French Schools: One More Report

vintage French school book

By Gabrielle. Vintage French school book here.

Today is one of the first really warm days of the year (really warm in Normandy means low 70s : ) and we’re starting to think about summer. But alas! It’s not time yet. The school year here goes all the way through June!

So I thought it would be fun to share one more update about our educational experience in France, before the school year ends and we move back to the U.S.. And if you’re curious, here’s a link to earlier posts about French school. I’m going to try and cover topics I haven’t mentioned in earlier posts, and this time, most of the updates relate to middle school — because 3 of the kids, Ralph, Maude & Olive, are all in middle school.

– One thing that it took us awhile to realize: at our middle school and high school, called college and lycée, there are no substitute teachers. If the teacher can’t make it that day, they just don’t show up. The students will be in class, and if the teacher hasn’t shown up  a few minutes in, the Class Delegate will go to the office to find out what’s up. If the office informs them the teacher is out for the day, the students will go to “perm” which is study time. (Fun fact: Oscar is his class delegate. He had to prepare a speech — in French, of course — on the voting day. So cute!)

– Sometimes the grade-level curriculum in the U.S. and France align pretty well, but other times, they don’t. After 2.5 years of school here, we’re predicting our kids will be ahead of their American peers in topics like history and geography, but behind in other topics — for example, our school doesn’t seem to have any sort of advanced math program.

– Related, both Oscar and Betty have learned to read since we moved here. They learned simultaneously alongside their French peers. This means that at the moment, they are both stronger readers in French than in English. We will of course, have to be mindful of this as they transition back to American schools.

– Ralph is currently in 9th Grade, which is the last year of middle school here in France. Like all of his class peers, he is gearing up to take a big test, called the Brevet des Collèges, in order to see if he can qualify for high school. From what we understand, if students fail the Brevet de College, they repeat a grade. If a student fails the Brevet de College 3 times over 3 years, they go to a career-finding class instead of high school.

– Related to what I just mentioned about the tests, we’ve noticed there doesn’t seem to be much shame attached to repeating a grade. In our experience, ages and grade levels are far more fluid here than they are in the U.S. For example, in Maude’s class, there are kids from 13 to 16, and no one bats an eye.

– Our school is strict about screens. Personal iPods and cell phones get confiscated for 2 weeks if students are caught using them.

– Something that took my kids awhile to get used to: Schools here don’t have drinking fountains. And really, that seems to be true for France in general (though these are an exception). On the first day of school, when we first moved here, Ralph asked about a drinking fountain and the kids directed him to the bathrooms where they leaned over the sink and got a drink from the faucet. But our kids eventually realized that none of the kids drank anything outside of regularly scheduled meals. No carrying water bottles around, and no water breaks between classes. It’s not like it’s forbidden, it’s just not something that’s done.

– I may have mentioned this before, but smoking is common among students in college and lycée (middle and high school). It’s not allowed ON campus, but if you’re on the sidewalk just outside the campus gate, it seems to be fine. The students don’t pretend to hide it from adults, or even their teachers. There doesn’t seem to be much fuss about it at all.

– In our school, the junior high and high school students move from class to class, but they move as a group. They are with the same group of about 30 kids throughout the year.

– Instead of counting up to 12th grade from kindergarten, grade levels in France count down to the Bac (the big deal test you take as you finish lycée). For example, 8th grade is called quatrieme (4th), 9th grade is called troisieme (3rd), etc.

– Our children have become used to the looong lunch breaks and the multi-course meals served in La Cantine, the school cafeteria. I think transitioning back to 30 minute U.S. school lunch may be a shock to their systems. : )

– Olive mentioned that there’s not really a “popular” group, in the same way that there are “popular” kids in American schools. Partly, this is because students switch schools often — though usually not mid-year. It’s not uncommon for students to try a different school every couple of years.

– Related, there is really zero focus on a “school identity”. There are no mascots, no school teams, no school colors, school songs, or any sort of school rivalries. All sports are done at the community level or on private teams. The strongest identity demonstration happens when there’s a town parade and the kids walk behind a school banner.

