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Taking on l'éducation nationale

The past two weeks in France could seem strange to a tourist visiting the country: within days streets that were empty for weeks while most of the country was on vacation all of a sudden became busy again. It’s that time of year again: back to school! 

La rentrée (literally the return, or rather, start of the school year) is no small matter in France. Rather than a progressive return to school over the course of a month or so (as I would describe the process in the U.S.), back to school in France happens all on the same day (September 4 this year).  This, like many other things in France, is due to high centralization and the massive establishment that is known as l’éducation nationale.

In keeping with the cultural interest of this blog, I’d like to begin to dig into this
beast that is l’éducation nationale. As a foreigner, I’ve been lucky to get an inside look into the school system here, both at the high school and university levels. I’m convinced, from what I’ve seen so far, that understanding the educational system here is also key to understanding much about the French mindset in general.  After all, seeing what a country most values in passing on to its teachers and students gives a pretty good idea of a country’s general ideology.

In France, to be a teacher at any level, you essentially become a civil servant (fonctionnaire), meaning you work for the government. Not only, however, do you work for the government when you are a teacher, but you essentially have tenure for life. Once you’re in, you have total job security. However, getting into the system isn’t simple.

To become a teacher at most levels, from grade school to the highest university professors, you must take a national concours, or competitive exam. The government only has a certain amount of positions available each year in all disciplines. And so, if you ranked 88th on an exam that had 120 positions available, you now have a job. If you ranked 121st, however, you’ll have to try again the following year…

The most extreme, prestigious, and competitive version of this entrance exam is known as the agrégation. Given the agrégation’s privileged status, I think it is a great example to illustrate how France trains what it considers its most qualified teachers.

The agrégation remains for me one of the great paradoxes of the French education system. It’s the highest competitive exam an instructor can take, and it usually gives access to teaching at the high school, college prep school, or university level, in other words the more desirable teaching positions. Studying for it involves over 700 hours of work and being knowledgeable about all subjects on the program for that particular year in your particular discipline. The actual exam consists of brutal tasks, such as seven hour written exams (plural, there are more than one of these) or five hour oral exams. If it isn’t obvious, this exam not only tests knowledge but also stamina.

As if the exam in itself weren’t impressive (and almost some kind of cruel and unusual punishment), the selected few who pass the agrégation benefit from the highest salaries, and the least teaching hours.

To recap, there are two elements I find truly paradoxical about this particular exam. First, its preparation consists of extensive knowledge of material and subject matter, not of any kind of pedagogical methods, education/child psychology, or discipline management. In other words, teachers are valuable in the amount of knowledge and expertise they have. In addition, I find it disturbing that the teachers who have worked the hardest, who have in theory, the most capacities, are rewarded with fewer hours.

Why does this matter? First, it shows that in France, teachers must have knowledge and expertise in their fields. Learning is envisioned as a one-way transmission of knowledge, from teacher to student. Of course in individual classrooms teachers break out of the mold and can do amazing things with their students. The institution, however, values training highly specialized and knowledgeable teachers because they carry the burden of communicating information to the students.  Not surprisingly, many French classrooms retain what appears to an American as a very authoritarian, hierarchical environment, where the teacher is the authority. This has been a challenge in my own teaching in trying to create environments where learning is more of a collective effort.

Another example of this is the grading scale in France. While Americans are often accused of grade-inflation, France has the opposite problem. France grades students on a scale of 1-20, 1 being the lowest, 20 being the highest. Most teachers, however, will tell you that getting a 20/20 is impossible, especially in humanities. 19 and 18 are rare at the university level, and 16-17 are considered excellent grades. A 10/20 is considered passing. It’s difficult for me to imagine going through a system where you know it is never possible to get a perfect score or grade. But essentially the message this sends is that, as a student, you never can achieve a perfect score. The closest you could ever get to a 20/20 is to become a teacher.

And so, in a nutshell, France’s teacher training remains for me a system that is a lot more about how much you know and a lot less about how well you communicate it. Teachers certainly know their subjects inside/out and can lecture on just about anything. As an American, though, this can create (and has created for me) uncomfortable classroom situations where students don’t want to speak or participate in class, because it’s not their place. Their place is to sit, and absorb information.

There will be more to come in future posts about l’éducation nationale, since there is much more to it than just the agrégation…  


  1. 20/20: Dieu
    19/20: Jesus
    18/20: le prof
    17 and below: students

    1. Translation (for non-French speakers):

      20/20: God
      19/20: Jesus
      18/20: the teacher
      17 and below: students

      Isn't it interesting that a laïc country would unofficially recognize God and Jesus as higher authorities than teachers on the grading scale;-)

    2. I never thought about that before, but it's true!

  2. Hi ! it is nice to see an american point of view! I am french. Bye the way note are from 0 to 20 and note from 1 to 20. I had a lot of 0 and as a child on "dictée " I had some negative note (ex: - 5/ ) because it was 1 point per fault and I was really bad!

    1. Thanks, Hélène, for your comment. It seems crazy to an American to get a negative score in France (I didn't realize this was possible), so this makes for an interesting comparison between the two countries. Thanks for sharing!


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