Is the French education system better than the British one?

I recently read a very interesting blog post by Stressy Mummy which talked about testing and ranking school children, and on separating children into sets, and it got me thinking about the differences between the French and the British education systems for secondary schooling.

In the UK children are generally separated into different sets per subject depending on ability in that area, which is usually based on tests or exams taken.

In France there is no such separation – you stay with your class through every subject, no matter what level you, or the others in your class, are. So what happens to those who are not as able? Simple. If you don’t get the “average” grade – in French schools everything is marked out of 20, so they call the average 10/20 – then they have to repeat the year (redoubler).

Now that wouldn’t too bad if they were given extra help second time round, or if it were acknowledged where they went wrong the first time round, but all that happens is they repeat the exact same curriculum for a second year running, but with a different set of classmates, who are a year younger than them. I personally couldn’t think of anything worse.

Another thing to bear in mind is that this average is across all subjects, so they might have got 19/20 in English, but 1/20 in Maths which then drags their overall average down. Hubs and I have long debates over the two systems, and whilst, as a bright child, he faired well in the French system, I think it would have been a disaster for me, and I did pretty well in school over here.

I went to a very so-so primary school where I was in the top few of my year, I then went to an ex-grammar secondary school where the children came from far better primary schools and I suddenly dropped down. I was average across several subjects, poor in maths and sciences and only excelled in French.

At the end of the first year we were put in sets for English and Maths – I went into the top set for English and the bottom set for Maths. I was devastated and embarrassed about being put in the bottom set for Maths until the second year rolled round; in this class I could ask questions, things were explained to me and I started to improve (something that hadn’t happened in the first year when all abilities were mixed up). When it came to exams at the end of the second year I did so well that I got moved into set 2 out of 5 sets for maths. As for the sciences I was in set 3 out of 5 sets, and again I was in a group of those with a similar ability, and again I progressed.

My strengths were English and languages, and I found myself in set 1 for English, French and German, meaning I was pushed to the maximum of my ability. This set separation worked out brilliantly for me as I went on to get 2 As at GCSE (for French and German), 3 Bs including a B in Maths, and 4 Cs including in the sciences. I am convinced that had I not been put in classes with pupils of my level I would have got far lower grades at GCSE.

I also believe that had I been in the French system I would have had to repeat at least one year, which must mess with your head, seeing all your friends moving on and knowing you’ll never be with them in class again, instead finding yourself in a class with those a year younger than you.

It is such a regular thing in France to repeat a year that recently we skyped my MiL, L’s French gran, and we told her that we had L’s end of Year 1 report and she’d done really well. To which my MiL replied, “so is she going into Year 2 then?”!! Can you imagine repeating a year, aged 6, based on your ability?!?

This obviously gets worse the further you go through school as the work gets harder; Hubs talks about doing his “Bac” (A level equivalent) with 19, 20 and even 21 year olds, some of whom were attempting it for the 3rd time! Talk about demoralising.

So, whilst I don’t think testing children in order to rank them in the top or bottom 10% countrywide is a good thing, I do think that ranking them per subject, per school, so they can be put in classes of similarly abled children is an excellent idea.

If only schools and the government could enforce decent hairstyles and school uniforms on children too:

Me circa 1991, aged 15. Looking good!

Me circa 1991, aged 15. Looking good!


18 Responses

  1. Beth @plasticrosaries says:

    Woah I’m not sure I like the sound of the French system but equally I don’t like the way things may be heading in the UK.
    I wrote myself about enjoying knowing where I sat amongst my peers but that’s only because I did well across the board – if I’d been terrible I may feel very differently about all of this.
    Having said that what you’ve said about setting means it seemed to work for you in Maths and Sciences too, it sounds like setting gave you the chance to progress.
    Not sure exactly what I’m saying with this comment except across the board I agree!

    • Franglaise Mummy says:

      Having been in top sets and bottom sets I got something out of both sides – the top sets pushed me to excel in the subjects I liked and was good at, the bottom sets enabled me to progress without fear of ridicule when asking a question. Hubs tells me in France that the top of the class get bored and the bottom of the class get lost, neither of which is good in my opinion. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. Nikki Thomas says:

    It’s one if those ‘ideal world’ situations I suppose. I hate the way we are going in the UK but it is true that when you look at the French system it has major flaws too. I taught in a French school for a year and yes I had a class of BTS students who weren’t much younger than me as they had had to retake the year more than once. It must be terribly demotivating if you are not someone who excels academically. I think setting is necessary it would be impossible for teachers to do their job if they didn’t exist but maybe the system needs to have something different for kids who are less academic like in the old grammar school system, rather than labelling them in the bottom percent of the country.

