Is UK schooling really that bad?

In the UK we seem to always be hearing how terrible our schooling is, how the children learn nothing and how we should change EVERYTHING. So I thought I would share some comparisons between schooling in the UK and in France, having recently spent a week with French friends whose daughter, A, is the same age as L (age 7 and in Year 2 (UK)/CP (France)). While they were with us talk turned to schooling, as it became blatantly obvious that despite there being just a month between L and A, there was a world of difference in their reading ability.

Reading has been a key part of L’s schooling, from the basics in Reception class (age 4), which progressed to actual reading in Year 1, and has really taken off this year.  She is now at the stage where she will happily read a 100+ page book  on her own over the space over a few days.

This came as a great surprise to A’s parents, as in French schools children don’t learn to read until CP (our Year 2), when children are 6-7. It was so strange to see our 2 daughters, who are a month apart in age at such different levels of this key part of education. L started with the reading basics in September 2011 and reads pretty much anything now. A started learning to read at school in September 2013 and so is understandably nowhere near this stage yet.

It is important to note that some schools in France teach the basics of reading in Grande Section, the equivalent of Year 1, in the same way that some schools in the UK don’t start with reading until Year 1. It is also interesting to see that by the end of CP (Year 2) the majority of French children know how to read fluently, despite having only started to read at the start of the school year.

Homework was another area where we discovered that France and the UK differ wildly: in general British children in Year 2 will have one or two pieces of fairly light homework per week, in addition to reading most days/every day depending on the school; in France children in CP (Year 2) have homework every day which by all accounts is taken very seriously.

Another thing that both A’s mum and I found surprising was that although French schools have far longer days than UK schools, the amount of schooling across the day is actually the same. After quizzing various friends across both countries I’ve established that most primary school days in the UK run from 8.45/9am until 3/3.30pm with around 1.5-1.75 hours break across the day, making up around 5 hours of schooling. The majority of primary schools in France run from 8.30am until around 4.15/4.45pm with around 2.5-3 hours break (they all seem to have 2 hours for lunch, with some pupils going home to eat), this again gives 5 hours schooling.

Interestingly French primary school children don’t go to school on Wednesdays, whereas I don’t know any UK schools that do anything less than 5 days a week. Many French mums (and some dads) don’t work on a Wednesday and this tends to be the day for children’s extra-curricular activities, so is not necessarily a rest day either.

Another big difference is the school holidays, I am sure many people are familiar with the term “les grandes vacances”, but did you know that France has 3 weeks more school holidays a year than the UK? 13 weeks for British school kids vs 16 weeks for French children.

So that means across the school year UK children have 975 hours of schooling vs 720 hours of schooling in France. Last year Education Secretary Michael Gove gave a speech, talking about lengthening the school day and reducing school holidays, but as we can see British children have a great deal more schooling than France already, and shorter holidays too.

Something that is interesting to bear in mind when comparing the two systems is “who is this best for?”. As a working mum in France and in the UK, I can say without any shadow of a doubt that I prefer the French system: when L was at school in France (age 2 and 3/4 – 3 and 3/4) we used to drop her off at 8am (we could have dropped her off at 7.30am) where she had an hour of pre-school club, then after a day’s work we would pick her up at 6.30pm (which was the latest she could stay) where she would have been at after-school club from when her classes ended at 4.30pm. On Wednesdays the school (like most schools) provided a Wednesday club and she did the same hours. So having a school age child and working full-time were fully compatible. Even if your child is only at school for the usual school hours in France, this is around 8.30am – 4.30pm so you have a fair amount of time to get work done.

When we moved to the UK and L started full time school (a whole 2 years later than in France), it was a massive difference and a shock to the system: her school day starts at 9am (there is a breakfast club which opens at 7.45am) and ends at 3.30pm (there is an after school club that ends at 6pm). This means as a parent you have far less time to get to work and do a part-time job/work from home.

So absolutely, without hesitation, as a working parent I prefer the school system in France.

Now, let’s look at it from the point of view of a child: my primary school finished at 3.15pm and I had no homework until Year 6; my secondary school finished at 3.35pm and I had homework every day, but I was home by around 4pm/4.30pm, which gave me a long time to get it done. I remember coming home from school and going out to play when I was at primary school, or having chill out time of an evening when I was at secondary school.