– But that doesn’t mean no sports happen at school. All the students take gym and are exposed to lots of different sports. Badminton, ping pong, and football (meaning soccer) are super competitive. And recently, our school installed new sports equipment: rugby goal posts and basketball hoops.

I hope you enjoy these school updates. Hopefully, if you read them all, you’ll have a good sense of our educational experience here.

P.S. — For those of you who are curious, all 5 of the older kids are fluent in French now, with varying levels of accent. And this week, little June’s babysitter mentioned she has started speaking French with the other toddlers. So cute!

61 thoughts on “French Schools: One More Report”

  1. I so enjoyed reading your experience with the French school system. My daughter was an exchange student when she was in Grade 10 to Normandy. She loved it, but found school very difficult. The substitute teachers were a problem as she missed an entire term of gym since her gym teacher had had surgery. She also found the teachers much more severe and would think nothing of shaming students in front of the class. One teacher insisted my daughter read out loud in front of the class soon after she got there which terrified my daughter and greatly upset her as her accent was still very poor.

    I had to laugh about the drinking fountains because when my daughter’s exchange partner came to Canada she thought the drinking fountains and school buses were so “cliche”. She had photos taken of her drinking from the fountain and she took a photo of a school bus up north towing a trailer full of canoes (very Canadian).

    1. Very true, Grace! Public shaming is real here. I covered it in an earlier post so didn’t bring it up here, but it’s fascinating! Grades and scores are read aloud in front of everyone, and I remember Ralph telling us how a teacher had mocked him in front of the class about his handwriting — which not incidentally is much improved now. : )

      1. My personal theory is that there is a much higher drop-out rate and dissatisfaction with education amongst the high school students and many more struggle with school than in Canada, but the ones who make it though end up with a higher level of education. For example, I was told that all high school students have to study philosophy – a subject that isn’t even taught in my children’s high school, and all (most??) students take the very rigorous IB exams before finishing high school.

  2. MArija Taraba

    I am curious , how are you legible for public schools? If you have temporary visa you can still sign up kids for school??? And do you think your kids will miss French school??

    1. When we moved here we had to qualify for temporary, year-long visas (and renew them each year). The visas make us eligible for schools.

      I do think they’ll miss aspects of French school. It will be interesting to see what they miss the most!

      1. In France, school is free and compulsory for everyone until they are 16, even if their parents are foreigners or illegal immigrants.

  3. So fascinating! So are there smoking bans in restaurants, etc.?

    I love a lot of this for schools here – more mixed age groups, testing to see if you should go to high school or a vocational school… My in-laws were teachers for decades and my father in law always said he couldn’t grade the kids on anything they did for a substitute, so the “no subs” rule makes sense to me as well.

    1. Good question! Yes, there are smoking bans in restaurants. Although bars might be handled differently — I’m not actually sure. But I have noticed restaurants are smoke-free.

      1. Yes, there is a law that prohibits smoking in public places. (indoors) So bars, train station, metro, restaurant, schools!, are smoke free. (or at least supposed to be. It’s hard to enforce in big places like train station, etc…

  4. I love reading about this! My two little girls go to Italian public schools, and I’m endlessly fascinated by different countries’ educational systems. After six years here, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around school strikes and religion hour, but I love other aspects like the vast amount of poetry memorization and the emphasis on oral exams. I often find myself wishing (with a teeny amount of envy) that I could have had this kind of multicultural experience when I was a kid!

  5. I agree, their education system is inspiring to me, i love that in a past post you said how hard it is. It makes me feel validated in my own educational goals. The shaming part sounds awful though.

    1. according to my Great Niece they still read out all the scores. And they mark each others papers. This is how it was when I was also at that school 30 years ago.

      It creates competition, whether that is a good thing or not.

      Lol I don’t think they do it any more, but we in one class with one teacher, some one used to have to stand on their desk or chair and lead us in prayer. The prayer part is defo not done now, nor the assemblies and the hymns. They don’t have any religious leading there now.

