Ahhh the French school system. You’ve heard legends about how short the weeks are and how long the vacations last. Or what about the fact that it’s virtually free? That’s right, no $50,000 price tag on a college education! Well we’ll be more specific with that in a bit.
But let’s start with the basics. French children start going to school at a very young age: some start at the age of 2, while nearly all begin at the age of 3. Spending 2 to 3 years in maternelle (the equivalent of pre-school and kindergarten) is the norm. The government wants kids to get a head start with their verbal and motor skills. Not a bad idea when you think about it! The U.S. government has even been in talks to make preschool and kindergarten mandatory for all students because the early years are establish more discipline and focus.
After maternelle comes primaire (elementary school ) and secondaire (middle and high school). During these years kids go to school Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesday used to be the one day a week that was ‘libéré,’ (not in session). Students have very long days, and the government has recently decided to cut the time spent in school on Tuesdays and Thursdays by requiring students to attend school Wednesday. This is being met with tepid enthusiasm, as Wednesday was historically a day for kids to relax, and do sports, and do their homework midweek.
You know how in the U.S. people have until college to figure out what they want to study and specialize in? Not so in France! Kids are actually observed very early on for their strengths, and by their lycée (high school) years, they are sorted into one of three categories: professional, technical, and general. These three diplomas are obtained by passing an exam called the ‘baccalaureate’ (bac for short). Passing or not passing the baccalaureate is a make or break moment in a student’s career prospects. This first big milestone is the one that, if obtained, paves the wave for future endeavors.
In order to do well in school and obtain the baccalaureate degree, students must receive high marks. Scoring in France is much different than that in the U.S. There are no As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs. Everything subject, whether it be poetry recitation or geography, is graded on a 20 point scale. Students can earn a grade between 0 and 20. A perfect score (20) is rare and nearly impossible to obtain on a regular basis. The French demand precision and accuracy in their coursework, and a good score is often somewhere between a 13 and a 17. A student’s average throughout his or her years in school is indicative of what field (professional, technical, or general) they will go into. Student’s with a 16 average in math, is most likely to follow a professional track, perhaps in finance or engineering.
So finding one’s track and passing the so called ‘Bac’ is all it takes to be admitted into a great university, right? Not exactly. France’s university system is split into two different groups: the universités and the Grandes Ecoles. Less than 5% of students get into the Grandes Ecoles. These schools are the “ivy leagues” of France, and only those who place highest in rigorous national exams are admitted. For example, to attend law school, 250 students may take the exam. The national education committee decides that year that they will take the top 30 for their Grandes Ecoles. That means that 220 students will be turned away. The alternative to the Grandes Ecoles are the universités. These universités may more or less resemble a liberal arts degree in the U.S. The classes aren’t nearly as rigorous, nor as specific. A Grande Ecole degree ensures that graduates find a job; the same cannot be said of graduates from the universités, which are much less competitive.
But let’s get to the last bit that makes the French education system so interesting and, perhaps, appealing. Remember above we mentioned that school in France doesn’t require, say, a $50,000 university price tag? Well that’s because all public schooling is free, with only a very small entrance fee at the universités. The French government is aware of the importance of educating its rising leaders and workers and chooses to subsidize much of their population’s education. Attending a Grande Ecole can be a bit more expensive (7,000-12,000euro), however it is still significantly lower that even a state school in the U.S.
So, now that you know a few things about the French education system, would you send your kids to school in France? Who you consider going for higher education in France? Tell us what you think!