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A growing number of young French people are turning their backs on France’s mainstream education system. They join critics who say that high schools are too rigid and fail to appreciate each student as “a whole person.” Instead they are turning to experimental schools, which welcome those who have failed to thrive in the traditional system. While the schools remain on the fringe, they’re challenging long-held notions about the importance of the national high school exit exam and what it means to succeed. In France, the baccalauréat exam acts as both diploma and entrance exam, meaning that without it, getting into college is impossible and finding a job is a major challenge. At most of the experimental schools, taking the test is optional. But it is still a goal for many students. “I intend to pass the bac and then I’ll go from there – maybe working with people with difficulties or disabilities,” says Nicolas Genaille, age 20, who attends a school an hour outside Paris. “I had the idea before coming to this school, but it’s true that being in this environment has confirmed it for me.”
It’s smiles and sighs of relief all around as Laetitia Lerner and Nicolas Genaille chat with friends and try to unwind after another grueling day of the baccalauréat – the French national high school exit exams. Even for Ms. Lerner and Mr. Genaille, who are only in their second to last year of high school, the testing has already begun. The results they get this year will contribute to their scores on the final exam after completing “terminale” – senior year.
“I’m very happy with how I did,” says Genaille, an hour after completing the science exam. The French written exam took place last week, with the French oral test scheduled for the first week of July.
“Now we’re going to have something to eat and relax,” says Lerner, a shy smile crossing her cheeks.
A year ago, Lerner and Genaille couldn’t have imagined themselves here, in high school, taking “le bac,” as the French familiarly call it. Genaille, 20, had lost all confidence in himself after dropping out of high school at 17, disenchanted with the traditional school system.
Lerner, 23, dropped out at 16 amid major family problems, which triggered a five-year period of depression. Both say the Microlycée de Sénart, an experimental high school one hour outside Paris in Lieusaint, saved them.
“I lost a lot of motivation during the time I wasn’t in school; I was alone so much and not interacting with people,” says Lerner. “But at this school, no one judges you because we’ve all been through tough times.”
Lerner and Genaille are part of a growing number of French youths turning their backs on France’s mainstream education system. A highly centralized order with a national focus on the baccalauréat that borders on obsession, French high schools have been criticized by many as being too rigid, hierarchical, and failing to appreciate each student as “a whole person.”
But while experimental schools – especially junior highs and high schools – remain on the fringes here and must constantly prove their worth, they are increasingly providing options to students who have failed to thrive in the mainstream system. They’re also challenging long-held notions about the importance of the national high school exit exam and what it means to succeed.
“France is not a country with a wealth of innovative, experimental schools; they remain rare,” says François Dubet, director of studies in sociology at the School for Higher Education in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. “But more often than not, these schools get good results because the students are motivated and the teachers are especially committed and present in students’ lives.”
A non-traditional approach
There are currently just over a dozen experimental junior highs and high schools in France that are members of FESPI, a national federation that promotes innovative school choices. Unlike similar private, tuition-based establishments, which often serve a homogenous, wealthy demographic, these schools are public and free, falling under the tutelage of the French Ministry of Education. They must report student grades twice a year as well as the final baccalauréat results.
While some – like the Microlycée de Sénart – are geared toward bringing back students who have dropped out of school, others simply provide a fresh and more diverse approach to teaching. At the Lycée Autogéré de Paris (LAP), for example, students are not graded, can choose their own course schedule, and work with teachers on course schedules and school organization.
At the Collège Lycée Expérimental d’Hérouville Saint Clair (CLE) in the north of France, teachers are required to teach multiple subjects, which can bring a more complete picture of each student. And at the Microlycée, class sizes are limited to 15, students contribute to classroom cleaning, eat and do the dishes together, and have a say in how classes are run.
However, the starkest difference at these experimental high schools is, most notably, their approach to “le bac.” For most, it remains an option, not a requirement. And yet, says Olivier Haeri, an economics and sociology teacher at the Microlycée, passing the national exit exam is a goal for most students upon entering experimental schools.
“If we talk less about the bac, it gives it less pressure, less importance,” says Mr. Haeri. “But symbolically to have it is to feel ‘normal’ for many, or a way to repair something in their past. It shows students they can succeed educationally.”
One, all-important test
Unlike in the United States, where students receive a high school diploma upon completing courses with the option of taking entrance exams to get into college, France has no equivalent as such. The “bac” acts as both diploma and entrance exam, meaning that without it, getting into college is impossible and finding a job – even a low-level one – is a major challenge.
“The bac is very important in France, but in a negative sense,” says Mr. Dubet, the sociologist. “It doesn’t give you that much if you have it, but if you don’t have it, you lose a lot.”
Those without the prized exam suffer from high rates of unemployment. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), 48 percent of those without a diploma were unemployed in 2017. But perhaps more detrimental is the social stigma that comes with not passing it. During the week-long test, national radio broadcasts are dedicated to the subject and newspapers publish the topics of each day’s exam along with students’ results.
Around 88 percent of French high school students have consistently passed the bac since 2014. Experimental high schools include a range of statistics, with some outperforming the national averages and others hovering at around a 40 percent success rate. The inconsistent statistics could raise doubts about the schools’ effectiveness. But those involved in the system say results of the bac don’t show the whole picture.
“These are students who would never have even taken the test if they had remained in the mainstream school system,” says Catherine Noyer, president of FESPI, and a biology teacher at CLE in Hérouville Saint Clair. One year, when a student had decided not to take the test just hours before the exam was to begin, Ms. Noyer went to her home, convinced her to take it, and drove her to the baccalauréat testing center.
“With this in mind, we can say that we have a 100 percent success rate,” she says.
Despite its relative importance in France, the most essential aspect of experimental schools is not getting every student to “pass the bac” but to help them regain their confidence in school.
“This is a system that looks at each student as a young person with his or her own story and abilities,” says Ms. Noyer. “They are citizens, individuals, and need to be considered in their entirety.”
A focus on interaction
At the Microlycée, teachers place a large focus on bringing students out of their shell, teaching them how to interact with others again in addition to reassuring them of their intellectual abilities. They ask students when they want to be graded, but don't often do so at the start of the year.
Haeri says many have lost so much confidence in themselves – often due to negative experiences in the mainstream system – that they don’t believe teachers when they’re given positive feedback on assignments.
Lerner, who moved around the country often with her family growing up and attended multiple schools, says they all had a common thread for her.
“The traditional high school system is oppressive and individualistic,” she says. “If you don’t succeed, you’re basically cast out of society.”
Lerner says in her two years at the Microlycée, she has come to realize her unique abilities and the benefits of a positive, encouraging environment. If she passes her bac next year, she hopes to go on to get a master’s degree in sociology.
And Genaille, who arrived quiet and withdrawn at the beginning of the year, has now blossomed into a confident, articulate young person who is ready to show off his talents, says Haeri, his teacher.
“I intend to pass the bac and then I’ll go from there – maybe working with people with difficulties or disabilities,” Genaille says. “I had the idea before coming to this school but it’s true that being in this environment has confirmed it for me.”