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‘Excellent’, ‘a nightmare’: Your thoughts on France’s school system

While for some Connexion readers the system can be ‘inspiring’ to pupils, others criticised its ‘authoritarian’ structure 

Connexion readers have shared their thoughts on the French school system Pic: LStockStudio / Shutterstock

French schools have a reputation for rigidity and pressure, with a French sociologist recently telling The Connexion that: “The system is built so that you never reach excellence.”

Read more: Education: do French schools deserve their harsh reputation?

We asked Connexion readers about their experiences of the French system, and while some said that their children have been “happy” at school, others have criticised its “inflexible” and “elitist” nature. 

‘We have found the teachers dedicated, kind and helpful’ 

Credit: Jennifer Clayton

Jennifer Clayton lives in Brittany with her husband Peter and her sons Jake (20) and Samuel (13) and has run a gîte for the past 15 years. She said: “I think there is a lot of emphasis on learning by heart: poems in primaire, then historical dates and events or chemical formulas in collège.

“There seems to be little provision for children who don’t fit the standard model of learning. My two did fit in fairly well, but I have heard from friends who have had much more of a struggle.” 

Ms Clayton added that Jake, who is now in his second year of university in Angers, and Samuel, who is currently in quatrième, have both been “happy overall. We have found the teachers dedicated, kind and helpful, almost without exception. 

“Jake was an interne (boarder) during his years at lycée, and I think he would be the first to admit that he focused more on the social side of it rather than the academic side, and didn’t get the baccalauréat mark he was capable of (not helped by the confinement either). 

“But he did have offers from UK universities and is very happy on his French university language course (langues étrangères appliquées). 

“I think overall it's an excellent system and I know my two have had opportunities and possibilities they never would have had if we had stayed in the UK for their education. 

“Apart from being truly bilingual, we would never have had the time or money to organise the sports and other activities they have had the opportunity to try [if we were] in the UK. 

“I think it's particularly important to maintain their written English as well as just chatting over dinner, and so they have both studied the UK curriculum online (with Blackhen Education who have been superb) to IGCSE level.  

“They have fitted in well and got good marks, I'm sure for students with learning difficulties or other problems it may not be as positive.”

Read more: French education recap: Bac exams, school swap deadline, careers help

‘For me it has been a nightmare’ 

Credit: Helen Magnusson / The Guest House, Chamonix

Helen Magnusson, who runs a chambre d’hôtes in Chamonix with her husband, has also had two sons, Sebastien and Alexandre, educated entirely in France.

Ms Magnusson is Swedish, and so her children have grown up speaking English and Swedish at home.

“My eldest son is 18 now and doing his baccalauréat, and my youngest is 16 so he has just done one year in lycée,” she told The Connexion. 

“For me it has been a nightmare. If I could have put my children elsewhere I would have. I find it very authoritarian; they don’t listen to the children. Children are not allowed to be children: they should sit, be quiet and do as they’re told. 

“There’s no flexibility, empathy or understanding that children are all different. If you don’t fit exactly ‘dans le moule’ (into the mould) then it’s not easy. 

She added that her sons “have been really unhappy. My eldest son has been told by teachers that he is ‘nul’ (rubbish). 

“It’s a very international community here in Chamonix, and I hear this from lots of foreigners who have kids here. They get humiliated by teachers in front of the class, they get put down, there is very little encouragement: they’re always pointing out what they are not good at.

‘They start school too young’

“We don’t speak French at home, but when they were in primary school their headteacher told me we really shouldn’t speak English or Swedish at home. [So] there’s not much support for children whose families are not French, who may need a little bit more help in the French language.

“Even with the English language, the teachers will not take a correction from bilingual children who are speaking it on a completely different level,” Ms Magnusson added.

“Because I have a chambre d’hôtes I have lots of French clients and I have not yet met a French person, young or old, who can say that they enjoyed school. 

“I have super fond memories from my schooling in Sweden. I never saw somebody put down in front of the whole class. I don’t know what it is like now but [when I was there] they listened more, were more friendly and less authoritarian. 

