From the moment we are born we start to learn.
In the world of French school-life, this feels like the week we are in ‘no-man’s land’. School doesn’t officially end until next Friday, 7th July, and yet this week I have had two teenagers fast asleep until mid-morning as they enjoy well earned lie-ins, a 12 year-old slumbering on the sofa in the shade on the terrace while munching a croissant and enjoying the beginning of her holidays, and poor Gigi still getting up early and attending school as normal. A bit of a mixed bag, really.
You may ask ‘why’? Because it all centres around exams – not just regular mid-term and end of year tests to evaluate how the student is doing, but also the two most crucial exams in any French student’s life before university or any other form of higher education beckons. These delightful stumbling blocks in our children’ lives are of course Le Brevet and Le Bac (the latter short for Baccalauréat,) and our snoring teenagers are technically still ‘at school’ – they’re just home for revision. It’s only Hetty who is able to fully relax, supine in the sun and safe in the knowledge her summer holidays have truly begun.
Even across the Channel in England, Izzi is finally able to unwind. She has officially finished three years at university and is graduating with a FIRST! To say we are proud parents would be an understatement, along with the parties and the fun, which go hand in hand with Uni life, I know she has put in thousands of hours of hard work.
We have lived in three different continents with school-aged children and I think I can honestly say we have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of different educational systems in varying countries around the world. The English do things one way, the Americans another, the Kiwis have their own methods and the French are different yet again. Of course there are similarities in all if one looks carefully into each system; education is education after all, and in each country we have lived in we can actually see where one has perhaps adopted something from another. Humans have been learning for millennia,
adding new technology to ancient traditions.
The French school system is revered by many and it is actually very good, even if it is also a little old fashioned in some ways too, there is a very strong emphasis on learning rote fashion and there is not a lot of room for thinking outside the box. Ask any of our children and they will tell you the basis of the system here is to be taught something in class, write it down, learn it at home, be tested on it and then move on to the next unit. As one progresses through the educational system and gets older this does however get much better and far more discussion starts to take place in class, especially once one enters Lycée.
In case you’re not familiar with the system here, let me explain it very briefly; most French children start school in the École Maternelle, the equivalent of nursery or kindergarten. They are typically aged 3 to 6, although school at this age is not obligatory. It only becomes compulsory once the child reaches the age of 6 and starts in the École Primaire, the primary school. There are five years of primary school and during the child’s 11th year they usually begin at Collège, the equivalent of middle School. There are four years of Collège starting with the year 6eme, Sixième and they progress backwards in name to the final year which is 3eme, or Troisième. School in France is compulsory until the age of 16, although the majority of students continue to Lycée, high school, starting in Seconde, followed by Première and finally Terminale for the last three years of their traditional school life.
It always makes me smile how the French do things in reverse when it comes to numbers, starting at the highest and ending at the lowest, in complete contrast to anywhere else we have ever lived. Incidentally, the points system for traffic offences on driving licences here is also the same. One automatically commences with 12 points, then points are deducted for speeding or other offences on a descending scale; so if you start heading towards 3, 2 or 1 you are in trouble!!
But back to school; at the end of Troisième, the last year of Collège, children take their Brevet, and here there is some similarity to GSCE’s in the UK. Jack, our son, is currently the one studying for these exams. Whether one has a week off for revision or whether the courses continue right up until the very last day seems to vary according to individual schools. Our children are lucky; they finish an entire week in advance and then have seven days at home for revision; mandatory lie-ins would seem to be part of the fun, but they are in fact absolutely essential for allowing the brain to have sufficient hours of sleep to study at an acceptable level. Windows are opened during the day, snacks and drinks lined up, and the entire studying environment becomes one of relaxed concentration – or at least I think that is what the teachers hope for!
Jack’s Brevet consists of four exams taken today and tomorrow at the same time throughout France. The only exams taken are French, History/Geography/Civics, Maths and Physics/Biology. Each year two subjects are picked randomly out of physics, technology and biology for the exams, so technology this year was not chosen. There are no exams in any foreign languages, music or art. Part of the marks are taken from the year’s coursework and there is one overall grade.
After taking the Brevet a pupil moves onto Lycée, and here things get a little more complicated! The whole purpose of these final three years at school is geared towards obtaining Le Bac and there are many choices.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of Lycée, each having a slightly different purpose, and each leading to different qualifications. Those planning on going to university usually attend a general or technological Lycée, whilst the professional Lycée (or Lycée pro as it is commonly known) is for those intending to go straight into employment, usually in a manual or clerical job; these students work towards taking and passing Le Bac pro.
From experience I can only talk about the Lycée General, because this is the direction Millie is taking. She is finishing her penultimate year of school, and next year she will be in Terminale and taking her final exams! There are generally four types of Bac a student can take, depending on what they want to do with their lives. For example, someone wanting to be a vet or a doctor (or have anything to do with science) would take the Bac S. This and the Bac ES, which covers science and economics, are the most popular choices at Millie’s school. But there is also the Bac L, Millie’s choice, which is literature, and there’s the Bac STMG, based mainly on economics but with a distinct commercial focus on marketing.
Students continue with all of their previous subjects in the first year of Lycée. During this year there will be much discussion with teachers as to which Bac is suitable and which path a student should follow. In Première, the second year of Lycée, several subjects will be dropped with French, History/Geography, English, a second foreign language, sports and one science being the only compulsory classes (again this varies slightly by region). In the final year Philosophy is compulsory!
For some reason that I have yet to fathom out, pupils take their French Bac at the end of Première while those taking the Bac L, like Millie, also take their Science too – not at the end of the final year of Lycée. As a result, we find ourselves with a daughter studying and taking the first part of her Bac right now! Again, the exams are sat at the same hour on the same day throughout the country.
Millie’s French Bac exam is split into two parts; the written exam was two weeks ago, and while her Science exam was last week, tomorrow is the second French part – the oral exam. Millie officially finished going into school on the 9th June and has been at home ever since, enjoying fabulous hot weather while revising. But this week the heatwave came to an abrupt end, the rain came down and I cannot deny it is extremely welcome and an immense relief to all,
it is perhaps also a little more conducive to exam preparation and studying, the temptation for swimming and summer frolics has been temporarily removed and it’s easier to hunker down inside with some books.
Of course there has also been some relaxation for nearly three weeks, much to the chagrin of Gigi. She fails to notice Millie’s late nights with books open and intent learning, and instead just sees her older sister doing the odd tennis tournament, swimming, lounging around and generally having high jinks – I think she may be just a tad jealous!
It seems Gigi has also already conveniently forgotten that just last month she spent 8 days at sailing-school – another part of the school curriculum that is done somewhat differently here! The primary school children, at least in our village, don’t have many field trips throughout the year – just a couple of days if they are lucky. However for the last two years of Primary school life our village, the school sends the children on a sailing course. I daresay if we were in the mountains instead close to the coast there would be ski-school during the winter, but here with saltwater a stone’s throw away it is the école de voile, sailing-school, which gets the attention. It’s a week and a half on the water; last year they started in Optimists and this year they progressed to Hobie Catamarans, three to a boat.
So when some say French schooling is boring I remind them of the positive side to life in the French educational system! Learning ‘by rote’ or not, school was not half as much fun when I was a child! And even when we are no longer at school ourselves, and instead helping the next generation, we continue to learn. Everyday I learn something new from our children; there are many things they learn at school that I did not. Or perhaps I will learn something new from the news, something from the internet, it might be something technical or something incredibly simple, like the name of a flower.
And just as the trees have stood for centuries,
the rain falls, the mist descends
or the sun shines, I hope I will always be learning.