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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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FOOD & DRINK

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit: www.economie.gouv.fr

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”. 

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