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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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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Can France’s Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

In the wake of the American Supreme Court's decision to end abortion rights for women in the US, French politicians from the centre and the left say they will move to have the right to terminate pregnancy enshrined in France's Constitution - so how easy is it to amend the Constitution in France?

Can France's Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

France’s first Constitution came into force in 1791, written by the French Revolutionaries and promising liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Those values are still very much in evidence in France today (in fact they’re carved into every public building) but in 1791 medicine involved bleeding, social networks meant gossiping with your neighbours over the wall and wigs made out of horsehair were very fashionable – in short, things change.

And the French constitution changes with them.

In fact, even talking about ‘the’ constitution is a little misleading, since France has had 15 different constitutions between the French Revolution of 1789 and the adoption of the current constitution in 1958 – the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Since 1958, there have also been 24 revisions to the constitution. Introducing it, then-President Charles du Gaulle said “the rest is a matter for men,” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant people, since women did have the vote by then) in other words, he envisaged that it would be revised when necessary.

So the short answer is that constitutional change in France is possible – and there is significant precedent for it – but there are several steps involved. 

What does it take to change the Constitution?

Changing the constitution in France requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments.

The other option is a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour.

In short, it needs to be an issue that has wide and cross-party support.

Articles 11 and 89 of the French constitution cover changes.

Article 11 allows for a constitutional referendum, which is a tool that is intended to give the people decisive power in legislative matters. A high-profile example of this is when former French President Charles de Gaulle employed Article 11 to to introduce the appointment of the president by direct universal suffrage in 1962, which modified then-Article 6 of the constitution. However, this method of changing the constitution is controversial, and can technically only be done for specific themes: the organisation of public authorities, economic and social reforms, or to ratify international treaties. Technically it does not require the referendum to first pass through parliament.

What did previous reforms cover?

Looking at the reforms in the last 60 years, the scope has been pretty wide.

The French Constitution was substantially amended to “take account of these new developments, needs, ideas, and values.” The goal of these amendments was to better “define and control the power of the executive, to increase the powers of Parliament, and to better assure the protection of fundamental rights.”

About 47 articles were amended or drafted, and some new provisions came into force immediately, such as the limitation to two consecutive presidential terms. 

Examples range from the 2000 Constitutional referendum where French people voted to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five years; the 2007 constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, and several amendments to adapt the French constitution to make it compatible with EU treaties such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. 

Is a constitutional change more powerful than a law?

The most recent call for change – sparked by events in America – is to add the right to abortion into the constitution.

The right to abortion in France is protected by the “Veil law,” which was passed in 1975, so is there a benefit to adding it to the constitution as well?

Simply being a law does not give a definitive and irrevocable right to abortion in France and the law can be changed – parliament recently elongated the legal time limit for performing an abortion up to 14 weeks, which shows that under different circumstances lawmakers would be free to remove these provisions and chip away at the “Veil law.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the law on abortion in France?

If a majority of deputés agreed on a text banning abortion it could become law (although there are other procedural steps to pass through and such a decision would be challenged in the courts). Whereas, as outlined above, changing a constitutional right requires a much broader consensus from across the political spectrum.

In short, enshrining the right in the constitution would provide further protection for the right in the event of a future government that is anti-abortion – Marine Le Pen, who came second in the recent residential election has always been very vague on whether she supports the right to abortion, while many in her party are openly anti-abortion.

Why has France had so many constitutions?

The simple answer is that France’s many constitutions have reflected the shift between authoritarianism and republicanism throughout French history.

France is currently on its Fifth Republic, and its history since the French Revolution has also involved several periods of restoration of the monarchy and a brief period under an Emperor – all of these different regimes have required their own constitution.

READ MORE: Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

During the tumultuous revolutionary period, France had several constitutions, culminating in “Constitution of the Year XII,” which established the First French Empire. When the monarchy was restored, a new constitution codified the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy.

France’s current constitution ushered in the Fifth Republic, largely at the behest of General Charles de Gaulle who was called to power during the May 1958 political crisis. One of the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it is a democracy, though the executive (the president) holds a significant amount of power.

So far, the Fifth Republic’s constitution has lasted 64 years, and should the Fifth Republic last until 2028, it will be the longest Republic – even longer than the Third Republic which endured from 1870 to 1940.

Could France have a new constitution in the future?

It is very possible. Former left-wing presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a Sixth Republic, which, according to France 24, would involve “proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.” 

Mélenchon failed in his 2022 presidential bid however, so the Fifth Republic is still – for the moment – on course to beat that longevity record.

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