Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reflections on the French School System

  • According to Ahmed, one of my colleagues, between the time students exit college (middle school roughly, although the last year in college corresponds to our freshman year in terms of age groups) and enter lycée a significant percentage of them, perhaps 25%, opt for technical or professional lycées in Arcachon or Bordeaux rather than come to Lycée Nord Bassin where I work. These options all require bussing kids up to an hour away. In talking to colleagues here about this it seems fair to characterize these options as ranging from valuable and viable options (there are, for example maritime schools which prepare kids for careers connected with the fishing and navigation) which can open doors for graduates and then there are the options which are little more than holding tanks for kids who have demonstrated a lack of aptitude for anything scholastic or academic. What this means for those of us who teach at Lycée Nord Bassin is that roughly a quarter of the students who come from college are tracked elsewhere and never set foot on this campus. This helps explain why the student population here is, on balance, more academically oriented than our overall student body at LHS. It’s a generalization to be sure, but I think my exchange partner might concur that the most apathetic students here at Lycée Nord Bassin are considerably more engaged and mindful of their responsibilities as students than are the most apathetic or marginalized of LHS. Whether this is a distinction that constitutes a real difference, I’ll leave to others to ponder…from my vantage point I tend to think it is.
  • As a follow up to the previous point, I am told that there is a live debate here in France as to whether the students ought to select an orientation even earlier than they do now. Currently there are really two key decision points for a young French student. The first is the one I mentioned above which happens at the end of college. For those kids who come to a general lycée such as the one I teach in, they must declare before the end of their first year in lycée (sophomore level) which type of Bac they plan on pursuing. They have three choices: L – Literary Studies, ES – Economic Sciences, S – Science. Some larger cities, like Bordeaux have something like magnet schools which offer other types of diplomas such as International Studies/language and Applied Interior Design/Art. The course requirements, and the final exams differ for each path. One of the things I am curious to observe as the year progresses is the process by which kids make these decisions.
  • In a related but not identical matter there is also movement toward lowering the age of compulsory education from 16 to 15. (At a later date I intend to write more about the general subject of how we might redefine what we think of as a standard “academic” orientation.)
  • A blue ribbon university commission just issued recommendations (the Hetzel Report) for reforming the French university system…it’s getting quite a bit of coverage in the papers. The problem that everyone seems to agree needs to be addressed is the dropout rate at the university level. The subject is a familiar one for those of us who follow such things in the US. One in five French undergrads quits school without getting a degree. The rate is highest (60%) in the “professional schools”, 30% in “tech schools”, and 10% in general liberal arts schools. Even among those who do persist and earn diplomas, there is a significant unemployment rate. For example, among those who obtained masters/doctorates in the nonscientific disciplines five years ago, the unemployment rate is 16%. For those in the sciences the figure is 11%. The commision’s proposals include a general push to create a stronger partnership between universities and the business sector. They recommend that all university students be supervised and guided through a formal career exploration process thus ensuring that students have some clue as to job prospects and also the nuts and bolts issues of actually securing employment. Another recommendation, the one which promises to stir up some debate, is that high schoolers be preselected for university… High school seniors will be required to submit dossiers to universities early to midterm in their senior year. The universities would then review their dossiers and respond by offering their opinion on each student’s fitness for the program. It is somewhat analogous to what we would call “early enrollment”, although it’s scope and purpose here would be much broader. Hackles get raised when the possibility of denying entry to students is raised, and so a certain amount of soft shoe rhetoric is being employed…students will “counseled” into and away from certain post-high school paths. A lot of people are taking pains to say that no one will be forbidden from enrolling if they wish to do so…Clearly, however, many here in France believe that there is a problem with French high schoolers making informed choices about their post-high school plans.



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