Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

I have been asked countless times why I didn’t put my children into a French school.

Obviously after so many years in London I have learned (sometimes the hard way) the art of understatement, because my immediate thought after such questions is usually ‘Over My Dead Body’. I answer that the French lycée was oversubscribed and change the conversation.

You see, it took me more than 30 years to escape from France, I am so not going back. I don’t get this idea that French parenting and French schools are somewhat superior. Apparently, we French know how to be more strict, our children behave in a much better manner. But of course. Let’s not sugarcoat it: whoever wrote this clearly hasn’t been brought up in France, and wants to feed parents’ insecurities to make a quick buck. Spending a bit of time in Paris posh districts doesn’t make you a French expert. The reality is, once again, far more complicated.

In France, there is a darker side than meets the eyes. What am I talking about? Well, what still often passes as acceptable in France, such as smacking or insulting your children, would be unacceptable to your average British household. Don’t get me wrong, all French parents aren’t the same. That said, I am convinced that French children are better-behaved because their parents wouldn’t mind exercising some unpleasant means of punishment should they fail to stay silent. It is also pretty common to see parents ignoring their children: for instance, adults and children usually don’t mix during family meals or at the restaurant, and children are routinely left to their own devices.

As for French schools, well, I wonder how to put it nicely. The purpose of a French education isn’t to enjoy what you are learning, it is to be silent, well behaved and have good grades. Any shred of nonconformity will be ruthlessly mocked and eventually destroyed. And forget about any chance of a good career if you’re not excellent at maths or if your spelling is incorrect.

Don’t get me wrong, the French system works for some, but clearly leaves a lot of good students on the side of the road.

And it doesn’t end here: if you are bright and have passed your Baccalaureat with flying colours, years of conditioning and suffering will start for you: you will need to go to what we French call ‘Classes Preparatoires’. This is how the elite of the country is educated. What are ‘Classes preparatoires’? Well Wikipedia says it all:

‘The classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE) (EnglishHigher School Preparatory Classes), commonly called classes prépas or prépas, are part of the French post-secondary education system. They consist of two very intensive years (extendable to three or exceptionally four years) which act as a preparatory course (or cram school) with the main goal of training undergraduate students for enrollment in one of the grandes écoles. The workload is one of the highest in the world (between 35 and 45 contact hours a week, plus usually between 4 and 6 hours of written exams, plus between 2 and 4 hours of oral exams a week and homework filling all the remaining free time).’

The higher education system in France is made up of both universities and Grandes Ecoles. It is the Grandes Ecoles that prepare the administrative, scientific and business executives for their place as leaders in government or in private enterprise. It is common knowledge that they, rather than universities, are where France’s technical and managerial elite are educated. Needless to say, Grandes Ecoles are very selective, and it’s only about academic achievements.

Despite the fact that I have yet to meet someone who truly enjoyed studying in classes preparatoires and that suicide attempts and mental health problems are frequent there, it is every French tiger mother’s dream to send her child there. Learning while enjoying yourself is simply off the mark. It’s fair to say the most unhappy I have ever been was during my 3-years stint at Classes Preparatoires, and for the record I am the sort of person who enjoys running ultra marathons 

Let me be clear: I don’t think that the goal of education is to create well-behaved, knowledgeable children/teenagers. I think that the goal of education is to help children become happy, independent adults who are well-grounded. The French system teaches you to have a strong work ethic and manage a huge workload, but is it worth it? Well, for me it isn’t. There are different ways, and, in my view, better ones.

This is why I will not encourage my children to go to a classe prepa. After all, France is the most depressed country on earth, with a 21% prevalence of a depressive episode. This is what I want to say when I am asked why we left the French system. But for obvious reasons, I usually keep my responses short.


  • disqus_72GXGq6drQ

    I wish you’d have written this a few years ago…Someone thinks the E Bacc (English Baccalaureat) is a good idea. I also recall seeing a load of misbehaving primary school children behind Chirac during a campaign speech.

    • We’ll see what happens with the E Bacc. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it all depends on how it’s done. As for kids misbehaving, well, kids are the same everywhere, right?

  • James Casserly Omaexlibris

    Wow, I had no idea. We’ve been fed this myth here that because the French have a strong secular ethos, that education is some sort of perfect paradise, filled with learning philosophy, art and cultural knowledge, free from the brainwashing of religious doctrine and the narrow focus on exam success. Clearly it has just replaced religious brainwashing with the ethos of rigid conformity. Sad for the children whose parents put them under such pressure, usually so the parents can live vicariously through the achievements of their offspring.

    • We French have a strong secular ethos, but our education system is far from being a perfect paradise. Simply put, you are not taught how to think, but what to think. It’s soul-crushing, especially if you dare to think outside of the box.

  • James Casserly Omaexlibris

    One question, approximately what age group would the students be in a Grande École?

    • In France, you get your baccalaureat at 17/18, then you have 2 to 3 years of ‘Classes Preparatoires’, then a ‘Grande Ecole’ (if you are selected, of course). This means that you should be about 20 when you start a Grande Ecole. That said, in France, it is fashionable to ‘jump a class’ and be even younger. For instance, I had my baccalaureate aged 16 and started a Grande Ecole at 19.

  • god, I couldn’t agree more. I moved to the UK when I was 18 so it took me longer to purge my French elitism stance on education but now I look at my own kids going through the British school system (albeit only in primary at this stage) and I couldn’t be happier for them. My experience of school was massively different to my siblings because I was a naturally good academic student but they weren’t and the verbal abuse they got from *teachers* just blows my mind. I can’t say that doing a prepa ever appealed to me, the one based in my high school looked like the most miserable place on earth. Also, I despise the ‘us and them’ divide it creates.