      I don’t know if this is typical of Brit schools but this was my infant and junior school also.

      my French friends have never really mentioned the shaming. I don’t think it is done as shaming. I think it just is their way and procedure. The mocking bit sounds awful. I wonder how well he would have done at the same age in a US school.

      1. I think you’re right that they may not think of it as “shaming”. I think it’s just how it’s always been done. But for sure to American kids it feels like shaming. Hah!

  6. This is fascinating. As an English teacher here in the States, it’s so interesting to see the radically different structure of schools in France…the testing, substitutes, lack of ‘school pride’. Crossing my fingers I’ll one day have the opportunity to teach there in the summer.

    1. It does seem strange as an American, where the the anti-smoking messages have widely sunk in.

      I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but the European attitude toward smoking reminds me of when I was pregnant with Ralph and living in Greece. My doctor was Greek, but he went to medical school at Johns Hopkins and all the US Embassy ladies highly recommended him. He was great! One of my favorite doctors.

      During our first visit, as he was taking my health record down, he asked me if I drank alcohol (no), did drugs (no), smoked (no). “Well,” he said, “if you decide to start smoking while you’re pregnant, keep it to 3 cigarettes a day.”

      My eyes could not have gotten any wider!

      To me, it seems like Europeans don’t approach health & safety issues in the black & white, clear-cut way Americans (including myself) like to approach them. I’m thinking of the non-existant life jackets in boat-filled Venice, or the non-existant bike helmets in bike-filled Amsterdam. They seem to be more flexible about them and more comfortable with some grey areas.

      1. I had my first two in Austria, and my obstetrician said to me, you can have the occasional drink and coffee, but DO NOT SMOKE! It messes up your baby’s brain. Good think I’m not a smoker.

      2. Yes, Gabrielle, and the reason why, is that they don’t stress about anything. They don’t analyze, they don’t think about those things. I still can’t get over, as a European, how much people do stress over little things in States. And even though I don’t agree with smoking, I still believe that Europeans live way healthier. Exposure to nudity, alcohol, cigarettes.. there is no reason to hide it. I am sure you have a similar opinion since you lived there for more than 2 years.

        1. Exposing our children to things like this — how different cultures function and approach social issues — is part of what we hoped to experience by living here. And I think we have. It’s always good to remember that just because we’re used to doing something one way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way, or the only good way.

    1. It’s on our minds like crazy! We’re considering things like French immersion schools, French tutors, and maybe even inviting one of their French friends to live with us for semester. He or she would have a chance to learn English, and my kids would have someone to practice their French with.

      1. victoria speirs

        oh this one answers my question. lovely i love those ideas. the french friend sounds like a great idea and experience.

      2. Thinking back to your post on hired help. If you’ll be needing help with baby sitting and house work when you’re back in the USA, maybe you could get a French au pair? You get the help you need and the kids could continue to speak the language.

  7. I love hearing how things are run there. Maybe too strict on some accounts in my opinion (or too carefree- like with the smoking!), but there are certainly some things I think would be so good to learn from. I think about how hard I worked in high school, and how some kids did diddly squat, but in the end we both got the same piece of paper. I love the idea of kids who just aren’t cutting it in high school should instead go to a trade school of some sort so they can get a skill to work with.

  8. Bonne chance avec le Brevet!! I pass it long long time ago but still remember the nervousness about it. The BAC is really the big thing now in june for everyone. I still look at the different subjects year after yera (and have nightmares about it jajajaja). When are you going back to the US?

  9. The grade naming convention – counting backwards to the exam – is really interesting to me. It marks a significant goal to work towards but since it doesn’t count how many years you’ve been in school but rather how much you still need to know to pass the exam, may partly explain why repeating a year isn’t stigmatized.

