(asked by Thomas from the US)
And what does the educational picture look like for immigrants and minorities?
You have two interesting questions here. One is going to be easy to answer, the second one much less, and sadly I won’t be able to answer in details to the second part.
Let’s start with the high school experience in France. I’m going to try not to compare it too much to the US (for a change). First, in order not to alienate the rest of the readership when I don’t have to, and second because I have no personal knowledge and experience of high schools in the US (I’ve never even set foot in one). All I know about them is what I saw in movies and more important, what my American friends and students told me.
So here is how life in a high school in France is.
Let’s start with “it’s not fun.”
French high school students learn a lot of things in high school, so they study a lot, they also prepare for the Baccalauréat, which is a huge deal. Even if -in retrospect and too many university degrees later- I think it’s quite easy to pass, when you’re in high school, you don’t have that perspective, and in any case, getting the Baccalauréat is still a major milestone in the life of a French person, even if nowadays that milestone is more symbolical than anything else. In high school, there’s also this feeling that this is when your future is getting decided, as how you’ll fare in high school will more or less decide what type of school you’ll end up in after high school, and thus what degree you’ll get and in the end what job you’ll be stuck with for the rest of your life. Even if this quite far from the truth, when you’re in high school, this is what you feel will happen to you.
You must also know that high school students in 11th and 12th grades (Première and Terminale in French) have a major, and even in 10th grade (Seconde), most students take elective classes that more or less match the major in which they want to get into the following year.
Here is the more or less typical day/semester/academic year of a high school student. At least this is how it was in the 80’s and 90’s but I doubt it has changed much since.
Students have roughly between 25 and 30 hours of class a week (depending on their major). They don’t get to chose which courses they take, depending on their level and their major they’ll have so many hours of French, Math, History, Geography, 2 or 3 foreign languages, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Philosophy, Economics, Physical Education, etc. Keep in mind that your major just influences how many hours of each you’ll have and what are the topics studied, but every major will have classes from all of the topics aforementioned, at least for 10th grade –as you don’t have a major yet- and 11th grade. In 12th grade, you’re usually done taking some of the classes totally unrelated to your major. Also, French ends in 11th grade and Philosophy is only in 12th grade, but for everyone.
If I remember correctly here are the classes I had in high school (I can’t remember how many hours of each I had, sorry):
10th grade – Seconde: French, Math, History, Geography, English, Russian, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Physical Education, Computer Science (as an optional class).
11th grade – Première (Natural Sciences major): French, Math, History, Geography, English, Russian, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Physical Education, Computer Science (as an optional class).
12th grade – Terminale (Natural Sciences major): Philosophy, Math, History, Geography, English, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Physical Education, Computer Science (as an optional class).
When I was in high school, the possible majors were those:
-(A1) Literary Major: emphasis on French, Philosophy and Math.
-(A2) Language Major: emphasis on French, Philosophy and 3 foreign languages.
-(A3) Art major: emphasis on French, Philosophy and either Music or Painting (in my high school, in other high schools other arts were available).
-(B) Economics Major: emphasis on French, History, Geography, Economics.
-(C) Science Major: emphasis on Math, Physics and Chemistry.
-(D)Natural Science Major: emphasis on Math, Biology and Chemistry.
Those were the main majors.
There was also a Managing Major (G) about which I don’t remember much (it was subdivided in 3 “submajors” with emphasis on Accounting, Economics, and I can’t remember what.)
There was also a bunch of much more specialized majors (F1-12) , not offered everywhere, and that represent a small percentage of the people (I think I’ve met only one or two people that have graduated with those majors in my life).
Since I graduated from high school things have changed, with less majors (only L, S and ES), but more subdivisions within the majors and/or minors. And as I don’t know about the changes too well, Wikipedia is coming in handy (and if you can read French, the French article is even more detailed).
Students, usually have class from 8AM to 12PM and then from 2PM til 5PM (that’ll change from school to school, but I feel that’s the most common schedule). Students go to school on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays all day long, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays, during the morning only. If you do the math, you’ll see that that amounts to 36 hours a week, so sometimes students will finish earlier some days, or start later or various combination of those, depending on their schedule, class, major, etc.
