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SCHOOLS

‘Strict but a holistic education’: How the French public school system really works

Teaching English in a French school is a common experience for anglophones - but the French school system can come as a shock. We spoke to some former teachers about their experiences and views on how the education system works.

'Strict but a holistic education': How the French public school system really works
Pupils in an elementary school in Lyon. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

It is fair to say that the education system in France is pretty different from that of the United Kingdom or the United States. We interviewed several former English-language instructors who have worked in the French public school system to hear about the things that stood out to them – good and bad.

Long days

The French public school day typically runs from 8.30am – 4.30pm, which is generally longer than school days in the United States. However, French students get a longer lunch break and some French schools have either half-days on Wednesdays, or they might have the day completely off. 

Allison Lounes, 35, appreciates the structure of the scholastic calendar in France, having seen it from both the perspective of teacher and mother.

“I do like having Wednesdays off for him to do activities. The days are longer, but it’s nice to have a break and then two more days. School goes until 4:30pm, so there are not a lot of activities happening in the evening,” said Lounes. 

READ MORE: Reader question: Is there any kind of logic behind France’s school holiday zones?

Megan Lapke, 29, who taught in two collèges in the Académie d’Orléans-Tours in 2014-2015 and now teaches in a private secondary school in France, quite enjoyed the pause déjeuner.

“I appreciated the long lunches in the French school system, the fact that teachers don’t have to watch kids during lunch or other breaks during the day. I thought their cafeterias were much better than one you would find in the US, and much healthier as well,” said Lapke.

In addition to having Wednesdays off, French pupils (and teachers) get plenty of holiday time – around 16 weeks a year.

Strict teachers

Author Peter Gumbel refers to the French approach to discipline and classroom management as “sit down and shut up.” He is not alone in this critique, several former educators we spoke with also noticed the harshness of discipline in French schools.

“What I was most surprised about at the time in regards to teaching was how strict and almost militaristic the schools are. The students had to stand up whenever an adult came into the room, and they had to stand until the teacher explicitly told them to sit down,” said Lapke. 

Former English Assistant, Simone John-Vanderpool, 23, who taught outside Toulouse, explained it like this: “If a student is getting on a French teachers’ nerves they will let them know. They’re maybe more honest than a US teacher would be allowed to be. For example, if a student gets something wrong, the teacher might say ‘Are you awake today?’ versus the American ‘Good Try!’”

For her, it comes down to a difference in culture and training: “American teachers are more trained to focus on effort and if a student is making the effort, whereas in France teachers see it as students not applying themselves.” 

READ MORE: International vs French schools: How to decide?

More focus on memorising

Another common point former anglophone teachers noted was the French focus on exams and memorisation.

John-Vanderpool, found this to be the most striking difference between American and French schooling. “They’re a lot more rote knowledge based in terms of teaching,” she said. 

“In the United States, we focus a lot more on critical thinking and asking questions like ‘Why is this like this?’ In France, they focus more on rote knowledge, particularly of the culture, historical facts, poetry memorisation, and dictation when it comes to grammar.

“As an assistant, I don’t see everything [happening at school], but I do think they focus mostly on whether students know a set of facts.”

Liam Abbate, 23, who taught middle and high school for a year at the Académie de Clermont-Ferrand, Abbate, found this to be particularly true regarding examinations.

He found that French schooling “taught more to the test” than he had experienced in American public schools. To this end, Abbate added that French schools don’t “always have the interest of the individual student at heart” because they “focus on the good of society.”

Lapke echoed these sentiments, going so far as to say that she does not think “there is a lot of room for individuality in the French system of education.” 

Practical skills

When asked what stood out to her most about French public schools, John-Vanderpool said she was struck by the holistic approach to education.

“My overall opinion of the French public school system is that it has a lot of great, foundational aspects to it – like teaching kids how to swim. In the United States, we see it as an extra thing, but it’s a really important skill for kids to have. 

That’s a life skill, and I think it’s really cool they make the space for that. I also think that there is a level of closeness teachers are able to have with kids by being able to cook and eat things. It allows you to get a deeper dive into the culture and get kids more excited about things. Food is great for cultural exchange.”

READ MORE: How to become an English teacher in France

Abbate had a similar reaction to the practicality of French schooling, having taught in a lycée professionel (vocational and/or technical secondary school).

“I’ve had students cook for me and make me glasses,” he said. “Not everyone learns the same way or wants to go to university,” explained Abbate, describing the existence of the lycée professionel option rather than lycée classique.

“But what I liked about that was how hands-on it was. A lot of my students had a craft by the time they were in seconde (ages 15 to 16). 

I feel like in America it is viewed as a sign of success to go to University, and that it is needed to be successful. But [here] you can have an apprenticeship or a technical degree and that is completely fine for your career.”

Teacher absences

In middle and high schools (collège and lycée), the rule is that if a teacher is absent for more than 15 days, they must be replaced by a substitute. However, this does not reply to absences for under 15 days. A recent study found that in these situations, less than one in five teachers is replaced when absent for under 15 days. 

If the school has access to a substitute they will be called in, but more often than not students will sit in with another teacher’s class. In some cases, they might be sent home if a class is cancelled. 

READ MORE: From TikTok to K-pop: How French students are learning English online

For Abbate, classes being cancelled was frustrating. “One of the things that was surprising to me about the schedule was how a class could be cancelled or rescheduled at the last minute all the time. Sometimes I would get to school and see that the class I had prepared for was cancelled, and I did not know ahead of time.”

Allison Lounes felt similarly, as a parent: “My son’s teacher has been absent 17 days this year. If a teacher is absent for just a few days, then they put a small group of kids into another teacher’s class…but it’s really just babysitting.”

Lounes attributes this to the teacher shortage going on in France.

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POLITICS

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections. 

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