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

Siblings Eloïse and Nicolas Fabre studied both in France and the UK, they tell The Connexion in their view the French system lacked empathy and flexibility

Eloïse Fabre and family

Eloïse Fabre (centre) with British mother Sophy Thompson (left) and French father (right) Pic: Eloïse Fabre

Nicolas Fabre is a 19 year-old student on an audio-visual course who previously struggled with dyslexia. “I was not comfortable with school’s pedagogy,” he said.

Mr Fabre said his dyslexia made reading and writing at primary school a real challenge, and he had trouble spelling simple words. 

‘I was constantly lost’

It led to a total rejection of reading and writing activities and saw him given marks of zero from teachers.

He said he received no help trying to cope with the issue, and his low scores gave classmates an excuse to bully him.

“I was constantly lost but I would get zero anyway. I had to write and write and write again,” he said, adding it created a snowball effect, turning him off school lessons and prompting concern from teachers and his parents.

London school more empathetic

He eventually enrolled at the Lycée International de Londres Winston Churchill, a bilingual international school in London, at the age of 15, when his mother moved to London after her divorce and sought a school better able to cope with his dyslexia.

Mr Fabre said the new school was more empathetic and he eventually started to read again after discovering a passion for cinema.

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

Baccalauréat too restrictive

Meanwhile, his elder sister Eloïse, 22, chose to study at Jeannine-Manuel, an international school in Paris, because she could pick an ‘L’ (literature) baccalauréat but combine it with physics – normally impossible, since ‘L’ students were generally restricted to literature-related subjects.

She said she would have probably been pressured to graduate with a ‘S’ baccalauréat if she had stayed in her former secondary school, as she was good at maths. 

Elitism in French system

She then moved to Oxford to avoid classes préparatoires, which were described by her friend as “secondary school on steroids”.

Ms Fabre said she grew fed-up with the constant elitism and pressure for success within the French education system, saying Oxford never used the word ‘elite’ but rather ‘privilege’.

“I always felt that French schools were built for engineers,” she said.

Their mother, Sophy Thompson, has a slightly more positive view of the French system, praising its professionalism and seriousness.

US offered creativity that France lacked

Born in the UK and having studied there, she decided early on to take her children on summer camps in the United States each year to help them develop creativity and imagination, since the French system was mainly built on rote-learning and writing skills.

Ms Thompson said she was scared her children would develop confidence issues if they never experienced any other way of learning.

“For three weeks in these summer camps, they were part of a community where self-esteem was valued,” she said.

French system fuels low self-esteem

The Ministry for Education published a study in December 2020 highlighting low self-esteem among French pupils, a concern regularly voiced by teachers and mental health professionals too.

Sophie Bruneteaux, a psychologist who treats pupils from both primary and secondary schools, said: “School is a great source of anxiety.”

She said every socio-cultural category was affected by the phenomenon.

“Pupils who are already fragile are suffering even more,” she said, explaining the education system tends to highlight weaknesses within pupils.

“This does not allow you to develop self-confidence.”

Parental pressure

Ms Bruneteaux also expressed concern that parents, often unaware of the pressure they put on children, particularly in wealthy social classes, were compounding the problem.

“They often say they have let their children choose their own paths, but when you take a closer look, you see that their trajectory was more predefined,” she said. “This is part of social reproduction.”

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