Sep 192009

(asked by Thomas from the US)

What is the high school experience like in France? Socially, it’s a big big deal in the US. Is that also true in France?

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.

More Questions Answered:

  14 Responses to “What is the high school experience like in France?”

  1. Oh, high school… I left it just four years ago, and I'm glad I left it.

    I'd like to had that proms and bals and this kind of event organized by the school do not exist at all here. High school -and more generally school- is, as David said, a place for studying and little else. Of course there is teenager drama and who is seeing who, but it is not the main focus of the people (and for the people whom main focus it is, you won't see them beyond Seconde for many).

    It's true there's no defined clique - people will hang together (when not in class) if they have mutual friends or if they're part of the smokers, and sit next to each other in class if they're friends (many people where I went to high school already knew each other before high school), or have forgot their books or are in the same class and end up knowing each other.
    I was in première and terminale L, and as there was only one L in my high school, I was with the same people for two years -while I didn't befriend all of them, we were an unit and knew each other. I also had friends in other classes.
    But there was/is the 'L classes are slackers' and 'S classes are brainies'(I don't remember anything about ES though).

    One thing that I don't think exist here is the lunch table drama. The tables aren't reserved - there was just the ones for the teachers, the rest was 'first one out of the food line choose'.

    All in all, from what I got from friends in the US, US high school and French high school are nothing alike.

  2. If you know a lot of Americans who say high school was the best time of their life, you know the wrong Americans!

  3. -Alix, thanks for the extra info.

    -Panda, I should clarify. The people that told me that, and by that they really meant that they somehow like life in high school better than life in college.
    In the US, high school seems to be no responsibilities, not much studying and lots of having fun, and college is lots of studying, responsibilities, etc.
    In France, it's almost the other way around, you study in high school, and then you have fun in college.

  4. While clearly the French high school experience is mainly academic , I don't think the US high school life is that of no responsibility, mostly fun. In the US, it really depends on what is important to you and if you want to go to college. But true, largely the American high school experience is a social right of passage (prom, school plays, year books, high school sweetheart, football games, etc.)

  5. What baffles me about the US high school experience is this thing of 'extracurriculars' - I only really started to think about them and find it odd when I was applying to American universities a long time ago, when I lived there. (In the end I didn't go.)

    I honestly don't understand why people think it matters that you were in the school marching band or played hockey or ran a club - the reason they're called 'extracurricular' is because they're not on the curriculum - they're hobbies, for God's sake! But apparently they are important for US university applications? Though I don't understand why - surely your academic capabilities are what makes you suitable for a particular course or institution? What has your award-winning cheerleader routine to do with it?

  6. really? there are actually people out there who had the best time of their lives in high school? It wasn't torture for me but I'd rather not go back to it.

    I had fun but never went to the wild parties that are in movies. Instead it was maybe a movie and some ice cream with friends on a Saturday. I was too busy with a year round swim team, marching band, concert band, my church youth group, girl scouts, french club, national honor society… oh yeah, and classes.

    I was also sort of oblivious to the hierarchy of cliques. I knew who the "cool" kids were but I didn't care about them, I had my own friends.

  7. -Nathalie. The thing with extracurricular activities is that the very philosophy of what is education in both countries and different.
    In France (and England?) a school's goal is to teach academic knowledge to kids ans students, and academic knowledge only.
    In the US, it's more about learning in general, even things we don't consider "school content" because they're not academical.

    In theory, the American system sounds better (and let's face it, it is at the university level), but in high school, it almost always means that the academic aspect of school is not important enough.

    Why are those important when you apply to an University? Because an American university has nothing to do with a French one. Being in college in the US is not only about studying to get a degree, but really being part of a community. So, it makes sense that "recruiters" care whether the student has a life and what kind of life he/she has. That, and also the fact that is you have hobbies, that usually means you don't spend all of your free time at the mall and/or doing drugs (I caricature a bit, but not that much) and that you're already an active member of society and a well-rounded person.
    And in that context it makes sense (even if it doesn't in a French one… be careful, here, you're almost guilty of what you sometimes criticize: people judging other cultures through their own cultural references).

  8. Being born and educated in Romania, in the cold war 80s I can say that everything David sayd here ( I mean about 100%) stands for the Romanian educational system as well ( you see, it was copied in 1800 afer the french one and still has the same chractersitics). I remember how hard we studied to pass the exams to the eitte high schools and I remember how many hours I had to learn… To get what today people say it's an "A" was extremely hard. To get to a top university after highschool was also incredibly hard… Think about that - 60 places to be occupied and 1300 candidates. If one wanted to be one of the 60, then , besides the hours in school some hard working at home was requirred. I don;t remember going to many dances but I remember damn well laerning a lot. My major was in what we call "real "- maths, physics,chemistry… I was in the best class , "D", and the competition was indeed hard. Almost everyone in my high school class went to top universities in Romania and some went UK , Italy or Germany.
    In what friendship and friends are regarded ,yes,here it was just the same.

  9. As a high school student now (I'm in my first year) I can say that cliques arent there anymore. But that aside, the education at my school is VERY intense. We start school at 8 and have various classes until 2:15. We have 7 periods and the schedule rotates. So one might have math, english, biology, language(i have french), latin, history, then a free period which changes each day (music, art, gym, or a study). As you progress in your high school career you can choose to either take another language, or take some other subject (Chemistry, Statistics, Etc.)
    My school is based on studies so there's no chance for slacking off. If you have enough credits and take enough AP courses you might even get credits for College!

  10. Also Prom, and other social events are pretty important

  11. Right now i'm a junior in high school(america) and i'm definitely reluctant to admit that i didn't know high school was regarded as fun by so many! My school really pushes it's students, I have never had a break in which i didn't have to do an assignment for school-including summer. And as for sports and extracurricular activities, i feel its because it really takes devotion to dedicate that much extra time to you school outside of homework, and it allows you to make friends. What colleges really value in america is leadership skills and openness to new experiences- anyone can passively study for exams, what colleges want is students that actively interact with their peers, which tends to promote academic excellence.
    Also extracurriculars are a great way to meet people with similar interests. I agree that cliques dont really exist anymore, but then again, its hard for them to in a school of around 4500 students and three different campuses. Personally, i HATE high school, but the french club i participate in give me something to look foreword to during the week.

  12. In response to the American high schoolers who commented on this post, when I was in high school (American), I also thought school was extremely difficult. Now that I am in an American college, I can look back and see that the work I did in high school was not nearly as rigorous as I thought. It is all just perspective. I can now compare it to my college work, which is much more difficult and requires more of my time than high school work. Knowing a little information on the French high school system, I would say American high schools are much easier, but that I prefer the American system because we can go into college having absolutely no idea what we want to major in, and allow our interests to guide us into a speciality.

  13. Do the students move from classroom to classroom in French highschools? Or do the teachers change classrooms rather than the students?

  14. I'm sure some high schools have their own ways of functioning, but it's my understanding that it's pretty random.
    Sometimes the students move from classroom to classroom, sometimes it's the teachers, most of the times, it's both.

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