When I open my Facebook page on most Monday mornings, I see pictures of my stateside niece’s and nephew’s weekend packed with soccer games, dance competitions and swim meets staring me in the face; on this side of the pond my only contribution to weekend Facebook displays is usually non-visual and goes more like this “And yet AGAIN because of homework, instead of enjoying our time relaxing, it was a weekend full of tension.” Of course, this type of rant doesn’t happen every weekend, but it does happen often and it brings up an interesting difference in the dynamics at play in both school systems and, in a broader sense, the role of school in each country in shaping the community.
Many short-term expats send their children to international schools that offer a few of the familiar comforts of the American school system: organized sports, after school clubs, and at least some classes in English. On the other hand, some may want their child to have a genuinely French experience and, like many “lifers” or long-term expats, will opt for a private sous contrat or public school providing very few, if any, of these American experiences. This was the option I chose for my three children ages 17, 14, and 12 who are completely bilingual but whose trips back to the US have been limited to once every year or two and, all things considered, are probably more French than American.
At the beginning of the school year each student is assigned a “class” of between 30 and 40 students. These same classmates, or class, will remain together for most core subjects throughout the academic year.
Unlike in many schools in the US where a 10th grader, for example, will be placed in a math or English class based on their level and offered Advanced Placement or remedial classes if needed, all students in France are expected to follow and keep up with the same program and curriculum for their grade level with the same 30 or 40 students of their class.
A few years ago, I had a 12th grader (Terminale) who had a 6th grade level of English because she arrived in France at the age of 14 with no prior ELL instruction. Instead of assigning her to something like English I or II, she was put with her fellow 12th grade classmates who had already been taught 7 years of English. A first-year level simply isn’t an option outside of 6th grade whereas it may be in the US (I’m thinking Spanish I, II, III, IV). Students who can’t succeed at their grade level in some school subjects will just progress onto the next year and level with the same difficulties; a few who can’t keep up their average in most of the school subjects will do that year over again. A redoublement is quite common in France, although it is being resorted to less and less.
This one-way, uniform track leads to the selective process of weeding out those who succeed in adapting to the general program and curriculum, from those who simply cannot keep up at all in the general curriculum track.
In comparison to a system like in the United States that also offers a few hands-on options within the school that could cater to students who may be more creative and practical minded such as Home Economics, Typing, Woodworking, Orchestra, Band, Theater, Culinary Arts, the expectations in the French school system are mostly academic. The core school subjects in middle school are French, Math, History, Geography, Earth Sciences, Physics, Chemistry, Music, PE, English, another foreign language from 7th grade (5ème), and Art. Students can also choose two electives of Latin and Greek in 7th and 9th grade. In my experience, classes such as PE, Art, and Music (often elective classes in the US), are very much based on theory and history and less on the “hands on” aspect. I’m a living witness that it is possible for a child to fail Ultimate Frisbee in France!
These purely academic expectations leave little room for extracurricular activities within the school such as clubs or organized sports and little time outside of school on the weekends for such undertakings. The goal of school is more to educate in the scholarly sense of the term as preparation for a future career, thus school takes a primordial place in the lives of middle and high-schoolers. In the United States, school is a place not only to discover academic strengths but also to explore non-academic interests such as sports, creative arts, culture through language clubs and to learn skills such as cooking and sewing among others that may or may not be as useful for a future career, but are important life skills needed to play a role within a community. While my children’s weekends are mostly spent in the books building on their knowledge that will eventually lead them to a profession, my niece and nephew are building different skills through sports and competition as a complement to their academic studies. Friday night football games organized through the school encourage a community spirit that isn’t as present in the French academic system that values individualized progress.
To conclude, what advantages does a purely French curriculum provide? Although there may not be many spirit weeks encouraging community participation leading up to the big football game in a French school, the French system has the advantage of teaching children rigor, precision and perhaps a little humility.