Is School all that Different in France?

Beanie (4 years 4 months) and Crevette (6 years 5 months) have just spent three weeks at my mum’s local school in France. I also enjoyed the experience by teaching a couple of English lessons to all classes, from nursery to Year 6. It is without the shadow of a doubt an experience we will all remember for a very long time.

We headed home last Sunday and as I was getting my children’s school equipment and clothes ready for Monday, I was trying to decide which of the two systems I liked the most. I am no expert on the intricacies of the French and English educational systems and these are simply my own observations from the past three weeks. It should give you a glimpse of what my little ones and I experienced.

To set the context, Crevette and Beanie’s infant school here is in an urban environment in the suburbs of North-London. My mum’s local primary (École Primaire) school, which also has a preschool (Maternelle) on site, is in a small village 110 miles North-East of Paris.

Equipment

The first difference I noticed was the size of the children’s bags. Whereas my little ones carry book bags only at home, with the odd newsletter and reading book in, the children in France were pulling along huge school bags on wheels. They looked more like suitcases than bags fit for small children.

I asked the children what they were carrying around. They had books, exercise books, stationery, clothes and ring binders in their bags. Thinking about it, I remember my mum once weighing my school bag in Year 6 or 7 and it was 11.3 kg! That is as heavy as Jumpy, my two year old girl!

We put together a pencil case for my little man, complete with ruler, rubber, glue stick, scissors, pens, pencil sharpener and colouring pencils. He loved that as he is only allowed to use pencils provided by his school in England, and rubbing mistakes is not something he is normally allowed to do.

The playground in the primary school was a bit dull and grey but the little Frenchies loved la récré (playtime) so much most of them arrived fifteen minutes early in the morning. Most children were chatting and walking around in groups, with just a minority running around. In case it gets rainy, there is a préau (covered playground). During his stay, my little man spent a lot of time just chatting to his new friends, playing hopscotch, sitting at the old style desks or playing on the giant Connect 4.

School in France - Wooden Desks in the Playground

None of the children were taking their bikes or scooters to school. A lot of them were walking. Others arrived by car or coach.

School in France - Walk to school - Foggy Morning

Smart versus Casual

There is no school uniform in France. Crevette was really surprised when he asked me what clothes we had to pack for school in France and I replied he could wear what he wanted.

In France, the children did not need a PE kit or trainers. Their exercise was a range of games rather than sport as such.

The only thing Beanie was asked to bring was a pair of slippers. As they arrive each morning, French nursery school children sit on a tiny bench outside their classroom and take off their shoes, put them under the bench and put their slippers on. They then put their shoes back on at play time. I love that! It means the children are comfortable at school, and they also gain confidence in dressing themselves and changing shoes quickly.

Traditional versus High-tech

Children as young as three are using computers and tablets at school here. Beanie does. It gives them skills they will probably require in their future studies and careers. At the same time, I cannot help but think that a lot of them might already be spending lots of time sitting in front of screens, whether it be a television, apps on their parents’ phones, educational activities on a computer, video games or films on a tablet. During their time at school in France, Crevette and Beanie did not go anywhere near a computer. In fact, the boards in all the classrooms were chalkboards.

School in France - the classroom

Crevette had his own little desk, with a hook on the side for his bag and a compartment under the table to store his books. We had the same desks when I was at school.

School in France - Crevette sat at his desk

At nursery level, a carousel system was in place. The children were in groups, going from one activity or game to the other in an organised manner. Wandering from one table to another without permission was not an option and most children respected that rule. They also had a set playtime outside every day as well as a singing session. The activities Beanie enjoyed the most were singing, playing games, reproducing patterns, drawing, focusing on curved lines, cooking, making a salt dough pie.

Lunchtime

In England, children stay at school for lunch. In France, the children had one hour and forty-five minutes between the morning and afternoon sessions. A large number of children were going home to eat a warm meal with their parents or childminders.