    • Franglaise Mummy says:

      I definitely think something needs to be done for those who are not academics, and we need them as much as we need academics. We need plumbers and builders and gardeners and hairdressers and more, as much as we need geniuses with 5 degrees (or maybe more so!). Those who are not academics need to be shown there are roles for them in society and they are needed and valued too.

  3. British system is worse says:

    As Nikki Thomas wrote above, the “setting” system in the UK is an ideal world situation but, for other reasons. As someone who went through the British, state school system much more recently than 1991, I know from experience that the bizarrely named “setting” system is not exactly a new wonder of the world.

    Fortunately, that system was not used in the primary school that I went to.

    Unfortunately, it was used in the secondary school that I went to. People were put in “sets” (a stupid term that I still am unable to get used to) at the beginning of year 10, based on the results of, the equally bizarre and unfortunate “SATS” tests that we did at the end of year 9. We were not even allowed to know our results; they were a school and state secret.

    I’m pleased to read that you got to make progress and even move up through the “sets” back in your day. That was not the case in mine. In all my time at school, I never once heard of even one person, who got to move up a “set”. Most people were in middle or bottom “sets”, while only a few were in the top ones. Nobody who was in a bottom “set” for any subject, was in a top one, for another subject. The teaching varied dramatically, between the middle and bottom “sets”. Even amongst the middle ones, it varied a lot, ranging from okay to almost minimal. The teaching in the bottom ones was appalling and usually non-existent. When it happened at all, it was almost always just copying from a board or a text book, with no explanation of what it was that we were copying. Because of this, the classes just descended into a combination of bad behaviour and chatting. Even some of the teachers in the bottom “sets” preferred just to chat to some of the students, once the classes started misbehaving.

    Just a few times, the normal teachers of the bottom “sets” were not in, so, we had supply teachers. They could actually, teach. In one class, one of them asked us students what we normally do and how far along we were in the subject. Some people told the truth and that supply teacher was surprised. They then got on with actually teaching us what we were supposed to be learning by that point. Instantly and as if by magic, the people who normally talked and misbehaved, did not. They got on with the work and only talked to the teacher when help was needed. At the end of the lesson, they even told the supply teacher that they were great and how we students wished that they could be our normal teacher! This, in a so-called bottom “set”! Unfortunately, that kind of teaching was a one-off and from then on, we only had the usual teacher. The result was that almost all the other students went back to talking and misbehaving, in the rest of the lessons until leaving school.

  4. British system is worse says:

    The other big disadvantage of the “setting” system in the UK is that it leaves most people either poorly prepared or unprepared, for the final school exams, GCSEs.

    Even worse, it arbitrarily limits how well people can do in them. For example, people in middle “sets” are only allowed to achieve a maximum grade of B or C, depending on the subject. People in bottom “sets” are only allowed to achieve a maximum grade of D or E, depending on the subject.

    “Setting” was nothing more than idealism. Stupid ideology that was treated as a dogma. Other people that I knew in middle or bottom “sets”, left school either with low GCSE grades or, none at all. Only a few went into further education but, had to spend that time retaking GCSEs and even then, it was only possible to retake them two or three academic subjects. Even now, they can’t spell properly, have almost no ability to use punctuation, have no knowledge of grammar and cannot speak another language at all.

    Because of all that, I am going to move my children abroad. They will have an education anywhere except the UK.

    • Franglaise Mummy says:

      Wow! What a terrible time you had, I feel very lucky to have gone through what I did now. I think a great deal depends on the school you go to as well, hence the high cost of housing near decent schools. I’m not sure I know what the solution is, but so far I’m very happy with my daughter’s education in the UK, having said that it’s early days as she’s only in Year 2!

  5. British system is worse says:

    That’s good for you not only because of your positive experience but, because you have plenty of advance warning about the negative side of the “setting” system, as well.

    As you mentioned, a great deal depends on the school you go to, which is another problem. Which “sets” people are put in, as well as the quality of teaching and the possibility (or not) of being moved up through the “sets”; is entirely dependent on the whims and discretion of teachers. There is also no regulation of the system by anyone, to make sure that it is implemented fairly, so that the negative side of it does not occur.

