects – 10 mandatory subjects and three optional. Marks in the Bac’ range from 0 to 20, with 10 being the pass mark

To be admitted at the Bac’, your performance in your subjects is calculated against a system of co-efficients where certain subjects carry more weight than others. This is then averaged out and your general average has to be equal or superior to 10/20.

For instance, in L, the mark a pupil gains in Philosophy weighs seven; Literature, English, History and Geography count for four while Sports, Maths and Science counts for two.

Each average mark is multiplied by that co-efficient to give a grand total, which is then divided by the total number of subjects.

The final result also decides if the candidate gets a distinction: between 12 and 14, candidates get an AB honour (Assez Bien), between 14-16 they get a B award (Bien), and over 16 they get a TB (Très Bien). In 2010, 44 per cent of all candidates who passed received honours.

It is possible to get more than 20/20 if you get a high mark in a topic with a high co-efficient, as happened with two students from Brest this year, who got 20.57 and 20.08.

A candidate who gets an average of between eight and 10 is allowed to sit through a number of exams again and have a second chance to be admitted. Under eight, they have failed.

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