  10. Coming from Germany I find the French system very similar to the German, compared to the American. When we had a student exchange at the age of 13 though I noticed that french students and teachers were behaving more like Germans would have done in the 60ies. It was very strict and organised and studens were standing up when the teacher was entering etc.
    The shaming is the same in Germany and it is true, nobody calls it shaming here. There is a believe (maybe it is in all continental European countries), that things have to feel tough and be awkward for kids in order for them to learn something. Not my believe.
    What I prefer over the American system though is that there is not so much emphasis on athletics and that there is no popular group. In my school the people that I admired were cleary what would have been nerds in the US. The ones with dreadlocks who were into Star Wars and wore second hand clothes were the ones who got elected for student president and whose opinion would matter. But they weren’t mean or exclusive or anything. Just respected. There is less bullying in European schools I might say but maybe I just got lucky. Maybe it is less systematically and less competitive in terms of the popular hierarchy.

    1. Since my kids aren’t particularly sports-obsessed, I prefer that there isn’t such an emphasis on athletics as well. I’m sure I’d feel differently if my kids had hopes to be captain of the basketball team.

  11. from my experience, the best friend option wouldn’t work that well. We’ve tried that with cousins, and they are so motivated to learn English, that no(in our case German) other language is spoken.

  12. I had a de javu reading this post. This sounds very familiar to my schools. It will be interesting to see how kids adjust to American schools. Thank you for this post.

  13. I’m surprised that you found the maths level behind that of the US – or perhaps the Blair kids are the exception in being such math whizzes? Certainly, the French are obsessed with & proud of their maths standards. Young kids are drilled in mental arithmetics from a young age. High school students often get pressured by parents to take the hard core Math/Science stream of the Bac.

    1. I think the math program here is definitely strong! But I know when Ralph and Maude compare the math they are doing with what their friends in Colorado are doing, Maude and Ralph feel like they’ll have some catching up to do. Granted, they were in advanced math classes before we moved here, and their friends in Colorado have continued in advanced math classes, so I’m sure that affects our perception.

      1. My husband moved back and forth between the US and Germany until he was 12 and they permanently moved back to Colorado. He found the mathematical rigor of American schools lagged behind that of his German school (they started fractions, algebra, etc earlier). That was 30 yrs ago now though….

  14. I apologie for correcting you, but it’s not brevet de College, but Brevet des Collèges.

    About high school, I was raised in France but now live in LA, and I was baffled at work to discover that some of my co-workers were still living by high school standards, with cliques and popular kids and such. Since it doesn’t exist in France, I was really surprised and found it a bit unsettling if not immature. There is of course kids more fashionable than others in France, and a vague sense of groups, but the whole elected princess popular system would be considered unfair in France. We have in our moto “liberte, egalite, fraternite” : free, equal, brothers. Popular kids in clique are out of the”bro code” in France. I kind of dread this whole system for my son!

    About the long lunches, yes, yes indeed! My son is in kindergarten this year so he often skips lunch to play and then we have a very long lunch at 1:30 together. This will be sorrowly missed next year. We also , unlike most students, walk to school, and I wonder, really, when do parents have time for a real conversation with their children here if not during lunch or walk?

    1. No need to apologize, Delphine! I was definitely guessing at the spelling. I’ve never actually seen the title of the test written down anywhere. : ) I’ll go correct the post right now. Thanks for the help!

  15. I always like to read about you sharing your life experiences there and especially school. Although I live in Europe, the french educational system differs a lot from my country’s too. Hope your kids get a smooth transition onto the US and hopefully come back to France to study or have fun :)

    P.s : June speaking french with other toddlers is the sweetest thing…….
    Thanks for sharing Gabrielle. Have a fabulous warm month!

  16. This is so fascinating- thanks for sharing all these great cultural peeks into your French life! I love learning how different cultures operate- that substitute teacher thing is really impressive! And I love the notion of extended meal times in Europe :)

  17. I absolutely LOVE reading about your experiences in France and learning about the school system is fascinating! Your kids are so lucky to experience life in another country.

