Having worked as an English Language Assistant in France for a few months now, I thought I’d make a list of cultural differences between state schools in the UK and in France. Being in a school here is odd, because so many universal things are the same (bell at the end of lessons, classrooms, teachers, students) but many aspects of school life here are really different, and took some getting used to.
- Schools here have a different structure to most comprehensive schools in Britain. After primary school, pupils attend Collège (Middle school) which is the equivalent to years 7-10 of senior school. They then go to obligatory Lycée (High School), which is for pupils in years 11-13. Additionally, the name of the year-group a child is in counts down in France, rather than up as it does in the UK. Years 11-13 are called Deuxième, Première, and finally Terminale.
- The school day in France is SO LONG! At my Lycée, the first lesson starts at 8am, and classes finish at 6pm. It’s exhausting, and the pupils are expected to go home and do homework in the evening.
- French students do the International Baccalaureate (Bac for short) instead of taking A-Levels. This means that while most British students study a maximum of four subjects after GCSEs, French students take around nine or ten. There are different Bacs to choose from: Littérature, Scientifique, Économie et Sociale, and Professionnel are the choices at my Lycée. In each of the different streams, however, pupils are required to learn English. Therefore, most French people should theoretically have a better base level of English than most English people do of French.
- Pupils in France don’t wear uniforms. Most sixth-form colleges in the UK have a no-uniform policy, but even in primary school French children do not have uniforms. This means they find the concept of wearing a uniform hilarious and interesting: (‘even your SHOES must be the same?!’…’What do you wear when you do sport?’)
- One of our stereotypes about the French is that, in general, they smoke more than we do. It is undeniably true, and even true amongst teenagers. The stairs in front of my Lycée are always literally full of pupils smoking together, only a few meters from their school. There is no social stigma attached to smoking here, and no one would ever judge the school based on the fact that students smoke outside of it. I was mildly horrified, however, when I walked past a 15-year-old student I recognised from Collége outside my apartment, which is on the school grounds, lighting up a cigarette. He didn’t seem fazed though; he waved and said ‘Hello, miss!’
- French pupils aren’t allowed to drink water during their lessons. This was something I learned at my introduction meeting for language assistants in Firminy, when the teacher leading our meeting made a point of telling us that the water-bottles in front of us would not be allowed in our classrooms. I’ve noticed that in general French people don’t seem to drink much water though; at the swimming-pool I’m always the only one with a bottle by the edge. Such a foreigner.
- Teenagers in France are all about the PDA. They are generally more physically affectionate towards each other anyway, as two girls or a girl and boy will kiss each others’ cheeks in greeting whenever they see each other. Two boys will also greet each other, but with a big affectionate handshake instead. Couples are everywhere in Lycée, making out in the middle of the playground, the corridor, or in front of their friends. They are certainly not embarrassed to be seen kissing by their teachers and all their classmates.
- The canteen serves so much food! Lunch is traditionally the biggest meal of the day in France, and in the school canteen you get a three-course meal: starter, side-dish, main meat and vegetables, dessert, bread. It’s really difficult for me to eat all my food because I’m not used to such a huge meal for lunch. It also makes concentrating in the afternoon an extra challenge, when all I want to do is nap!
Everything has been pretty average this week, nothing exciting to report. I’ve been talking about Donald Trump and the US Elections in my classes, which meant I had to do a lot of reading about how the US Elections actually work! I’ve been to Roanne to hang out with my friends there a few times. I visited the McCafé yesterday for a cappuccino, which was actually really nice, despite coming from a café inside a McDonalds (they even sell patisserie!) Next weekend I’m heading of to Strasbourg with my Roanne friends for the famous Christmas Market, which should be absolutely amazing.