“I also think that they start school too early at three. Even though proper [primary] school starts at six, you are still in the school system which is much, much more rigid than daycare. So there are long days and high expectations throughout, and for some reason the bar of knowledge always seems to be too high. It’s very elitist. 

“This attitude goes with them throughout school and I would say that France loses a lot of talent because it’s all down to maths, science and French and they don’t appreciate if you are good at art or languages, for example. The [former] are weighted more heavily than other subjects so those who work really hard and have really good grades in something else will never get the top marks.

“The whole thing is very unfriendly, inflexible, too rigid and it breaks my heart; I can’t wait for mine to finish. I love France but I hate the schooling.”

‘Some students are inspired and others feel left behind’ 

A retired English teacher living just outside Paris, who preferred not to be named in this article, said: “In French, they talk about a philosophy of ‘tirer vers le haut’ (pulling students upwards), meaning that if the course is so hard that only a few brilliant students make the grade, this will stimulate the rest to want to raise their levels of competency.

“And if you think it's over when you get your diploma, think again, because raises and promotions are often based on competitions that are held in a similar atmosphere in many places,” added our reader, who taught the general public, university students, professors and researchers over the course of his career.

“I could give a flat out answer to the question and say that French education is too rigid and students usually fare better with less hierarchical methods. Yet that would be bringing my own ‘anglo-saxon’ criteria into play. 

“It's hard to make generalisations about the French teaching system, partly because it both comes from and reflects French culture, as opposed to teaching methods from other places.  

“Some students are inspired and others feel left behind. Those who benefitted from this system were definitely the most competitive or those who were naturally brainy. Students who had other mindsets had to get through their educational experience motivating themselves because motivation wasn't coming from school. 

“Many of the latter enjoyed learning in the more friendly atmosphere of my courses that they usually praised as being ‘less scholarly’ in feedback sessions.

‘The important thing is to stimulate the student in a way they understand’

“I find that people in France have a greater capacity to understand and absorb large amounts of abstract input, and carry around a lot more information in their heads than their counterparts in other countries. 

“I found that the French love of mental understanding often impaired the other capabilities necessary in learning and producing language, the more physical demands of pronunciation and the need to piece together understanding when one encounters language that one doesn't understand, and I insisted on giving more importance to these skills than understanding grammar rules. 

“Having lived among these people for almost 50 years now, I've discovered that their criteria are much different from mine, the things they want to get out of education are different from what I wanted to get out of it when I was studying in the US. 

“With my French teacher at university in LA, I was drawn to her instruction because she was stricter and expected more of her students than the less demanding American professors who weren't challenging me enough.  

“The important thing is to stimulate the student in a way they can understand, and each culture has different ideas about how to do that, stemming from its traditions and their evolution.  

“For example, French people, unlike Americans (and I suppose people in other English-speaking countries), correct each other in public when someone slips and makes a mistake in their native French language. Everyone is used to that here.  

“In my English conversation classes, I was already noting down the mistakes being made to discuss at the end of class, and I asked the participants not to correct others' mistakes, no matter how glaring they may be. This was incredibly difficult to put into practice for many of them, who would shout a correction across the room because they couldn't bear to hear the mistake. 

“I've had many people correct me in the middle of a sentence in this manner. Personally, I resent the embarrassing interruption, but I've realised these people are trying to help me the only way they know how, and it's not one-upmanship or unfriendliness. 

“French students in a language class expect to be corrected and there's a received idea in France about learning language that if you're not corrected at the very instant you make a mistake, you'll forget the correction.  

“Before the beginning of the course, I explained a bit about what is called the ‘affective filter’, that being corrected makes someone become so self conscious that they make more little mistakes because their minds are occupied with heading off the big ones.  

“We always had to go through several weeks of classes before the students adapted to these ideas and the atmosphere this created helped improve the conversation skills of many people who were totally blocked at the beginning of the year.  

“I don't think any educational system is perfect, and certainly the best are the hybrid, and I'm happy to see the French education system opening up, sometimes to the horror of parents who are attached to the more traditional way of conducting a class. 

Related articles 

Tale of two systems: family share French and UK education experience

French MP: why I fast-tracked law to combat bullying in schools

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