    • Totally agree. In fact, as I am the product of a very French education, it took me longer to understand how dysfunctional the French system was. But now, there is no going back.

  • Dawn

    Thank you for this wonderful post Muriel. I am an American living in France and though on the whole I have been happy with the French public school system for my three sons (all born in France), I immediately became disenchanted with the system when my oldest recently entered lycee. The pressure and the elitist attitude are something I find far too heavy a load to bear for an adolescent. We will be leaving France soon and though I will miss many things about this beautiful country, I am glad that my sons will have the experience of a different kind of education system where we will be moving.

    • Dawn, thank you very much for your comment. I couldn’t agree with you more. While I was writing this post, I felt a bit guilty for criticising a system that educated me (for free), but I truly believe that such elitism is soul-crushing, and that things need to change in my home country.
      Needless to say, when we moved to London, I discovered a new system that focused on kids’ strengths, and I simply couldn’t believe it (Is this a SCHOOL?). There is no coming back for us. Best of luck for your move back to the US. teaching your children how to adapt themselves is, in my new, the best gift a parent can make, si well done!

  • Serina Pizi

    Interesting, thanks for the post.
    As a foreigner unused to the French system, I was a bit shocked as well by the severity of the grading system when we first arrived, the discipline the children are expected to adhere to.
    But, I have come to appreciate it and understand that the French system makes a distinction between the student and the child.

    The French system sanctions, and the severe grading system is there to show the student (separate from the child) that he did not fully get the concepts he was supposed to have learnt, and is part of the entire mindset of enforcing rigor in learning.
    If a child gets only praises and stars and wows, he doesn’t know where he needs to improve, and he may be getting a false idea of confidence in his abilities, and not build grit. I have learnt that the student in the French system will rarely get a perfect score because the message is that perfection doesn’t exist, there will always be more to learn.
    In practice, this is unfortunately read or applied the wrong way, and especially for children (and parents), can be hard to swallow.
    My son came to understand this at 17, and he explained it to me, an anglophone mom who went through the Singaporean, British and American systems.
    This is my biggest takeaway from the French system.

    Said son just turned 18, is in his second year at a top ranked Ecole prepa, and will sit for the entrance exams to those elite engineering schools between April and July this year. He spent his early childhood and primary years in USA, then Africa, middle school in Indonesia. and France for high school.
    The first year in Ecole preparatoire, he suffered because he hadn’t assimilated enough of the rigor and discipline required, and because he is a free spirit with his heart in many countries confined to a very French system. One year later, he has a new group of lifelong friends and is actually happy. He is also very confident about his actual abilities and any limitations he might have – he is lucid.
    He is convinced he is in the right place, because he says he is receiving a foundation that is probably the best he can ever hope to get. This is a boy who had been given direct admission into tracks that would have directly led to masters’ programs at prestigious scientific institutions in London and various university towns in USA and Canada, but decided that the French system of Ecole prepa and engineering was the best one for someone into maths and sciences.
    French engineers are very sought after around the world. One Google recruiter said a couple of years back that the French engineers can put all crazy ideas down onto paper via mathematical formulae, very important for the bridge to be built between ideas and development. Something to do with the way they are trained to think, and way more efficient for Silicon Valley type employers to come to France, go to the engineering schools, and just get a group of them to return with, because everyone speaks the same language and are used to brainstorming with each other.

    The question of happiness I have surmised from the French system is also the responsibility of the parents because within the school, it is the student that takes precedence.
    Even if the students don’t go for the “royal route” of école prepas, they are still likely to come away with rigor, discipline, and grit. They will probably also have developed a critical approach to everything, question everything. These are skill sets that will stand them in good stead in the long run. And happiness also comes from a lucid understanding of who one is and what is possible, and acceptance of it all.
    My daughter isn’t as “science-y” as her brother, and has learnt to be more efficient in order to do all those lovely activities she wants to – dawdling, music, competitive sport, theater, and the active social life of a middle schooler. And she still finds time for her passion, reading.

    There are different systems to answer to different needs if we are lucky enough to have the choice. Each will have its merits and disadvantages.
    I agree with the degree of elitism and pressure that at times, have drowned out my goal of helping my children become well adjusted, independent and happy adults and made me question. Plus, having had to negotiate so many different systems…I sometimes regret A from this or B from the other. But globally, from what I see of the French system and how it benefits my children, I come away well pleased.

    My two cents’. Xo.

  • Paige

    I really appreciate your honesty. It’s refreshing! I taught in the French school systems and appreciate the rigger compared to American schools. Sorry, I don’t know much about British schools, but I found so many bright kids labeled as a clown because of their energetic attitudes. Sometimes, I wonder if French people are so critical of others and afraid to try things because of their upbringing in schools. I saw first hand how some teachers terrified their students.
    However, we are the opposite and I find that having a normal conversation with a 16 year old in France is much easier to do than in the US.

    • Thanks for your comment Paige. I suppose that every system has its strengths and weaknesses. It is true that, in France, you have to respect your teachers and, to cut a long story short, the teacher is always right (things are changing of course, but you get the gist of it!). This is why, I believe, teenagers have normal conversations with adults: we are taught to behave well and answer questions asked by an adult. I don’t know much about the American system…Maybe one day!

  • deGency

    Based on French cousins’ experience and my own observations as an assistant, spot on. The French system is much more didactic and lessons with the odd exception were very much “cours magistral” in format. There was a buzz-word doing the rounds at the time (1978!), “autodiscipline”, which emphasised how much, in reality, discipline was imposed by those in authority. Compared with my own experience in the English system, the French system appeared to me to be more stretching (rigour is a good word here) but much more soulless. That being said, there was much less of the anti-intellectual ethos you get over here. The essential comparison imo is that, in England, teachers talk to you, in France they talk at you.