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French Education

The U.S. has SOLs and the SAT. In the French education system, if you want to do anything beyond Lycée (France’s high school equivalent), you have to pass le bac, an entrance exam for students planning to attend university.

As usual, we are learning as we go. The end of my son’s second year is almost finished, and as he has decided to stay in the French education system to finish school, we had to seek out educational opportunities. We were still trying to figure out how the French education system works; we have learned that obtaining the French Baccalauréat is almost a must.

His first year in France, he entered the French education system in Terminale S (S for science) with an agreement that he would not take the Bac. The private school didn’t want to bring their overall scores down, and with his entry level of French, it’s certain he would not obtain a good “note.”

After one academic year and a weekly private French course, his oral and written French were better than mine were after two years (learning as I go; no French course for me). Then it was time to move on. Well….

Easier said than done. That agreement not to take the Bac bit us you-know-where. There are very few options for a serious student who has not passed the Bac. To enter university, it’s a must; to enter most other types of specialized schools, it’s a must. So we went backwards a bit.

He decided to redoublé, repeat a year, and entered Première. This would allow him a year to prepare for the French Bac exams, taken at the end of Première, and then a year in Terminale to prepare for the final Bac. He wasn’t too happy about this at first, but there is a silver lining.

First, his French language skills after the one year spent in a private French school were excellent. Second, he could have applied to some schools that are more hands-on and geared toward his chosen field, design or art. We were looking at options for him to go into a two-year Bac prep program with an art and design focus. The French education system is so different from the U.S. system, I was trying to get him to look at it as not taking two steps back, but rather as getting some really interesting and focused training in his chosen field while preparing for the Bac. Yes, this means he would lose one year before being eligible for university, but what’s one year for an 18-year-old? After two years living in Europe, I’m finally losing that American mentality of “this is the way Americans do it.”

There were other options. He could enter an international program and get OIB, option internationale du baccalauréat, which he could take entirely in English. This is an internationally recognized option of the French Bac. If we had followed this option when he first arrived, I might have considered it; but now that he’s fairly fluent in French, it seems right to both of us that he should just continue in a French school. Also, the one program that we found that offers this option is private and very expensive, about 22,000 euros for one year.

We also discovered the option of the IB, International Bac, partly in English and partly in French. We found a two-year program in the International section of a public school (meaning FREE). But it’s a general education program. This would feel more like he’s repeating a year, as he would be taking the same subjects he’s already had.

In the end, we decided on the IB, and he entered Lycée Georges Duby in Aix-en-Provence. It has turned out to be an excellent choice. He takes a few courses in English, and the rest in French, including a French course designed especially for non-native speakers, to help him prepare for the French Bac at the end of Première.

We were fortunate to get a place in this school, as we were told by the director that more than 6oo students apply for 1oo places. We are finding this to be the norm in France–acceptance to high school is not a given; you have to find an opening and gain acceptance, particularly if you haven’t moved up through the system or are looking to change schools.

The course work is rigorous, as the Bac is rigorous. But despite the work load, my son is enjoying the school. He attends with students from all over the world, as this section is international. It’s a cultural, as well as an educational, experience.

And the fact that he’s losing a year, by U.S. standards, no longer seems to be an issue. The educational and cultural experience is making up for any perceived loss of time.

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