Back to the classroom: visiting France’s school museums

Take a nostalgic trip around the country and pay a visit to the country’s finest museums dedicated to the history of education

All over the country musées de l’école offer nostalgic visitors the opportunity to journey back to the schools of their grandparents
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Education occupies a hallowed place in France; generally speaking the words ‘self taught’ don’t carry much weight, whereas academic performance is so highly valued that everyone in France has a personal fund allowing them to undertake further education or training throughout their lives.

Not only that, but all over the country musées de l’école offer nostalgic visitors the opportunity to journey back to the schools of their grandparents, to sit on hard wooden chairs behind vintage wooden desks and jot down dictée (dictation) with real ink pens. Some écoliers even get kitted out in traditional grey smocks and berets.

This ties in with a plethora of warm-hearted films about a certain type of primary school.

Perhaps the best known is the documentary Etre et Avoir, made in 2003. It followed a year in the life of George Lopez as he taught his single school class of kids aged between four and 10 in the village of Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson (Auvergne), teaching the little ones to read and preparing the older ones to move up to collège.

His patience and dedication, combined with his pupils’ eagerness to learn, left everyone misty-eyed for a way of rural life that was rapidly disappearing. The film was a smash hit.

Les Choristes, released in 2004, was equally well received, although it was pure fiction. Set in 1949, it was about a teacher sent to a countryside boarding school for problem boys.

A music-lover himself, the teacher Clément Mathieu set about teaching the boys to sing in a choir, and in doing so transformed their lives. The film won a César and two Oscar nominations.

The much grittier, semi-autobiographical film Entre les Murs (re-titled The Class for English release) followed in 2008. It was about another dedicated man, François Bégaudeau, teaching French and literature to a class of collège kids in Paris’s deprived 20th arrondissement.

It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival.

But if people thought single-class primary schools were a thing of the past, filmmaker Emilie Thérond’s 2015 documentary showed that they do still exist.

Mon maître d’école follows her own primary school teacher in Saint-Just-et-Vacquières (Gard) during his last year of teaching before retirement. It’s a beautiful film about a dedicated teacher, and illustrates perfectly French people’s nostalgia for a certain idea of primary school.

Education for everyone

Until 1698, education in France was mainly the domain of the church and was almost exclusively for the rich.

Universities were established from the 12th century onwards, and in 1698, Louis XIV ordered parents to send their children to village schools until the age of 14, and decreed that villages should organise these schools and set wages for the teachers.

Education was disrupted during the Revolution, but by 1802, Napoléon had introduced the bac and set up lycées and, in tandem with universities, grandes écoles to teach sciences and engineering.

By 1815, universal, compulsory primary education spread across France and, as the Industrial Revolution progressed, employers lobbied for a more educated workforce.

Jules Ferry, the Minister of Instruction Publique from 1879 to 1880, gave his name to laws extending education, notably secondary education, to girls in 1880, and making primary education universal and free in 1881. Today, around 650 primary schools, collèges and lycées are named after him.

With the separation of the State and the Church in 1905, state school was entirely secular. Secondary school became free between 1926 and 1930.

In many villages, if you look up, you can still see the words garçons and filles carved into the stones of the mairie or the school, bearing witness to the custom of separating girls and boys, until mixité became the norm.

Some of these classrooms have been restored to how they would have looked over different eras, and when school museum ‘school days’ are announced, truancy is no longer a problem. Places are quickly sold out, either because they loved school, or because they still hope to get top marks!

The Musée de l’école in Montceau-les-Mines (71) is bigger than most, and has a classroom from 1890/1900 as well as one from the 1950s. Pic: Patrick PLUCHOT

‘School museums are nostalgic’

All over France, adults are happy to pay for the privilege of going back to school. There are approximately 150 spread over France. A selection is listed here.

The Musée National de l’Education (MUNAÉ) in Rouen is the only State-run example, and with nearly a million objects and documents, has the sixth largest museum collection in France. It receives around 20,000 visitors a year, and deals not just with the history of schools, but also of French education, childhood and the family, toys, and games. The collection spans the 16th century to the present day.