When L finishes school at 3.30pm we either stay and play in the school playground/go to the local park if the weather is good, or come home and play, and talk and relax. She has weekly homework which is usually done at the weekend, or one evening a week, it is always something fun (and educational) and doesn’t take more than half an hour in general. This leaves time for imaginative play, reading, writing, crafting, baking, and generally being a 7 year old. (Not to mention the days when she has activities after school such as swimming or gymnastics etc or playdates with school friends.)

L’s friend, A, only has school 4 days a week but she finishes at 4.45pm and then has homework to do, there is no time for playdates and not really any time for fun, as it’s a race against the time to get the homework done, dinner eaten, have a bath and go to bed. Now I’m no child psychologist or professional, but I was once a child and I have a child, and it seems to me that you have your whole life to work all day 4-5 days a week, with little time to let your hair down, what a shame to start at such a young age.

This is not meant to be a criticism of either country, I think there are pros and cons to both systems. If this were all about me I would rather L went to school in France so I have more time to work, but if I’m doing what I think is best for L then I choose the UK system. Interestingly a British friend whose children have attended state schools in both the UK and France tells me that although they were very happy in France they say they prefer school in the UK.

One thing I do know is that I liked the fact that L started school when she was nearly 3 in France, and I liked the school day that she used to have there, I will miss C not having that in the UK when she is a bit older. L used to have classes 9-11.30am, followed by lunch and a nap, then more classes from around 2pm (or when they woke up from naps) until 4.30pm. I think this is just right for a 3 year old and L absolutely loved going to her French school.

I don’t think there is any right or wrong, and often one country may be preferable for one child whilst the other system suits a different child. But one thing is sure, the debate is still raging over UK education, which is a shame as I would say it’s really not that bad at all, and the teachers do a bloody good job.

L reading to herself before bed last night - her love of books has been fuelled by school.
L reading to herself before bed last night – her love of books has been fuelled by school.

Footnote
It is hard to compare French years with years in the UK schooling system as the UK breaks these up by birth dates before 31st August and after 1st September, whereas in France the cut-off is 31st December/1st January. As L was born in December 2006 in France she would be one of the youngest in class CE1, whilst her friend A was born in January 2007 so is in CP, whereas in the UK the two of them would both be in Year 2. Bearing the different cut-off dates in mind I believe these are the class equivalents from the UK to France:

Nursery – Petite section de maternelle (3-4 years)
Reception – Moyenne section de maternelle (4-5 years)
Year 1 – Grande section de maternelle (5-6 years)
Year 2 – CP (6-7 years)
Year 3 – CE1 (7-8 years)
Year 4 – CE2 (8-9 years)
Year 5 – CM1 (9-10 years)
Year 6 – CM2 (10-11 years)
Secondary school
Year 7 – 6ème (11-12 years)
Year 8 – 5ème (12-13 years)
Year 9 – 4ème (13-14 years)
Year 10 – 3ème (14-15 years)
Year 11 – Seconde (15-16 years)
Year 12 – Première (16-17 years)
Year 13 – Terminale (17-18 years)

Confusion is added by the fact school is obligatory in the UK by age 5 (at some point during the Reception year), whereas in France only from CP (Year 2), also in France you can (and often do) repeat a year if your grades aren’t good enough, so Hubs did his baccalaureate (A level equivalent) with a 21 year old.

Disclosure: it is hard to generalise across a whole country, but I have done my research on this. The information above has come from asking numerous friends/acquaintances from different regions and from different social backgrounds across the two countries, as well as reading many forums in both English and French covering both countries and both school systems.

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12 thoughts on “Is UK schooling really that bad?”

  1. I found this really interesting reading. I was educated in Australia, have some experience of the French system and now my child has just started school in the UK, and I’m always comparing the different approaches to education too. I completely agree that the French system is more sympathetic to working parents and definitely makes things financially easier for families. I do love though that the UK system recognises the importance of play, in the early years at least. As much as I moan that the school day’s too short, I think it’s right for children, just hard to manage if both parents are working full time. I wish too that the UK system had more of the French approach to food (don’t start me on school dinners and the weekly sweets/cakes/biscuit stalls) and the Australian approach to healthy living. (Sorry, epic rant there :) )

    1. Thanks for the comment, it was really interesting to read your point of view. Although I think the food thing must vary from school to school, as L’s school is really strict on no junk food, only water as a drink etc. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Hello,

    When comparing the 2 primary school systems (school hours in secondary schools are longer in France if my memory doesn’t fail me), I believe you got all the facts pretty much correct as far as I know. Although, I was under the impression that yr1 was the equivalent to CP in France.

