A man who has spent almost 20 years teaching English in both the UK and Switzerland is unable to teach it in France after he twice failed the test to teach English in state schools.
James (a pseudonym) is unable to teach in a French school without passing the mandatory Capes (Certificat d'Aptitude Professionnelle à l'Enseignement Secondaire, pronounced ‘cap-esse’) teaching exam.
The exam is notoriously difficult and centres on literature text comparisons rather than grammar or teaching methods. See previous papers here.
His fails prevent him from teaching a number of topics in the classroom, including oral lessons, despite English being his first language.
“It is disappointing because I am passionate about this profession. It’s incomprehensible because there is a shortage of English teachers every year,” he said.
A teaching union states that there are a number of unfilled teaching positions in schools close to James.
Teaching exam notoriously difficult
Even though James is fluent in English and has teaching qualifications from the UK, he was unable to find a job in the French state education system.
Teaching English privately in France is possible if you have a TEFL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or equivalent, or if you have previous teaching experience.
To teach in a French secondary school (collège) however, you need to take a Capes exam in your area of expertise.
The exam is graded out of 20, and successful candidates will be assigned a teaching post in their area.
However even for experienced teachers Capes is challenging.
For the Capes in English the exam is into two parts, including a translation exercise (both English to French and French to English), as well as a comparison of English language texts, with exams sometimes lasting six hours in one sitting.
The 2020 exam included a comparison of excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech on India’s independence day.
The exams themselves do not address aspects such as teaching grammar or oral skills – skills teachers focus on in classrooms, especially with younger pupils.
Failed the test twice
James first took the test in 2021, after discovering he needed this to find a position in a state school.
“I scored 7/20, even though English is my mother tongue," he told French media outlet Actu.
“I wasn't eligible [to help prepare students for their] oral exams, an area I'm very comfortable with,” he added.
He took the exam again this year and scored 9.75/20, still not enough to reach the threshold to teach his desired subjects.
He is preparing to take the test a third time.
A shortage of English teachers
As for many other subjects there is a shortage of English teachers in the education system in France.
According to the SNES-FSU teachers’ union, there are shortages for full-time positions at the Mandela college in Hérouville, another at the Argences college, both close to Caen where James lives.
In addition teaching hours in the subject are not filled in four other nearby collèges.
“There are expatriates like me who I think would be a plus for a school,” James said.
Even though he failed the Capes James can still work as a temporary replacement teacher, covering when usual teachers are not available.
A temporary replacement does not require the Capes exam although a university degree is required.
“People are recruited with no training or experience,” James said.