After school, students usually go home to do homework, and that can be two or even more hours of studying every day.
So as you can see, there isn’t much time for fun, except on the week-ends.
But it’s true that we have a lot of vacation too.
The academic year starts the first or second week of September. Around November 1st there’s usually a one-week break, then two weeks for Christmas/New Year’s, after that, there’s another one or two weeks in the middle of Winter, finally two weeks in Spring (around Easter time). The school year normally ends at the end of June (that calendar is the same for elementary and middle schools too by the way), but 10th and 11th grades have little to no class in June, as the month is almost entirely devoted to 12th graders that review their courses of (in theory) the past three years (really, just the past year) and then take the different exams that constitute the Baccalauréat (that we in everyday conversation shorten by Bac).
You also need to keep in mind that during all of those seasonal breaks, students don’t just chill and hang out. Teachers give them a lot of homework to do during those.
The concept of “Class” is also different from other places. A Class in France is not all the people that are at the same level as you, but it’s a group of about 30 people with whom you’ll take most if not all of your classes. It means that French high school students spend about 30 hours a week with the same people from September to June.
In the end, you get to know them pretty well, and they can become friends for life or if you don’t get along with each other, a big problem. Sometimes these classes will stay more or less the same from one year to the other, so not only you’ll spend most of your time with the same 30 people, but this can last more than a year. On the other hand, you rarely know the other people that are in the same grade as you but not in that group of 30 or so students.
Also, a French school is a place where you study and learn things. Little to no emphasis is put on anything else. French high schools don’t have sports teams (the Physical Education class is kinda a joke (a bad joke if you’re not athletic and/or don’t already practice a sport out of school) and the arts are very little represented. Those activities are usually performed by the students on Wednesday and/or Saturday afternoons (or some nights after class) in clubs or organizations that have no affiliation with the school whatsoever.
There are no cliques either in French high school, at least not as clear cut and well defined as they can be in the US. Of course, people tend to gather and make friends according to common affinities, but nothing as drastic as in the US. For example, I guess my friends and I were quite nerdy/geeky, but we were not social outcasts (for the most part) and we had good friends among other social groups in the school, even the “cool kids.” I guess because you spend so much time with your class, pretty much everybody will belong to at least two (more or less well defined) groups.
On the one hand, you’ll be friends with people with whom you have similar tastes and interests, and they can belong to any class in the school (usually they’re your old friends, your friends of friends, and well, people with similar interests that you meet in the school) and on the other hand, you’ll also be friends with the people in your class (at least the ones you’re getting along with) regardless of their out-of-class “groups and affiliations.”
Generally speaking life in high school is a pretty hard one, because not only you’re in that age where you’re confused with a lot of things (they call that being a teenager), but you also must study hard, have lots of exams, have to make choices that will impact your future, stress over whether or not you’ll pass the final exams or not (and passing if far from being a given), etc.
Concerning passing exams, and this is valid at pretty much any level of education, remember that in France, when you take an exam it’s not about what grade you’ll get, it’s about whether you’ll pass it or not, and passing can be very hard (the equivalent of getting an A (or at least a B+) in the English speaking system).
When I hear about Americans saying that High School was the best time of their life, I sometimes can’t help but stare at them in disbelief.
That’s pretty much it for the French high school experience (well, I’m sure I forgot tons of important things, but the comments are here for that).
Concerning how kids from the immigration fare in high school, well, that should deserve its own topic, unfortunately I don’t have much knowledge on the topic, and as data based on ethnic origins are illegal in France, it’s hard to find reliable numbers on the issue.
All I can say here is that it’s much harder for them, for cultural and social reasons (as usual?) In my time (80’s-90’s), very few of them actually even made it to high school (remember that in France not every kid go to high school, a number of them go to vocational school, where they learn a job, when they’re not good enough in middle school), but it is my understanding that much more have access to high school nowadays. I guess I’ll try to expand when I get to talk about immigration someday.
Of course, I also advise you to read the topic on higher education if you haven’t done it yet.