It’s the aim of all ambitious students to attend a lycée, and competition for places is fierce. There are fewer lycées than collèges and consequently there’s less choice. In rural areas, lycées take students from a wide area and, because of the travelling distances involved, many offer boarding from Mondays to Fridays. At a lycée, students are treated more like university students and aren’t required to remain in school if they don’t have a lesson.
However, the informal, often casual, air contrasts with the constant pressure of monthly tests (interrogation) and the writing of formal dissertations in most subjects. It goes without saying that, unless a student is prepared to work hard, it’s a waste of time attending a lycée. There are two types of lycée, described below.
Some lycées offer boarding (internat) for four nights per week (Mondays to Thursdays); a few accept boarders (internes) on Sunday nights. Sports and social activities, as well as supervised homework periods, are generally organised in the evenings. Most internats are single-sex, but it may be possible for children of the other sex to rent a room nearby and dine at the school as well as taking part in evening activities – in which case they’re known as internes externés! Costs are reasonable: around €2,500 per year for an interne and somewhat less for an interne externé.
General & Technology Lycée ( Lycée d’Enseignement Général et Technologique): A general and technology lycée prepares students for the general or technology baccalauréat or the technical certificate (brevet de technicien/BT). There are also professional lycées (Lycées Professionnels/LP) and Centres de Formation d’Apprentis (CFA) offering courses leading to vocational certificates.
The course is divided into second (seconde), first (première) and final (terminale) years. Second form or classe de seconde de détermination is so called because it prepares students to choose the type of baccalauréat they will take. Few second-form students specialise and work for a specific baccalauréat; exceptions are music or dance and certain technical certificates. During their second form, students study French, mathematics, a modern foreign language, history, geography, physics, chemistry, biology and geology, and have physical education and sports lessons.
They also choose subjects from one of the following two groups:
- Academic – Introduction to economics and social studies and one or two other subjects from: a second modern language, a regional language, a classical language, management, computers, information technology, artistic subjects and specialized sporting activities.
- Practical – One or two specialized technology subjects, such as industrial technology, science and laboratory technology, medical and social science, or applied arts. The inclusion of at least one technology subject is compulsory for students planning to progress to the first form and sit the corresponding technology baccalauréat.
It’s possible to transfer from a practical to an academic course or vice versa by way of a transition class (classe passerelle).
After the second form, students move on to one of the courses leading to the baccalauréat examination. General and technology lycées also offer post-baccalauréat classes to students who have obtained a technology baccalauréat or a BT. These students can study for a further two years for the brevet de technicien supérieur (BTS), encompassing some 90 areas of specialisation. Holders of a BTS are capable of entering a trade or occupation and assuming a responsible technical or administrative position.
The BTS programme has developed rapidly since its introduction due to good employment prospects, and it’s often chosen in preference to a university course. It may also offer the possibility of a sandwich course giving practical experience in commerce or industry, and BTS students can apply for one of over 1,400 grants of around €450 to obtain work experience in another EU country.
Vocational Lycée ( Lycée Professionnel/LP): Vocational lycée courses lead to vocational certificates. These include the brevet d’études professionnel (BEP) and the certificat d’aptitude professionnelle (CAP). The BEP certificate covers the range of knowledge required in a particular trade, industrial, commercial, administrative or social sector, rather than a specific skill. The CAP is more specialized and is awarded for skill in a particular trade, e.g. carpentry, plumbing or dressmaking. In addition to school lessons, the BEP and CAP programmes include practical periods with companies providing students with an introduction to the workplace.
After passing the CAP, students may be permitted to enter the ‘special second form’ (seconde spéciale or spécifique), where they undertake three years of technological studies leading to the BT. Students with a BEP or CAP can also take a technology or vocational baccalauréat, known as a baccalauréat professionnel, after a further two years’ study (see below). Almost every occupation in France has some form of recognised apprenticeship or certificate, including filing clerks, shop assistants and waiters, without which it’s difficult to get a job in a particular field.
The baccalauréat (commonly called the bac) is taken at a lycée at the age of 17 or 18 and is an automatic entrance qualification to a French university. Those who pass are known as bacheliers. There are over 30 baccalauréats to choose from, but three main groups, as follows:
- General baccalauréat – The general bac is an academic diploma and prepares students for higher education rather than for a trade or profession. It enables students to continue their studies at university, in preparatory classes for a grande école (see below), in a higher technicians’ section (STS), in a university institute of technology or in specialised schools. There are three main types of general bac: literature and classics; science; economic and social sciences.
- Technology baccalauréat – This is awarded for both general knowledge and training in modern technologies. It’s the first stage of higher technical training, usually at a university institute of technology or STS, and occasionally at a university or grande école. There are eight types of technology bac: industrial; science and technology; laboratory science; medical and social science; agriculture; environment; hotel and catering; music and dance.
- Vocational baccalauréat – Also known as the baccalauréat professionnel, this is chosen by an increasing number of students each year and has enjoyed huge success since its introduction. The majority of those who pass the exam go straight into employment, although it also entitles them to enter higher education. A major feature of the vocational baccalauréat course is that students spend a quarter of their time training in industry.
Students must pass the baccalauréat and a competitive examination, or pass the baccalauréat, provide a school record and attend an interview with an examining board. The selection system applies to institutes of technology (IUT), institutes of political studies (IEP), and post- baccalauréat establishments preparing students for the BTS or for entry to a grande école preparatory school (see below).
The courses taken during a student’s final two years at a lycée depend on the type of baccalauréat selected. There are seven major subjects in the first form and eight in terminale. The baccalauréat is taken in two parts, the first of which consists of an examination in French language and literature (baccalauréat de français) taken in the first form. This must be passed before any other exams can be taken. The second part of the bac is taken in terminale. Students who fail the bac can retake it the following year.
The French baccalauréat examination
The French Baccalauréa examination is marked out of 20, as are all French exams. An average of 10 is a pass, 12/13 is quite good (mention assez bien), 14/15 is good (mention bien) and 16 and over is very good (mention très bien). Note, however, that not all subjects are regarded as equal, and some are ‘weighted’ in accordance with the type of bac according to a complex system of ‘coefficients’ (coefficient), although French is usually given high priority.
European universities and most US colleges recognise the French baccalauréat as an entrance qualification, although foreign students must provide proof of their English language ability to study in the UK or the US. A US university may grant credits to a bachelier allowing him to graduate in three years instead of four. The international baccalaureate option (option internationale du baccalauréat/OIB) and international baccalaureate (IB) examinations are offered by some international lycées in France (and lycées with international sections).
Grandes Écoles Preparatory School
Grandes écoles preparatory schools (classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles/CPGE or prépa for short) are the first step for anyone with ambitions to attend a grande école, France’s elite higher education institutions. Admission to a prépa is based on a student’s grades in his first and final (première et terminale) years at lycée and the subjects chosen.
Applications must be made by the end of april/beggining of may, i.e. before actually sitting the baccalauréat, with provisional selection based on school reports for the final year of lycée and teachers’ reports. Successful students spend two years (one in the case of veterinary students) in a CPGE, which is generally an integral part of a lycée, although it may be housed within a grande école. Entrance to a prépa constitutes a first selection procedure, before the competitive examination (concours) for the grande école, taken at the end of the two-year period. This exam has a failure rate of around 90 per cent!
Students who fail the entrance examination may be permitted to remain at a preparatory school for another year and retake the exam if their grades are high enough. If they fail again they must change track, which for most students means going to a university. However, even partial success in one of the CPGE examinations can bring exemption from all or part of the diplôme d’études universitaires générales (DEUG), the examination taken at the end of the second year of university.