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Education: do French schools deserve their harsh reputation?

In a system where only God gets top marks we ask an expert if French education really is restrictive or just rigorous

Boy doing homework

‘Half a point can very much change your life trajectory’ says French social scientist Pic: Maria Sbytova / Shutterstock

French schools have a reputation for being tough, with students enrolled in study-abroad programmes often bemoaning the number of working hours, the pressure of the grading system and the lack of physical activity.

Behind this rigidity lies a fascination for the so-called grandes écoles – a handful of highly selective schools in engineering, business, administration and research which are seen as the golden ticket to a highly paid career.

Teachers often pressure pupils to get the highest grades as early as possible to be selected by these top schools, relying on tests, exams and concours (academic competitions) to rank them.

However, all this assessment comes at a cost. 

Roots in the French Revolution

Studies have highlighted the French system’s tendency to produce pupils lacking in self-confidence, among other mental health issues.

“The French education system is extremely rigid,” says François Dubet, a retired sociologist and former director of the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS).

Mr Dubet said the system has roots in the Revolution, when teachers replaced priests and approached the job with the same sacred devotion. 

He made a distinction between instruction and education, claiming French teachers focus on the former.

“The French classroom is a knowledge-only space where teachers hand over what they know in an extremely rigorous way,” said Mr Dubet. 

This leaves little room to venture outside of the classroom, he added, unlike in Scandinavian countries where pupils often take part in outdoor activities in a system that is generally more student-orientated.

‘20 is for God’

At the heart of French education is a grading system that assesses pupils on a scale from zero to 20.

Pupils are graded on every activity, although teachers prefer coloured stickers for children aged from three to six. 

It is generally accepted that scoring 20 is near impossible when you reach university or take concours.

“Twenty is for God, 19 for the teacher, 18 for the best student,” goes an old French educational saying.

Mr Dubet agrees: “The system is built so that you never reach excellence.”

Education structure

French schooling consists of three strands, starting with primary school from age three. 

This is followed by secondary school studies, with pupils taking the baccalauréat exam by 18 before going to university, or classes préparatoires (‘prépa’) for students hoping to go down the grandes écoles path.

Primary and secondary school studies are made up of one-hour lessons covering French, maths, reading, and writing, before additional subjects are added, such as a foreign language or physics. 

Difficult to change direction

When students reach 16, they follow a core syllabus of 16 hours of studies covering French, philosophy, history, geography, sport, science and two foreign languages. 

They can also choose three spécialités (reduced to two in their final year) from a wide-ranging list including maths, literature and IT studies.

Previously, pupils could only choose one of three courses, known as séries: S (science), ES (economics and social sciences), and L (literature). 

Once on these courses, it was difficult to change direction without re-taking a year.

Competition for the grandes écoles is fierce. 

“Half a point can very much change your life trajectory,” said Mr Dubet.

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