  18. I love these updates on your children’s schooling. You might be shocked when you come back to the US that lunches have been reduced even further. Our public school children (in San Francisco) only get 15 minutes and that includes time to find your table and clean up, so really it’s about 5 minutes of actual eating time. It’s one of the most frustrating things for my children, who enjoy eating and having that time for food and conversation with friends.
    Recently we were listening to a public radio station and heard a story about schools in Chicago. They were discussing how they have eliminated lunch time and recess all together and extended the school day. When our kids have a particularly short lunch time, or feel hungry at the end of the day, or feel frustrated by not enough recess time, they like to say, “Well, at least we don’t live in Chicago.”
    I love the test idea for high school and the no problem repeating of grades. Having a mix of ages (and skill sets) seems beneficial to the other students. For those who are not going to pursue an academic career having an outlet into a trade school is a wonderful idea. Here vocational schools are looked down on, is it that way in France as well? Or are the trades more honored and respected?

  19. Having stayed in Idaho an Pensylvania for half a year each, it always struck me, a dutch women, how familiar the USA is and at the same time alien. Most european’s view on private ownership of weapons is negative, statistically it will get more innocent bystanders killed than guilty ones. At the same time suburban USA seemed manicured and risk avoidant in the extreme. Sometimes the USA was a greater culture shock then Africa were I stayed before.

    1. It’s true! America is certainly a land of contrasts. “Risk avoidant in the extreme” seems like an accurate description to me. I think it’s demonstrated in our tendency to be helicopter parents as well.

      But oddly, there seems to be a (strange to me) exception for guns. People have been known to go nuts if they see a photo of a child riding a bike without a helmet. And those same people might be totally fine with having hand guns or even assault weapons in their home and around their children. This would certainly strike any European as very odd.

      We do contrasts with food, too. Americans are ardently anti-smoking, but we don’t seem to mind vast quantities of soda, which has also been linked to cancer.

      I suppose the contrasts just become “normal life” at some point. I don’t think most Americans spend their days puzzling about them.

      It might be strange to citizens of other countries, but even with the contrasts, I still love being American! : )

  20. victoria speirs

    I really enjoy these update! they are fascinating. we live in canada so its nice to see the differences. Will you keep up with their french when you move back home?

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  23. So interesting! I would love to hear more about the school lunch program. The US system is beyond awful. Have your kids’ tastes/attitudes toward food and meals changed a lot during your time in France?

  24. Hi! i’m a french 10th grader here in france, and I did the oposite of what you and you family did: I spent a few years in the US and I moved back here 2 years ago, so I can relate to almost all of what you say here. When I came back from the US, I was really behind in French, Social Studies and languages, although I knew english but hadn’t started a second language at all, and I was quite ahead in all scientific subjects. I don’t think your kids will have any trouble at all readjusting to american schools as both school are really complementary. Also, they make us thimk a ton here. I just wanted to tell you, as the Brevet is getting closer, that you don’t repeat if you fail, because the Conseil de classe is held beforehand, and that everyone gets it, even the most unadvanced students. Also, when you’re in high school, you are allowed off campus during recess, lunch, and when teachers are absent. For the smoking part, a lot of people smoke to belong, but a lot of their parents dont know about it. And there is popular groups and all, but maybe because I go to a snottish high school in paris. Well, I hope I helped you a little and that you had a good time in france!!

  25. I’m so glad you updated this post. We are moving back to France this summer after 7! years in the USA. My kids are 8, 11, & 13; so your college post was most timely for us. I am so scared for my kids to adapt and get the language back. We were not strict about keeping up their french skills even though my husband is french. We started private tutoring this year which has been really good for them, and I’d recommend that. Also there are some good french websites for kids through the Education Nationale–look for them online. In fact, you can actually get the whole french educational system online from CP to Terminale for free and some for fee! We’ve been reviewing that to see where the kids will be. We are having difficulty finding a school as we will live in a rural area and have to drive quite far to find a good school—a catholic school is the one recommended for our children. We’ll be in Burdundy–I’m very excited to move and plan to start a blog to detail our lives for our American friends to show our experience!! (if I don’t get cold feet!) Thank you so much for sharing your experiences online—SUCH a help to me!! xoxo

  26. Meredith Gibson

    I am a new reader to your website. I love it and I love reading your reports about French schools. So interesting! Thank you, Meredith

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