When I told the French school children I only had approximately 30 minutes for my lunch at work and asked them what they thought I ate, they answered things like:

“Just a starter and a main course?”

“A main course and dessert only?”

“Only a piece of cheese and dessert?”

“Nothing?”

I replied that all I had time for was a sandwich and a piece of fruit or microwaved leftovers and they looked at me with pity. This sums up how important food is to the French, from a very young age. I love it!

La sieste (nap)

For her first afternoon session, Beanie was not impressed when she was told she had to lie down. She has not napped since she was three years old! After a lot of moaning and tears, she got comfortable on one of the small camp beds that had been set up in the cloak room. The children all snuggled up with pillows and duvets whilst a story was read to them. I fondly remember napping at school myself and loving it! Who is with me for a petition to make naps compulsory in schools and at work?

Staff

Staff members were as lovely in my mum’s village as they are at home, but teachers in France receive a lot less support and training to help children with additional needs than they do in England. There are very few teaching assistants as it takes a lot of paperwork and administrative procedures to get funding.

Overall, the atmosphere amongst the staff was very relaxed. In France, teachers are the ones in charge in their classrooms and there is no unnecessary scrutiny. They are there to share their knowledge with the children and the little ones are there to listen and learn. It seems a lot less complicated in France than it is at home.

When I leaf through my little man’s books from Year 1 in England, it all looks pretty amazing. Progress is obvious and there is an impressive amount of feedback there, but it seems like teachers work incredibly hard, possibly harder than the children, judging by the number of worksheets, stickers and comments in his exercise books.

Priorities

In France, the onus is on reading, writing, spelling and numeracy so that the children acquire a certain confidence in these basic skills. There is one standardised way of joined-up writing (cursive), leading to a rigorous approach.

Homework

I have to say there was a lot of homework and pressure for my little man. On Fridays, he was given a list of words and a sentence to learn for his dictation the following Tuesday. He also had some reading to do, poetry to learn as well as numeracy. This is how I was educated. To me, it gives the children structure as well as a good work ethic for the future. It may seem archaic to some, but this traditional education, based on grammar, practising verb endings, learning classic poems on a regular basis, focusing on neat handwriting with correct spellings provide good grounds for  writing accurately in their own language.

School in France - Homework- Learning a list of words & sentendes for a dictation - cursive handwriting

What are Parents Saying?

In the past few weeks, I have tried to pay more attention to the last thing parents were saying to their children as they were dropping them off to school.

England: “Have fun!”, “Love you” or “Have a good day.”

France: « Sois Sage. » (Be good), « Allez, rentre comme ça maman peut y aller! » (Go in so that mummy can leave !) or « Travaille bien! » (Work well)

At pick up time, the questions I overheard from parents were also different.

England: “What did you do today?”

France: « Tu as bien travaillé? » (Did you work well?)

Final Observations as a Mum, French Teacher in England and Volunteer as an English Teacher in France:

The general attitude towards education is very different in France and England I think. In France, lessons tend to be teacher-led. Children learn grammar from a very young age; they learn how to write using the cursive model. They greet staff before they start a conversation with them or ask a question. They learn by heart and their ability to spell is tested weekly.

I know this might sound a little rigid but although it is traditional, there is some flexibility. Teachers can choose how they deliver the curriculum. Responsibility for the children’s results in various tests and exams lies with the student, not the teacher.

True, some teachers can be labelled as ‘rubbish’, but at the end of the day, the teacher is not the one sitting the exam or receiving the result, and if a student is not confident in the teaching they receive, they are expected to buy a revision guide and work hard at home. No excuses are made. If you do not work hard enough, you will not pass and you can retake the year.

My youngest brother, who will be sitting his Bac (A-Levels) later this year, was told his Economics teacher might be off sick until the end of the year. There was no queue of students waiting to moan to the head teacher. The students, who will have to sit an exam in June, were told they had better buy a study guide and keep working.

What did my Children Think?