    The best thing that any parent can do, is to be aware of their child’s situation in school, on a regular basis. Not just with the usual issues like bullying, the work they do or school trips but, being aware of the “setting” system (if it is used in their child’s school), which “sets” their child is in and the possibility (or not) of being moved up through the “sets”. This is particularly important for the GCSE years (years 10 and 11) because if your child needs to achieve minimum grades for any reason (getting into AS level courses, a particular job or any other reason), they can be prevented by the “sets” they are in, because those will decide the maximum GCSE grades they will be allowed to achieve.

    If your child is dumped in even one “set” where the teaching and their GCSE grades are limited, you should be aware and not accept it. I am not saying what you should do about it, just that you should not accept it. It may involve trying to reason with the teachers or, withdrawing a child from school. There may be other things to do about it.

    The point is, at least when your daughter reaches the end of year 9 and the start of year 10, you should be aware of her situation regarding “setting” and should not accept her being dumped in any “set” for any subject, where her educational opportunities will be limited.

  6. Manuella says:

    I am sorry but I think I have to disagree with you regarding how “repeating” a year in the French system can only be a big disadvantage.

    First of all, repeating a year is not done arbitrary purely based on the overall average of 10/20. If this was the case, a lot people who are just not academic would never passed to the next level and would be in schooling for ever. Repeating a year is a decision made between the parents and the teacher. It is a recommendation by the teacher and the parents can refuse.
    As you pointed out, it has his disadvantage as it means “being left behind” while your friends move on. This is taken into account and weighted against the benefit that repeating a year may mean for the child. In some cases, it can actually be quite a motivation for some children to work to achieve a certain level so that they don’t have to repeat a year… As you know, some children are very capable but are maybe a big lazy or not interested, if those children know that potentially they could be asked to retake a year, they do what is needed not to…

    For some children, repeating a year will never make a difference as they may just not be academic. But for others, it may mean giving them the chance to catch up because, for some reason, they just did not assimilate the information during that year. Without this chance, they would be pushed along and would most probably run into academic failure in the long run.

    The fact that your husband passed his bac with students who were a year or two older than him shows that repeating a year or two actually worked for them. Not everyone get to the bac level and in fact, if you are not academically very good, it is very unlikely that you will ever get to the bac level (instead you would be directed to apprenticeship at the end of your 3eme). A friend of mine was advised to repeat her “second” (2 years prior the bac) and she did, she later went on to university and is now a physicist. I doubt she would have ever been able to achieve what she achieved had she not been given the chance of repeating that year. She would most probably failed her bac and would have come out of the education system with absolutely no qualifications at all.

    As a parent, it is a very difficult decision to make whether to follow the advice of the school or not when it comes to repeating a year. You have to take into account the affect if will have on the child and whether the child will really benefit from repeating the year (i.e does the child actually has the academic potential and is able to achieve in the long run). My brother who still leaves in France nearly had to make that decision for his daughter a couple of years. Her teacher thought that maybe they should consider to get her to retake year 4. At the end, the teacher thought that she should pass in year 5 and see how she does in year 5. As it happens, she picked up and she is now doing very well. So as I said I really don’t think the decision is as arbitrary as “if you don’t reach an overall average of 10 you automatically repeat the year”.

    Also, it is not as common as you may think though. Otherwise, can you imagine how some classes would be over-crowded… Unfortunately, French schools have the same problem as English schools with the number of pupils in each class being big enough as they are now.

    I agree that “repeating” a year is not for everybody but for some it is a “chance” that they are given and that will help them for the future.

    PS: when I was at school, (which admittedly was many years ago), if you were really academically advanced you could “jump” a whole year (i.e go from yr4 directly to yr6 and miss the whole of yr5). Again this was done with the agreement of the parents as again this meant leaving your friends behind.

    • Franglaise Mummy says:

      Thanks for commenting. I can only base it on the knowledge I have through various French friends of different ages (from those in secondary school now – children of friends – through to friends who are older and went to school 20-30 years ago) and their experiences. I only ever heard negativity about it, in particular from those who were forced to repeat and who gained nothing and lost friends in the process. Unfortunately the pupil who was doing his Bac with Hubs age 21, failed it again, for the third time. But, like in the UK, it all depends very much on individual experiences, and individual pupils, and some systems work better for some than for others.

  7. Don Hindsley says:

    I started school in the US, then moved to Paris with my family when I was 10 (just finished the 5th grade). My first year in French schools, I progressed through 1st, second third, fourth and fifth grades, and the spent my entire second year in the sixth grade. The third year, I enrolled at the Lycee Carnot, and performed well. I was generally in the top 25% in every class and had already become completely bi-lingual. Although I was the oldest student, I never felt any put-down or other negative feelings. As time went by, There was students in my class who were two and three years younger (students dropped out or dropped back and our class was combined with others). It was a great experience for me, and when I returned to the United States to attend University, it was actually a breeze for my four years there. I didn’t have to start working hard again until Grade school at the University of Michigan.
    The biggest thing I remember was that students were “siphoned” off all along, starting at eh end of the sixth grade, to be enrolled in Vo-Tech schools, once they had shown little interest or aptitude for academics. And there was little/no stigma attached.

