Do you want the baccalauréat here? Advice from an Englishman in Paris

What to expect if, as was suggested last week, A-levels make way for the French system
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Six years ago this month we cruelly plunged our English-speaking children, then aged six and two, into a French-speaking school in Paris.

Six years ago this month we cruelly plunged our English-speaking children, then aged six and two, into a French-speaking school in Paris.

Our son, Charles, was kissed by his teacher on his first day. He recovered to do very well in the authoritarian French system (in London, he had floundered).

Now, having topped his class in the first year of secondary school, he's bored. Cosmically bored. The fact- and theory-obsessed French curriculum is crushing him.

My wife and I look at his school books – interminable grammatical exercises and parrot-learning of abstract grammatical rules – and consider weeping alongside him. Should we move him out of the French system or to another French school that might allow the odd shaft of creativity to break through the dense forest canopy of facts and abstractions that constitutes the curriculum in "college" (from 11 to 15)?

Once French kids crawl through their college years, life in the lycée (from 15 to 18), preparing for the baccalauréat (the "bac"), becomes more interesting. For academic kids, the bac – offering a broader education than A-levels – works reasonably well.

To the announcement that Britain is considering a bac-type system, my response was: "Please don't." On second thoughts, it may not be such a bad idea, so long as the UK avoids the bad in the French system.

The first problem is that the bac dominates the whole of French education, from two to 23. At primary level, most children thrive on the clear rules and tasks. Our daughters, Clare, eight, and Grace, five, are doing fine.

But at secondary level, there is no selection and no attempt to provide different approaches for different kinds of students. The only alternative to swim is sink. Everything is geared to the most grinding kind of study.

At bac level, there are alternatives, ranging from the top level – "literary" and "scientific" – to "vocational". All pupils take philosophy and maths, and most learn a language (usually English). The real problem is what comes afterwards. Most students pass the bac, giving them the right to go to the local university, so that most university classes are absurdly overcrowded, the standard of study low and a degree fairly meaningless.

An ambitious student will aim for a "grande école" or business or law school. There are "children" up to the age of 23 cramming for the posh alternatives to university.

A broader education up to 18 may be good, but not if it means a straitjacket for 11- to 15-year-olds and an oversubscribed, undervalued university system.

Comments