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Education In France – Shoes vs. Hats

I recently read the following quote: “In France, once you have chosen a pair of shoes, you must wear them for life.” Well now, anyone who knows me is aware that I LOVE shoes, but the thought of only one pair is unimaginable. I suppose I should say “hat,” rather than shoes, since this is what the American version of this quote would be. Most of us have had a variety of jobs and have worn many hats, with some of us having made total career changes throughout our working life.

In the French school system, the stakes are high: it’s all about memorization and learning is rigid and organized around a centralized curriculum. Tracking in France happens not through classroom assignments, but rather on a school-wide level. Based on test scores, students begin to get funneled into technical or college preparatory schools by middle school.In the French system, students are grouped together depending on their section (in high school, these sections are literature, economics and sociology, and science). Even though this system is rigid, it obliges the students to have a solid educational background for the future. The French education system is structured toward traditional teaching methods, with techniques that are designed to help students acquire the required standards and pass exams. There is a strong emphasis on math, reading, writing, science, and the French language, based on rote learning, rather than on creativity.

I know an American/British couple, who live in a small town of 500 people and have three children in the French system. They told me the following:

* French children are raised to know that they must choose a career path by age sixteen and stick with it

* Change is not a welcomed thought or an appreciated characteristic in the French culture

* If you waiver in your decisions, there will be complications that you must be prepared to work through as a punishment

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* Different learning styles are not accommodated for

* Job for life is a favorite local saying

* Career change is one of those shunned activities in France, but you can be re-educated by the government if you lose your job and want to change fields.

She stated that the quality of the French lifestyle, warm people, and inexpensive, yet high-quality, education are factors that compensate for the eccentricities of the system and inconvenient moments, found in any foreign culture, where you must be prepared to bend, twist, and assimilate.

I also asked another friend who is a World Literature and History teacher at a private, international school in a large city about the idea of only wearing one career hat in France. She didn’t agree that is the case because of the current economic climate and of having no guarantee of getting a job in one’s field of study. It has been her experience that students in a private school have an advantage to get into university, as well as having individual attention in class due to the smaller class size. In her opinion, an international school provides a broader educational base, stability due to parents being more transient, a positive and supportive environment that reinforces learning, along with extra curricular activities.

As for higher education, according to a recent study by the student magazine “Etudiante.fr, ” Nice ranked tenth in “The Top Ten Places To Be A Student in France – the classification based on everything from job prospects to quality of teaching and nightlife. Surprisingly, Paris did not make the top ten list.

“What tourists to France do not always see are the technology centers like Sophia Antipolis between Nice and Cannes on the Riviera; the world-class doctors, engineers, IT experts, and math professionals graduating from outstanding universities; the high productivity levels associated with the French workforce, notwithstanding vacation periods that Americans envy; and world-class companies such as Accor, AXA, Danone, EADS, Essilor, l’Oréal, LVMH, Michelin, Publicis Omnicom, Schneider Electric, and Sodexo. The Fortune 500 includes more French companies than any other European country.” (Source: French-American Foundation)

Having done my studies in the U.S., including a B.A. in French and a Masters of Education, my only experience of education in France has been as an English teacher at both a business college and at an adult language school. Culturally and logistically, I personally profited from being able to utilize my work experience towards a change of career several times in the States. And so, I cannot imagine having to wear only one “hat” – not to mention only one pair of “shoes” – oh, la, la!

by Kim inFrance blogger Kim Defforge.

Kim is a lifelong Francophile, and former French teacher. Having moved from the U.S. to the French Riviera, she enjoys writing about France and French culture on her blog, 24/7 in France. From the simple beauty of a Mediterranean sunset to her passion for all things French, Kim shows us that dreams can come true!

Kim Defforge is the author of "Solitary Desire: One Woman's Journey to France" and "Sun, Sea & Savoir-Faire: Travel Focus on the French Riviera".

Read Kim's other Expat Focus articles here or click the button below to view her own blog…

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