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) (English: Higher 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.