    When it comes to the level of reading, your daughter is clearly far above the expected level for her age. My daughter is also in yr2 and she is nowhere near being able to read a book that is 100+ pages. While my daughter is not top of the class, she is not an exception and her level is in the right range for her age. Therefore, the comparison of the reading ability between your daughter and her French friend is skewed in my opinion. :-)

    I really like the British system for many reasons. However, there is one thing I really disagree with and it is the cut off date for starting school and the impossibility to repeat/re-take a year. Unfortunately for my daughter, she was born on a 28th of August which means she started Reception when she turned just 4. A lot of her peer are nearly a year older than her. While I understand there must be a cut off date, what I really dislike is that if my daughter fails because maybe she was not quite ready to start at such a young age, she will not be given the chance to repeat a year. The system itself could potentially fail her. As you mentioned it, it is not unusual in France to repeat a year. This is in no mean a sign of failure as many of those who repeat a year in the course of their education go on to do very well in their higher education. In England, the system will push the child into the next year no matter what. This is very unfair and one of the biggest shortcoming of the British education.

    When it comes to the school days (starting time and finishing time), all I have to say is that in England, the school days are just not meant for working parents. It makes me laugh when the current British government looks at France as an example, sees that most mums there are in full time employment and they don’t understand why it can’t be the same over here… They want mums back to work. Fine, I have no problem with that but is this government prepared to provide the amenities and services that are provided to French mums that allows them to go back to work??? And what is this all about with pre-school hours?? I have another daughter who will be 3 in February. Normally, she should be entitled to 15 hours of government funded pre-school hours at the pre-school attached to my older daughter’s school. I might get morning sessions only, maybe afternoon sessions only or a mix of both, only God knows what I will be offered (and it is more or less a take it or leave it policy…) I work part-time (20 hours per week) and even working part-time, I cannot accommodate the pre-school hours that my younger daughter may be entitled to? This is ridiculous. Pre-school is definitely designed for non-working parents. The result is that I may have to continue to pay a childminder to look after my younger daughter until she is ready to start YR. Find the anomaly in this… Sigh

    You have not mentioned anything about secondary education. I assume that this is because your current experience is with primary schools due to your children’s age. My husband happens to be a Math teacher in a secondary school in England. One of the things that I/we have noticed is that the level in maths of students in England is well below the level of what is taught in French schools for same aged students. A couple of years ago, we have met a French family who just emigrated to England. One of their sons was just starting the GCSE year when they moved over here. His level in math was at the equivalent of A level taught over here. Although he understandably found the English language a challenge at the beginning, he got A* in math in his GCSE with no struggle because he already had done all this in France in previous years. I have no explanation as to why the levels are so different though.

    I am aware that I have focused on the negative sides of the British system but there are also many many positives. And generally, I much prefer the British system, or rather the style of education. However, that is a whole different topic all together…

    Kind regards,
    Manuella

    1. It’s hard to compare the years as I mentioned above, but I did it based on what age we are in those classes, when we go on to secondary school and when we leave school in the end.

      For the reading level, it’s true that L is above average, but I checked with her Year 2 teacher and she tells me she is only slightly above average. But she does love reading so once she starts a book, she really gets into it so will just keep going, hence the lengthy books.

      For the school cut-off date the experience I know of through friends in France shows it to be the same – our friend whose daughter’s birthday is early January wasn’t able to go into the year above despite being bright. I currently childmind a girl who’s just started reception having only turned 4 in August, and for her it seems to be working out well. I think it depends on the child and how tuned in the school are to the age differences. As for repeating a year, I went into this in a previous blog post so I won’t repeat it here as it’s quite long (blog post is http://www.franglaisemummy.com/is-the-french-education-system-better-than-the-british-one/).

      Sadly, as you say, the British school system does nothing to help working parents.

      I think for the levels in different subjects it depends a lot on the individual and on the school. Although I think the French systems puts a lot more importance on maths and sciences, with arts, languages and humanities being seen as “inferior” subjects. I touch on secondary education in the blog post I mention above.