“Many school museums are very nostalgic, and of course, it’s hard to talk about school without a certain nostalgia,” says Deputy Director Nicolas Coutant. “But we try to be objective and show things through a clear lens. For example, when universal education was established during the Third Republic, it was for everybody but it was only primary education. We have a reconstruction of a classroom from Jules Ferry’s era, and we run exams in there. We use the original exam papers, and let people sit the certif (see below). It’s interesting because although everyone knows what it was, only people born in the 1950s or earlier will have actually sat it. Letting people experience the exam is important, but we try to go further. We explain that only the best students were even allowed to take it, so there was a lot of inequality at that time.”

Teaching boys and girls in the same classroom took many years to establish, he explains. “La mixité always existed in small rural schools, where they didn’t have two teachers and two school rooms, but it took many years to arrive in big cities.”

Many school museums are very small and run by local authorities and/or associations staffed by volunteers, so opening hours tend to be sporadic. It is therefore advisable to ring them when planning a visit. If you want to take part in a class, which truly is the most fun part, booking ahead is essential.

“My classes are very popular,” says Jean-Marie Richon, who runs sessions at the Ecole d’Autrefois du Hameau de Lamarque-Lagruère (47) south-east of Marmande. “I’m 76 but still working!” Sessions in the 1950s classroom include dictation, primary school exams, mental arithmetic, handwriting tests, morality, singing... and they also have games. Pupils write with fountain pens using traditional violet ink, some wear traditional school smocks, and the old-style punishments and merit points are particularly popular. There is a good picnic spot nearby, and you can combine your visit with a river trip.

While you’re in Lot-et-Garonne and on the trail of a good dictation, there is another Musée de l’école rurale d’autrefois in Saint-Pierre-de-Buzet. It is a faithful recreation of the school in the 1950s, and is actually in the original school building.

In sunny PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), Toulon has a small but fascinating school museum in its historic centre, the Musée de l’Ecole de Toulon. Founded in 2018 and run exclusively by volunteers, the 1950s classroom, complete with individual wooden desks, is open on Saturday afternoons and entrance is free. Get ready to use violet ink and show off your best handwriting.

The real education in Toulon, however, is maritime. The port is the focus of the town, and the best way to get a feel for it is on the little ferry that shuttles to and fro across the port. Tickets are only two euros, and they are valid for an hour, which gets you there and back if you just want to enjoy being on the water and see the military ships a bit closer up.

Combine that with a trip to the Maritime Museum and you’ll definitely start to feel like an old salt. The museum explains France’s naval history (they scuttled the fleet here during WW2 rather than let it fall into the hands of the Nazis) as well as the history of the port. There’s also an interesting section on rope making.

The Musée National de l’Education (MUNAÉ) in Rouen is the only State-run example, and with nearly a million objects and documents, has the sixth largest museum collection in France. Pic: Réseau Canopé – Le Musée national de l’Education

Once you’ve been across the port on a boat and checked out the museum, you’ll be ready to appreciate the events of the Liberation. Take the scarlet-painted téléphérique to the top of Mont Faron and visit the Mémorial du Débarquement et de la Libération de Provence. The guided tour is very informative, giving a clear picture of what happened during these Landings, which are often overshadowed by the Normandy Landings.

The Musée de l’école in Montceau-les-Mines (71) is bigger than most, and has a classroom from 1890/1900 as well as one from the 1950s. It also has a large room displaying all kinds of information, and an extensive archive. An interesting development in this mining region between Dijon and Lyon was the opening in 1923/24 of schools specifically for the children of miners from Poland, who were offered work due to the manpower shortage after WW1.

They were taught in Polish and French, by Polish and French teachers. By 1926, there were 1,040 children in nine Polish schools, increasing to 1,380 children in 1931. Providing Polish schools was supposed to facilitate the workers’ eventual return to Poland, but most people stayed. The schools remained open until the 1980s. The museum also offers dictation classes and other activities. It is open on the second Sunday of every month, except in July and August.

In Brittany, the Musée de l’école de Bothoa goes back to 1930, and even includes the schoolmistress’s house. You can sign up for dictation, morality and you can even pass your certif. Created in 1866, the certificat d’études primaires tested reading, writing, spelling, maths and the metric system. Passing it became a passport to employment and social mobility and around 20 million pupils passed it. From the 1960s, it was gradually phased out in favour of the bac, and in 1971, it was reserved for adult learners. The certif was finally abolished in 1989.

There are other brilliant school museums all over France, many of them in small villages, but also in cities including Lille, Troyes, Perpignan, and Nantes. Once you get that scent of violet ink in your nostrils, you’ll never look back.

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