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Studying in France and in the UK: What are the differences?
As an expat, understanding the school system of your new country is one of the biggest challenges. Indeed in your native country, every choice was almost innate: you knew what schools were good, what options to choose to have the best chances, which diplomas were valuable and which ones were simply cons. How did you get that? No idea, you just knew it. However it seems that you simply loose your Mr Know-it-all status as soon as you cross the border of your homeland…
Happily, France in London is here to help. I’m going to give you the key of this innate knowledge both in France and in the UK.
First of all, don’t panic. France and the UK are not so different: their educational systems both aim to form your children for professional life and to make them blossom personally and intellectually. Both countries are conscious that the way children are served by their education systems is a key stake and going to school is regarded as part of Human Rights on both sides of the Channel. Relieved?
Fine, so let’s start with the differences!
Educational systems in France and in the UK
Both structures and logic are different.
First of all you have to get this right. Let’s caricature a bit to underline the point. In the UK children have to learn the basics very early and very fast. They are used to having exams as early as primary school! Then, they specialise early with an “à la carte”program. In France children have less options and the logic is totally different. Education begins slowly since the first thing to do is to make children blossom, think on their own, develop their personal creativity... Primary school is about that plus, of course, learning some elementary skills. Then it becomes harder and harder with the aim of giving all students the same cultural basis. This also means not quite as many choices. In the UK things seem to be easier and easier and more personalized.
Let’s explain every step that an average pupil faces in France and in the UK.
The UK In the UK, primary schools generally cater for children aged from four to eleven, that means from “reception” to “Year Six”. They are subdivided into infant schools, until age seven (“Key Stage 1”) and junior schools (“Key Stage 2”), except in Scotland where there is no division. You could also choose to place your child in a private and fee-paying school called preparatory schools. As their name suggests, they prepare pupils for entrance examinations for fee-paying independent schools.
When 11 they have a choice to make: comprehensive schools, grammar schools or, for a lucky few, private schools. Comprehensive schools are more common, especially since the 1960’s, but the few grammar schools left offer a better level since children have to pass an exam to enter in: the "11 ". School programs are heavy and pupils are used to having exams since primary schools.
At this stage, they have to pass the "GCSEs" (General Certificate of Secondary Education) which includes from 8 to 12 disciplines. Only four are imposed: mathematics, English literature, sciences and Religious Education, the rest are up to the pupil. And what a range of choice! From hairdressing and beauty to Greek and Latin, travel and tourism to woodwork… This has absolutely nothing to do with the French colleges and you have to take extreme care of the chosen subjects. After passing this exam, it is up to the pupils to decide whether they will go on to sixth form to take their "A-Levels" (equivalent to the French baccalauréat) or whether they will drop out of school. A-levels are graded from A to E according to the percentage of the UMS .
B 70% - 79%
C 60% - 69%
D 50% - 59%
E 40% - 49%
A new category, A will be added in 2010 in order to mark the differences between good pupils and very good pupils.
A-Level score determine the admission to University.
In France, children go to the “maternelle” from 3 to 5 and then to a primary schools from 5 to 11. There, they get few basis in French, History, Maths… but nothing really hard. A large place is reserved for their own flowering with a lot of manual and artistic activities.
Then, they are entre into “colleges” where things become harder. They begin to write essays and to study things in greater depth. Everybody follows the same courses. At the end of this step, French children are due to have their first exam called the “Brevet des Collèges”. Renowned for being easy, it remains important to those who want to choose a professional formation such as BEP, CAP… Nevertheless, most of the pupils go to the “lycee”, the equivalent of sixth form, and then become specialized in the last two years before their baccalauréat. The most famous and common sections are : Literary, economic and social and scientific generally called “bac L”, “bac ES” and “bac S”.
Nobody can go to the university without having passed the bac.
Most of these schools are state run.
So what's the best system? Where are children more able to blossom intellectually? According to PISA, UK students are slightly better than the OCDE average. France is not so good. In France about 14% of 15-19 teenagers are neither in education nor in employment, this is slightly lower in the Uk where the figure is closer to 9%. Unfortunately, in both countries too many students are still leaving school without any diplomas. Isn't this the worst failure?
That’s why both the UK and France are trying to improve their school systems by doing some deep reforms. It is impossible to tell, as yet, whether these will be for the better but, it seems that France is about to come closer to the English system and to truncate its core curriculum in order to give more choices to students. And yet the English system hasn't exactly had many fans over the years… And English schools have been looking up to France for years. Who knows!