French school life

We quite often get asked about French schools and how schools in France compare with those elsewhere. Although I've written a general guide elsewhere on the site (see French schools) a few recent conversations with teachers have given us new food for thought. This has included teachers with experience of schools in both the UK and in France.

Now, we've been out of the UK for a few years so have no personal experience of how it has changed during that time. But we talk to a lot of people who stay here, often teachers, so have a reasonable understanding of what has been going on.

The main thing that has changed in the UK of course is cash. The government have spent very large amounts of money, on teachers' pay, school buildings and school equipment. Unfortunately I understand they have failed to implement performance related pay properly, so now all teachers get well paid instead of poorly paid. The challenge was (and is still) to pay good teachers well, and reduce the number of poor teachers. Teachers tell me this has not been a rip-roaring success and that more or less all teachers simply get the 'high performance bonus' as a matter of course.

UK teachers are still not a happy bunch, despite the money that has been thrown at them. Not, I hasten to add, through any fault of their own - the teachers we have spoken to all gave the impresion of being intelligent, caring people doing their best in the face of bureaucracy, and increasing classroom disruption due to lack of parental discipline.

Schools in the UK are very well equipped compared with French schools.Teachers don't need to write on blackboards (or whiteboards) any more - a brilliant idea, because it means that notes don't need to be re-written for each class, since they can be recalled on the computer and projected onto a screen. Hence saving lots of time. This innovation has apparently not reached France.

The other innovation in the UK is headteachers handling their own school budgets. In France the headteacher has no particular responsibilities over and above those of a 'normal' teacher. In France, teaching appointments are allocated centrally, and the school has little or no say in who is appointed.

So education in the French classroom would appear to be quite backward compared to the UK. But there is a little more to it than that. In the UK it seems that it is now essentially impossible to fail to get qualifications. By a series of manouverings and re-adjustments a pupil having difficulties in one subject will be transferred to another course or subject, anything necessary to ensure that the pass rates are maintained and improved each year.

But qualifications are only worth having if they mean something. I frequently get emails offering me a degree certificate online, for a small payment. Not all qualifications are worth having however.

The view as related to me is that despite al the whizzy equipment, the level and quality of schoolwork in the UK is significantly lower than in France, and lacks substance. So perhaps as one might have guessed the French approach - blackboards, well-behaved children, and focus on giving children a solid educational foundation, would seem to work better than having lots of snazzy gadgets.

A good test you can perform if you like - I believe that all children in the UK are now taught a second language from a young age, typically French. If you have a child that has been learning French for a year or two ask them to translate a couple of sentences - nothing complicated, perhaps, 'Hello, my name is John. I am 12 years old and live in England'. From children I have met, few can manage, even after a year or even two of instruction.

I guarantee that if you ask a French child in the same position to do the same but translating into English 90% will be able to, and a lot more besides.

Now, I'm not trying to be too down on the UK education system - it needed investment and has got it. But I get the impression that the French 'old-fashioned' system still wins hands-down. And to answer the question I actually usually get asked - no, I would not be at all concerned about having children pass through the French education system (as ours do), and yes I do think they will be better educated than children in the UK (at least pre-university where the story might be different).

It has been suggested that the French system fails children at the extremes of the spectrum - the gifted and those who learn more slowly than the average. Unfortunately I can't comment on that idea, although the rigid adherence to a 'national timetable' for all children makes it quite possible.

One last, and fascinating, comment. It was suggested to me that in the UK the teachers will tell parents what they want to hear, but in France they will tell them what they need to hear. How true is that I wonder?