    • Franglaise Mummy says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, it’s always interesting to hear how things have worked out for different people in different systems. The more I discuss this and look into it the more I realise that a massive amount comes down to the individual school, teachers and fellow pupils, far more than the country or curriculum.

  8. Shella hall says:

    I would also like to comment on all of the above please. I am originally English and was moved to the French system at the age of 9. I spent the next 9 years in the French schooling system. I would like to say that the big difference about having to re-do an entire year in the French system, is that is is not viewed negatively, contrary to popular belief by the British. There is no stigma attached, and hence serves as a psychological model for children to understand that everybody is different and its “expected” to find people of all ages and backgrounds in your class, and no-one judges you for it. I do think that the British system is more judgemental and the belief in children’s minds in British schools is already forming one of “non belonging”, which isn’t even considered in France. For the same reason, it is also reflected in the fact that children don’t have to wear school uniforms, students are just who they are. No judgement. I personally think that developing this psychological understanding at an early age is a good thing and certainly was never perceived as negative. On the contrary, a kid who was in class with other kids a year younger ( or more) almost was seen in awe, first because he/she was older, second because they had more knowledge. It was never perceived as negative. I re did 2 years and it was never a problem for me or any of my classmates, and have gone on to be a successful doctor. Thanks for reading!

    • Franglaise Mummy says:

      Thanks for your comment – I think it depends per child as I have so many friends who have repeated / been threatened with repeating a year for them / their children, and it was seen as a big negative to be avoided at all costs! Also re school uniforms – I HATED mine as a child, but was grateful that I didn’t have to enter into fashion contests every day. Now that I have my own kids at school I LOVE their school uniforms as it means no thinking every morning, and it means there’s no distinction between the haves and have nots. Pretty much all of my French parent friends say they wish their kids had school uniforms!

  9. agnes dindart says:

    Thanks for this article! Every other webpage I read about french vs english education relate how great the french system is & not so good the british one is.
    I am a french mum married to a british man and we have 2 daughters 5 and 3 born in the UK. After living there for 12 years , we decided to move & raise our daughters in France, thinking it will be better but we really want to keep both culture & both language in our daily life. . .
    At the nursery in UK , my daughters were very well look after, plenty of activities to do, they never wanted to leave the place! I did know what they were doing – in a nutshell though – I had a trusted relationship with the carer. Maybe this was due to the number of bilingual children but they were patient with them, tried to listen to them and understand both girls. I always found them very positive about my daughters learning and I could have a chat asking for advice.
    When we moved to France in a small village near Bordeaux, my youngest who was 4 started in ‘Moyenne Section a la maternelle’ . To start with she was a bit of an attraction. She understood very well french but was only speaking in English. I keep asking the teacher how she was doing, if she was settling down well in her class but always got very neutral answers. After 3/4 months I discovered that my daughter was still very much playing on her own, not communicating with other children. I asked her teacher why and what actions did she put in place to help her & she replied ‘best to let her settling down at her own pace’. I was disappointing that nothing was done to help her … Things got a little bit better when she went during the summer at the day centre and finally managed to make friends with children from her school !!! The new school year in Grande Section started in better notes. For the first 6 months i kept asking her teacher on her development and always got the same answer : she was doing fine, and we needed to keep helping her learning french syntax. However I was a little bit angry few weeks ago when I got her first semestre school report. Her teacher comments were not very positive and feel like she could have been more opened about it during our One2one meetings : in her dreams, does not listen and misses out on a lot of information !!!!
    Regarding my youngest (3), she is in ‘Petite Section de Maternelle’ since September and even if her speech is not 100% you can easily understand what she is saying / wants to say in French. It just drive me mad when the teacher & assistant looks at me and tells me ‘I really can’t understand one word of what she is saying!’
    Our decision has been made and we will move back to the UK during the summer. I still do love France as it is my birth country but definitively as a holiday place.

    • Franglaise Mummy says:

      I am so sorry you’ve had such a horrible experience. I think individual schools can make a big difference too, with good and bad teachers being key as well. I really hope things work out better for you and your little ones moving forwards.

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