      I know that the British school system was a better one for me, as I loved being able to drop all but 3 subjects at 16, and then concentrating on my 3 favourites/best ones for A level, whilst being treated like an adult at that age, which is very different to the French system.

  3. I found your comparison very interesting. I’m half English/French myself. I spent most of my childhood in the UK, but did attend CM1 (year 5) in France, and like you I found pros and cons to both systems.

    The longer French days were a struggle for me and I was 10. I don’t know how 6 year olds would cope. Even once I became bilingual (by about Christmas) and caught up with the other kids academically, I still found myself climbing up the walls by about 3pm.

    On the other side, I loved my Wednesdays off. I did dance classes on Wednesday afternoons and avoided ridiculously long, structured school days that are the norm if you have any kind of hobby in the UK that involves evening classes (in the UK my dance classes meant I didn’t get home until gone 8pm a couple of nights a week).

    Academically I can’t make too many comparisons as I have only my own first-hand experiences upon which to draw. I felt like maths was harder in France although I had no trouble catching up (once my French caught up). But drama, music and art were far better in the UK. We didn’t do any kind of show for parents to watch during my whole year in France, not even singing in assemblies. And I know it wasn’t just me missing out on stuff due to lack of comprehension – I lived with a French aunt who was a teacher at the school! Foreign language learning was far more advanced in France, I ‘helped’ teach the English classes to my fellow ten year olds, whereas no formal language lessons happened in the UK until secondary school.

    On a fairly childish note, I LOVED not having to wear school uniform in France. Despite this apparent freedom, I felt there was more individuality and encouragement to express oneself in the UK schools I attended than the French one. The French one felt more regimented and like there was only one correct way to do anything. But I appreciated not having to wear a tie!
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    1. Wow! That’s a late day with the dance class! L’s activities are all over by 4.30/5pm, but maybe as she gets older these will get later.

      (French) Hubs is always talking about how great British schools are for performing with assemblies encouraging kids to get up and talk or sing from a very young age.

      Foreign language teaching is terrible in the UK, sadly, although I used to teach English in France and the level of English as a foreign language wasn’t amazing either, I think both countries are far behind many other European countries in this area. I think these days English is taught in French primary schools and French is now taught in English primary schools, but it certainly wasn’t the case when I was growing up.

      I HATED wearing school uniform when I was at school, but now I’m a parent I LOVE that L has to wear a uniform, it makes life so much easier!

      I agree with you on the more self-expression in the UK vs more regimented learning in France.

  4. My eldest is in reception this year and I see how exhausted he gets from his days at school and don’t think he’d cope particularly with the longer days in France. But I’ve cousins in France who love their school, and are very positive about the long lunch breaks, in which they play and rest and chill out at a friend’s house some days, they love their Wednesday activities and the food the schools serve is far superior. Education is something I’m very interested in and I like seeing the differences. My son doesn’t get homework but does get books to read, and we read them before bed along with some others of our own. I hadn’t realised they didn’t teach reading until later in France, but know they begin music and languages more seriously at a younger age.
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    1. I think there are pros and cons to both systems, and also French children are raised very differently to British kids in that most of them have been in some kind of full-time childcare from around the age of 6 months, they then start school at around age 3 so it’s just a natural progression for them. L was certainly very happy at school in France, and is also very happy in school here, so I think both systems work. We are lucky with L’s school here though in that the food is really good. I think both countries are starting languages at the same age now, but L’s friend in France has already started the violin which isn’t offered here for another year or two I think. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Thanks for this post, it made really interesting reading! And reading the previous comments I also agree that it is a shame that children in the UK cannot repeat a year of school if they are struggling – it seems like such a disadvantage to them and repeating a year is not something to be ashamed of. Much healthier than pushing a child to go up a level when they are not ready.

    The only other thing I can add is that your daughter is lucky with the homework she gets, I’m not sure if it differs by local authority or how it is decided but the schools around here have much more homework from year 1. My nephew started went into year 1 this year and he has 3 pieces of homework a week and they usually take about an hour!

    1. Thanks for commenting. I think it depends a lot on the child, their abilities and their confidence. It’s so hard to have one system that fits all – either side of the channel.

      It seems that homework is decided on per school/local authority so it does tend to vary a lot, although it sounds like your nephew has a lot, as the friends that I quizzed in the UK had a similar amount to L.