  1. JB December 14, 2007 at 3:45 pm |

    Rubbish – could not disagree more.
    Your comparison test re foreign languages is not a fair one. French children are inundated with English (or American) culture everywhere they go. How often do you see magazine adverts written in French in the UK? Similarly the French (as all other anglophone nations) have to learn English if they want to get on. This is not arrogance or laziness it is just a fact of European life, the english speakers of this world have won the democratic lottery in this particular instance. Ask yourself what is the obvious second language for an English child to learn and you will see what I mean. For the other countries there is no question.
    Pose the same question in Maths, History, Science and you will find, certainly for primary age children. There is no question.
    I have lived in France for 2 years with primary aged children. I have found the French system. Strict, unimaginative, boring and totally focussed on the teachers needs and wants and not the childrens. Without exeption my children’s teachers have been uncaring, lazy, civil servants of the worst kind.
    My posting in France is coming to end and we have had a wonderful time here and will miss many aspects of the country and its people. It’s education system however we will be pleased to see the back of.

  2. Boris December 14, 2007 at 5:21 pm |

    Thanks for that JB, it’s very useful to hear someone else’s experiences.
    I do happen to believe in the effectiveness of the ‘back to basics’ approach of French schools, but certainly I agree with the suggestion that the French system discourages creativity.
    Perhaps the differences between the two systems depend more on the actual schools and teachers involved than the country. I am aware that there are many very good schools in the UK, certainly better than our local schools here in SW France, and many that are less good.
    Likewise our experience of teachers has been much more positive than your own but I can well believe that varies a great deal from school to school.
    Potential expats be warned perhaps, because there is often little choice of school that your child will attend.
    Thanks again

  3. JW July 6, 2008 at 12:26 pm |

    I am thinking of leaving the UK to live in France with my 12 year old son. I have never lived outside the UK before and currently work as a teacher but would like to try to broaden my horizons. I would like to teach in a french school, and would like to know how I can effectively begin my search for vacancies.

    In addition, I am slightly concerned about the difference in the French education system compared to that in the UK. There has been an attempt to encourage individualism and creativity in the UK system by increasing the curriculum. However, this has resulted in lower levels of achievements across the core subjects. The introduction of SATs (which was originally created to ensure schools were meeting their targets) is now been used as a tool to judge the success of students. Teachers are being expected to produce students with high levels of attainment in maths and english, and at the same time deliver a varied, interesting and differentiated curriculum. Something has to give! Is there not a middle ground?

  4. Boris July 9, 2008 at 6:38 pm |

    Do you know I’m not even sure if it’s possible. I’m not sure how it works but teachers are, I think, all allocated and controlled centrally. They are also quite a unionised (protected) profession.
    I imagine that if your French is very good you could apply somehow to have your qualification recognised in France, but to be honest I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a suitable posting. Don’t let that deter you trying though, I’m only guessing and might be wrong.
    My instinct tells me your best chance would be to apply either to private schools or to international schools in France, both of which (I think) would have more freedom over who they employ than state schools.

  5. Melanie August 6, 2008 at 8:50 am |

    I’m sorry but I totally disagree with the writer of this piece. When my son started college here, his prof principal was an English Teacher. On the first day she asked the children to introduce themselves in French. Of the 24 children, most couldn’t even do something that basic. Our experience of school here in the SW is that they are formulaic, dull, uninspiring and do nothing to motivate the brightest children. British children outstrip their French counterparts in every global survey. Illiteracy in France is also much higher.

    After nearly 4 years we are heading back to the UK as I see no future for my children if they continue their education in France. Following a recent thread on another forum it seems that most British children educated in France end up going back to the UK to find work and for university.

    JW, French teachers are civil servants and jobs are allocated by the various Academies which are responsible for schooling. The schools have no say in who is appointed and teachers have little say in where they are posted. I have come across one or two English (nationality) teachers working in France but it’s very rare.

  6. B YOUNG December 29, 2009 at 3:48 pm |

    can someone tell me if I can get a headship in France with NPQH and experience of headship in GB and fully fluent in French


  7. Georgina bell May 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm |

    Some very interesting comments here – i tend to agree with your view :)

    From a UK Student

  8. G May 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm |

    I do tend to agree with all your comments about UK education – it is still very poorly managed and tends to go forwards two steps before they realise the old way actually worked better – a waste of valuable time experimenting with the childrens study when good old discipline would be a better focus than stats and teachers pay. I think teachers should be paid in relation to how good a job they are doing (bonus related) this would reflect alot of poor employees at the moment!! x