Crevette: “Great. I like meeting different children and making friends. I love doing Maths in French. We had our own tables. Instead of a whiteboard we had a blackboard.”

Beanie: “I don’t like it. They speak French. It’s too hard.”

 

Would you rather your children went to school in France or in England?

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77 Comments

  1. 05/02/2015 / 10:50 pm

    Hello there, this is so interesting-our little man has yet to start school but naps every day and I think he is going to really miss not being able to have one. I love the idea of a long lunch break and also naps, and I do think that as some others say a blend of both would be perfect. Thank you so much for sharing, it’s such an interesting subject x #sharewithme

    • 11/02/2015 / 11:31 pm

      I did enjoy having lunch with them every day!

  2. 07/02/2015 / 9:57 pm

    It’s so different in so many countries. It’s different back home too then in the UK. I think it would lie somewhere in between uk and france. We have the technology and the strictness. I like the thought of France education and molding them for the future for sure. Great post babes. Thank you ever so much for linking up to Share With Me. #sharewithme

    • 10/02/2015 / 12:13 am

      What is it like in the US? Is it more similar to France or the UK? Completely different?

      • 10/02/2015 / 7:48 am

        Probably just different. We push to be your own boss build your own company and get highest possible career positions a lot more. Seems lil english they just say have fun do ur best and marry rich. I know that’s stereotype but I know a lot of girls here that say they want to be a wag. That’s sad to me. U.S. Doesn’t start as young tho as England.

        • 10/02/2015 / 9:22 pm

          That is really interesting. I would be fascinated to read a comparison of the educational systems and aspirations of children in a range of countries.

  3. 17/02/2015 / 9:31 pm

    There must be some differences also in the fact that you’re comparing a British city school with a rural French school? But yes it does look like the French way is quite old-fashioned which is not necessarily a bad thing! I like that we get to say ‘have fun’ to our children when we send them in to school (JJ was most upset when i told him it was school holidays this week!) and I don’t think that detracts from the fact that they are learning through play (at least in Reception year – that’s all I have to go on so far!). Interesting comparison Mel! Thanks for linking it up to #thetruthabout X

    • 17/02/2015 / 9:47 pm

      Definitely! It would probably have been really different in a school in Paris.

  4. 02/04/2015 / 9:32 am

    Thanks for linking this up to #AllAboutFrance Mel, it’s an excellent observation on the differences between English and French schools. My kids have only gone through the French system so they’re happy with that, knowing nothing else but I think they’d love UK schools given the chance. Each way has its pros and cons, neither is perfect. Your kids were lucky to have the opportunity to try out French school for a little while.

  5. 02/04/2015 / 9:40 am

    Thanks for this. I think it’s a really good summary and it’s interesting to get an ‘outsider’s’ perspective (and a comparison with another country.

  6. 02/04/2015 / 11:39 am

    Hi there, I don’t have any children but I did teach English in a Paris suburb a few years back and can relate to a lot of what you said. I also found the teachers to be kind of strict (with a lot of yelling) and a sarcastic undertone. I thought it was just a teacher’s personality but I realized most of the teachers had the same teaching and discipline styles (strict!). In the school I taught at, there were no art lessons or anything creative and I felt like the learning was very one-way — teacher to students, they were there to copy and memorize what the teachers were feeding them. Can’t say what’s necessarily better but I know the type of teacher and learning I’d want. I was feeling pretty thankful for my elementary school education in suburban NJ after my stint teaching in France! #allaboutfrance

  7. 02/04/2015 / 5:58 pm

    Although I’ve never had kids of my own to send off to school, this has been a fascinating read. Where would I want them to learn? France! Much fun to read about the lunch time questions from the French kids. Hey, food is very important to me, too. Enjoyed learning about the difference in the programs and the perspectives of the parents and children. Also cool that they are still teaching cursive in the French schools. I’m afraid that is a dying subject here in the U.S.

