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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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CULTURE

LISTEN: Five things to know about France’s Fête de la musique

The one day a year where your neighbours cannot be mad at you for blasting the music, and where everyone across France gets their groove on - here is what you need to know about the Fête de la musique.

LISTEN: Five things to know about France's Fête de la musique

It is on the longest day of the year Fête de la musique (music festival) takes place every year on June 21st – no matter what the day of the week is. This year, it falls on a Tuesday.

This day is also the longest day of the year and the summer solstice, so music listeners can soak up lots of daylight while jamming to the band, DJ set, or orchestra playing on their street corner. Celebrations on the summer solstice aren’t specific to France – Nordic countries, where the sun doesn’t set on June 21st, also have their fair share of festivities in the daylight.

It was invented by an American – The concept came about back in the 70s when American musician Joel Cohen was working as a music producer for French National Radio (France Musique).

He came up with the idea of a day full of music to celebrate the solstices, originally proposing “Saturnales de la Musique” which would be celebrated on both June 21st and December 21st with a special musical program broadcast all night long.

His idea for the June festival did eventually catch on (although December 21st is not a festival day in France) and that’s how Fête de la musique as we know it was born,

It’s all over France…and the world – Fête de la musique is celebrated all over France, from small towns to large cities.

In 2019, over 10 million people took part, and depending on where you go, it does have the potential to get a bit rowdy.

It has also gone global, and over 100 countries celebrate it. It started being exported out of France as early as in 1985, during the “European Year of Music.” Then, in 1997, several other European cities signed onto a charter to be ‘partners of the European Music Festival.’ In the United States, several cities also take part, calling it “Make Music Day.”

It has become such a big deal that at one point in 1998 a postage stamp was dedicated to it, right alongside stamps for the Olympic Games and the Queen of England. 

It’s on the French calendar, but not a public holiday – In 1982 the then-Culture Minister Jack Lang, launched the first official edition of the Fête de la Musique in France, with the help of Maurice Fleuret.

The French government got behind the idea and made it an official event and it’s been popular ever since.

That being said, even though the event is marked on French calendars, it is not a jour férié, so you don’t get the day off of work sadly.

Professionals and amateurs alike – Fête de la musique is not just for professional musicians – it is truly a democratised event where anyone and everyone can get involved.

Though a lot of big name musicians take advantage of the day to plan concerts or symphonies, you’ll still see plenty of amateur musicians out on the streets just playing their instruments or singing. You might even see people just set up a big speaker and blast whatever music they feel like listening to.

The goal of the day is to promote the arts, and give everyone dedicated time to appreciate music.

If you’re looking to figure out where and how to celebrate, you can go to this website to see which events are planned.

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