The state-funded school system is supported by a comprehensive network of private schools, including many distinguished international schools. Around 15 per cent of French children attend private schools, most of which are co-educational day schools (education is almost exclusively co-educational), but a private education has little snob value – and it’s considerably cheaper than in the UK, for example. Higher education standards are only average, however, with the notable exception of the elite grandes écoles, which are rated among the world’s best educational establishments. The French are proud of their schools and resent government interference, although there are almost continual ‘reforms’ of the educational system. They have a respect, even a love of learning, and reforms are argued at great length and with surprising passion.
Critics of the French education system complain that its teaching methods are too traditional and unimaginative, with most learning by rote. Classrooms are arranged in traditional style, with desks in serried ranks, and children spend much of their time copying information. It’s also accused of being inflexible and training only the mind rather than encouraging self-expression and personal development. French schools place a great emphasis on the French language (particularly grammar), arithmetic and the sciences. Schools usually impose more discipline than most foreign children are used to (teachers may use any disciplinary method other than violence), as well as more homework ( devoirs du soir), which increases with the age of the child (there isn’t any at elementary level) and can become onerous, particularly for children used to the British education system.
French teachers generally have high expectations of pupils and the system is hard on slow learners and the not so bright; although most schools have special classes for children with learning difficulties, these are beginning to disappear as education budgets are cut. France has a highly competitive and selective examination system that separates the brighter students from the less academically gifted at around the age of 14. From primary school level, children are subjected to constant testing. However, despite the generally high standards, there have been reports of an increasing number of children entering secondary education unable to read or write adequately.
Education in France is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16, and state schools are entirely free from nursery school through to university (free state schools have existed in France for over a century), but you have the right to educate your children at home. Some 80 per cent of children continue their schooling beyond the age of 16 and there are around 2.23m students in lycées, private institutions, grandes écoles and universities. Free education is also provided for the children of foreign residents, although non-resident, non-EU students require a student visa.
It was Napoleon who decided that children should study the same subjects, at the same level, at the same time in a particular region. Some 200 years later the system is largely unchanged and the syllabus and textbooks are broadly the same in all schools of the same level throughout France. This means that children moving between schools can continue their education with the minimum disruption. Regions do, however, have a certain amount of autonomy in setting school timetables.
Average class sizes in France
Average class sizes have fallen overall in the last few decades, although they’re still thought by some to be too large and the number of teachers is gradually being diminished (in 2009, one retired teacher out of two was not replaced), and it isn’t unusual to find classes of 50 or more pupils. The average number of children per class is currently around 25.9 (nursery school), 22.7 (primary school), 23.7 (collège) and 27.6 (lycée) (INSEE Study, 2008-2009).
Parent-teacher associations are common (if you wish to join, elections are usually in October), and parent-teacher meetings, where parents can discuss a child’s progress with teachers, are held regularly (there’s normally one shortly after the start of the first term). If you have a problem, you should contact your local education mediator.
Truancy is a rare offence in France, where a child can be expelled for forging a parent’s signature to skip classes and parents of children who regularly play truant can be fined up to €750. Note, however, that in some areas (e.g. some Parisian suburbs), state schools are plagued by violence, vandalism and drug abuse – to such an extent that the French Education Minister recently proposed a police presence in ‘problem’ schools.
There has also been an increase in bullying and racketeering among pupils, and a dedicated helpline called Jeunes Violence Ecoute, operated by the Fédération des Écoles, des Parents et des Educateurs, is available for pupils, and others, who fear contacting the authorities or parents directly (08 00 20 22 23). Another helpline, SOS Violences Scolaires is on 08 10 55 55 00. In an attempt to improve school discipline, all pupils and their parents must now sign a ‘school life contract’ ( contrat de vie scolaire), confirming their willingness to cooperate with teachers and their commitment to education.
In recent years, there has been disquiet, particularly among lycée students, over class overcrowding and a shortage of teachers. Another increasing problem in state schools, particularly collèges, is teacher absenteeism and strikes, which are accelerating the drift towards the private sector.