  6. Hi there, I’ve just discovered your blog by researching differences between French and English school systems for a lesson I’m teaching (I’m an independent self-employed English teacher and I also run an English club for French children from 4-10 years old). I’m English too, married to my French husband with 2 daughters and we live in the south of France (about an hour and half from Nice).
    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I had always heard that France was known for its very good education system and, although, we have no personal complaints of our own for our children, every French person I speak to now all tell me that the system is nowhere near as good as it used to be. Reading-wise, I encouraged my daughters to read from an early age and taught them to read in English so personally, we have no problems there.
    You are right when you talk about homework in French primary schools, it is everyday and not always just one subject and I too have always agreed that, even though the French school day is longer, English children do indeed spend more time at school over the year and again, many French people I speak to, agree that the school holidays here are too long (as are the 2 hour lunches – on this I prefer the English system as children can take packed lunches, in France, if you eat at the canteen, you pay and you eat a 3 course meal or you go home!). However, saying that, as we all know teachers work very hard and it’s not just the teaching, it’s the preparation, marking, etc. and as teachers in France are known not to earn a fortune, I can understand why they would not want to forsake their long holidays!
    I agree with you that the French school system does help working parents. However, the current government are looking to shorten the school days, add a Wednesday morning or Saturday morning again (really don’t want Saturday!) and enforce after school activities which in theory sounds fine but when you live in a small village as we do, the mairie doesn’t have enough money to cover this and so it will be down to the parents to pay. If the commune can afford it, the local taxes will be increased anyway to cover the costs. The foreseen problems are:
    • Finding and employing independently employed people to run the extra activities, finding places for them to stage their activities (as they won’t be insured to do this in school and the teachers don’t want their classrooms disorganised with other activities). It would perhaps be better to have a choice to do these activities independently after school (where the parents choose and therefore pay like they often do on a Wednesday) but this brings us to the problems of working parents who cannot be there to pick up their children and take them to after school activities
    • Parents having to shorten their working hours or indeed putting their children into “la garderie” (after school club) AFTER they’ve already done an out of school activity.

    Instead of making this badly thought-out change, I see a much simpler system in perhaps cutting the school hours down slightly per day (you can start with the lunch hour!) and decreasing the holidays. However, this takes us back to the earlier point about teachers wanting to keep their holidays! Indeed, if the education system is as bad as they think, this is obviously why they want to make some changes – it just needs a little more thinking!

    I am used to the French system as my children have been here since babies but I also agree when you talk about the evening rush. By the time we get home between 5 and 5.15, they must have a snack (as in general, as I’m sure you know, the French eat later and even when the girls have school we don’t eat until 7), then do homework, then there is normally a short respite and then it’s time for showers, dinner, rest and English reading (I impose the reading!) and then bed. On top of that, my eldest, goes to judo twice a week after school! My youngest does her dance activity on a Wednesday as this is generally the case of extra curricular activities, as you say. However, as the French generally do things later, on a Tuesday or a Friday, the girls often play with their friends after school as they don’t have to do their homework straight away. But if you are a parent who works on a Wednesday and your child has to spend the whole Wednesday at “la garderie”, you do indeed have even less time for playing and resting.
    I do actually think my children would prefer the UK system. It would be easy to say (as I have done in the past!) that France should change the system more like the UK but the problem really is for working parents when the school days have been longer for so many years and working parents have relied on this to be able to work without paying the extra cost of the after school club. On another point, it’s also hard to compare as the cultures are different with regards to mealtimes and bedtimes although mine do not go to bed nearly as late as some French children! Indeed, I think being fortunate enough to experience both cultures, it broadens the mind and enables us to choose the best bits of both!
    Interesting blog, I will be definitely be reading again. Thank you!

    1. Wow! Thanks for taking the time to share so much information, it’s so interesting to compare too. I have to say that I loved France for schooling as a parent, but I do think that L is far happier with her school set-up in the UK. Although the funniest thing is that the UK is now looking to copy France with longer school days, while France is looking to copy the UK with shorter school days and 5 days a week. No one seems able to get it right, and when you upset the status quo there are problems as people have routines and childcare in place for the current situation. So who knows what is really for the best?

      Good luck with it all and thanks for visiting the blog and commenting :-)

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