Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. That’s one of the age-old mottoes of France. It lists qualities that the French theoretically prize. At an administrative level, equality, at least in policy, is constantly striven for. However, when it comes to the French educational system, it doesn’t quite seem to work out that way.
Although the Jules Ferry law, passed in 1882 in an attempt to create equality, states that classes must include students of all levels, children must go to the public schools in their area and that the curriculum must be uniform in public schools all across the nation, the system has evolved such that there is an obvious hierarchy to many of its aspects. From as young as ten years old, students are publicly ranked within their class, fueling amongst the best students a competition for the top spot and amongst the bottom of the pack creating a sort of apathy rooted in the presumption that, “we’ll never make it, so why try.” The publicity of grades continues throughout high school and secondary education, with results for the baccalauréat, or bac, (the all-encompassing, life-defining exam taken at the end of senior year aka terminale) posted for all to see outside the high schools. High schools are also “ranked” in that some are considered generally better than others and everyone knows it, including the students.
This pressure to attend the best school stems from a broader belief that grades are “the be-all and end-all” of successful education. The French system is set up such that only good grades will leave you with options for the future. By sophomore year, students must choose which subjects they want to focus on, which determines the bac (scientific, economic or literary) they will take at the end of their studies. Most of the decision on which bac to take is made based not on what the child truly wants to do, but on their grades, thus increasing the pressure to do well in school. Without decent grades, whole professions such as medicine (or anything scientific/mathematic) may be off the table, simply because your grades weren’t good enough for that bac. This type of system that puts immense stress on students to decide their future career options at such a young age is not unique to France; my parents who grew up in India, mentioned having had to make similar decisions regarding secondary education options based on high school grades.
Parallel to this push for the best grades is the French belief in balance. The school system is the one with the most vacations in all of Europe and most high schoolers go out at least one night a week. Having a social life is highly prized and even in a field as rigorous as medicine, students without one are ridiculed. Well roundedness in the American sense (athletics, academics and social activities) comes not from extra-curricular activities (which are few and far between in high school) but from sports classes (like PE) which continue into college and even have a component on the bac.
From an American educational system perspective, there are lots of discussions regarding the demands and pressure for well-roundedness across academics, extracurriculars (sports, service, music, debates etc.) and testing. In my opinion, the French search for the ideal balance pushes even certain American limits. Whereas in the States, learning a foreign language doesn’t start for most students until middle school, by that time here, students are choosing their third, having started English back in elementary school. Daily limits are also stretched given that the school day doesn’t end till at least 5, often 6 pm or later (although their lunch period gives them a good hour’s reprieve). Testing is also much more highly emphasized than back in the U.S. Those involved with various education reform movements in the US often complain about the power of the SAT (and to a lesser degree, the ACT) and the amount of teaching to the test (especially AP exams) on a day-to-day curriculum basis. The immense focus put on the bac would leave them aghast. After sophomore year, weekly tests serve to prepare students for the looming, fast-approaching bac with three to four hours spent writing an essay on an undisclosed topic within a certain subject area. In terms of depth and amount of writing, that’s like taking an AP Lit or AP Euro exam every week.
Overall, the French education system is like an intense funnel, simultaneously shepherding those who pass the initial grades filter on to another rigorous cycle of testing, and constantly pushing the students to strive for balance and equality.