  8. 02/04/2015 / 6:50 pm

    I came over here from #AllAboutFrance link-up and, as an educator (College English teacher in France, originally American, now a dual national), I was fascinated by this post.

    I could go on and on about the French school system, both good and bad, but will just comment on a few points — some of which may have been mentioned above as I’m not reading the 65 comments!

    First, the weight of French children’s school bags has been very controversial. I remember reading and hearing a lot about it when my daughters were at school here. I don’t know what measure have been taken, but I know when my children were in school (last Bac in 2011), I was quite alarmed at the weight of what they had to lug to high school every day.

    Second, it really, really amazes me that some French schools still have blackboards rather than whiteboards. I do agree that the lack of technology in nursery school is comforting, but unfortunately, this carries on through lycée where computers are still not really integrated into education.

    Third, I would be for all of the careful, charming, traditional work on grammar, writing, and spelling if only it brought results in the end. This is far from the case, as we see further along in higher education. I think this is due to France’s linear approach to education: what is taught has been taught and should be “acquired” in a certain school year, and if it isn’t, there is no going back!

    Finally, France regularly ranks well behind the UK and even (gasp!) the USA in rankings of educational systems. The country’s early education system is its strong point, but this strength withers away in later years. So I would say: have no regrets that your children are in school in the UK!

  9. 03/04/2015 / 12:30 pm

    Great post. School is so different within Europe.

  10. 03/04/2015 / 2:07 pm

    This is really interesting, thank you. When I ask my kids about whether they prefer English or French school they say that the lessons are more fun in England but that playtime is more fun in France…

  11. 03/04/2015 / 2:55 pm

    We moved in 2013 from the UK to France, and schooling was one of the reasons why. We have two boys aged 5 and 3 who both attend our little village maternelle. Although I think the French system is in many ways a bit old fashioned I feel that our boys will gain so much in other ways. They will be bilingual for starters and though they will have to work hard during school time they have regular longer holidays which allow for family time and to explore what they don’t do much of at school (art, music etc.) I also much prefer them being in a smaller rural school that a large inner city one (we used to be in London) where there are so many more children per adult in the classroom. It will be interesting to see how our boys do in the French system long term but for now they love it!

  12. 03/04/2015 / 8:14 pm

    We have been in France for ten years and our son has only experienced the French school system, but we are very happy. He will be sitting is Brevet this year (UK GCSE equivalent) and he will be graded on more than just the accademic subjects (work experience counts too) and most points come from classroom assessment rather than long exams. In France they are marked out of twenty, but 14/20 is equal to a UK grade A, this really surprised me as I initially assumed an A would be equivalent to 18/20. We have no complaints.

  13. Marie-Stephanie Newton
    05/04/2015 / 4:16 pm

    Hi Mel, This is a very interesting read 🙂 As a French expat in the UK working in English schools – I am a Speech and Language Therapist- I often draw comparisons between the two systems, particularly when it comes to special needs. I agree that both systems have advantages.I think the comments from parents at the school gate are very telling! There’s a pressure to LEARN in France and I have to say that I like the English approach of learning to learn and making things accessible, fun and playful. I never got to dress up as part of a history lesson, my son did in primary, lots, and he learned loads!

  14. 05/04/2015 / 8:08 pm

    Hi Mel, What a really interesting post…fascinating to see the differences between French and UK education. I guess there is no right or wrong… It is just different! Although the emphasis on spelling and grammar is a big plus in my eyes too. How fab that your children got this experience. Beautiful pictures too! #allaboutfrance

  15. 06/04/2015 / 10:41 pm

    What a lovely comparison! I remember from my French exchanges (including time spent in a French secondary school) being fascinated that everyone had the same handwriting! I would love for my children to attend a French school. I should say that my older one is at a small village school in the UK where the relaxed atmosphere is excellent. Love the idea of the blackboards and learning poetry. I am about to train as a teacher and there’s a lot for me to reflect on here. Thank you. I will check out Le Loup books too – we adore meeting new characters!

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