10 minute read


Secondary Education

Founded by the Loi Haby of 1975, the collège unique is designed to follow through on the primary school principal of housing all pupils, whatever their talents and tastes, together under one roof. Specialization into university preparation, pre-professional, and technical training is thus put off until the pupil attains the age of 15 or 16. (Formerly, this specialization occurred when the pupil entered the class known as sixième, that is when he was 11 or 12 and it was largely based on an entrance examination now regarded as socially discriminatory.) Thus, the four years spent at the collège are essentially transitional and given over to orientation. The collège is structured largely in order to "fit" the pupil into one of the many orientations open to him at the lycée level. Consequently, in certain respects the collège is "intermediate," and in other respects it is part of the secondary school cycle. It is characterized by flexible scheduling, the availability of many new programs, and by the careful monitoring of all pupils. Those who display difficulties in adjustment and in class work are provided with counseling and help. Serious attempts are made also to involve parents in the functioning of the school.

The goals and ideals of the new collège unique, which in many respects resembles the American Middle School (or Junior High), have not always been successful in practice. The four years of the French collège unique break down into three main periods: (1) the initial year called sixième; (2) the two years of cinquième and quatrième; and (3) the final year called troisième.

The sixième is designed to solidify what was learned in primary school; to introduce boys and girls to new subject-matters; and to help them develop good work habits and methods. Pupils have 23 or 24 hours of class weekly, undergo two hours of "directed study" aimed at all pupils, and have what is called an arrangement for "consolidation" aimed at pupils who encounter difficulties.

Not surprisingly, the curriculum of the sixième follows closely upon that of the final year of elementary school, yet it differs also in that it emphasizes practice and creativity on the part of the pupil. For example, in French, after reading carefully and discussing a given text, the pupils might be asked to rewrite part of it, retelling an episode from the perspective of a character other than the protagonist. Or they might be assigned to write a letter to a foreign pen-pal describing life in their school. After returning the corrected papers to the class, the teacher will focus on their grammatical and spelling errors to the entire group, ask the schoolchildren to rewrite their work, and have the other pupils correct them.

In mathematics the focus is on geometry, numeric works, and functions. Pupils describe and trace simple plane figures, and they measure, compare, and calculate areas and perimeters. They also deepen their knowledge of the four arithmetical operations by applying them to whole numbers and decimals, and they are introduced to relative numbers. During the later part of the course, they work with handling data and dealing with functions. Tables, diagrams, and graphics are studied and related to other disciplines, such as geography and technology.

History and geography are a combined focus. History deals mainly with the ancient world: the beginnings of agriculture, Egypt, the Hebrews, Greece, Rome, and early Christianity. Facts are learned, but pupils are also taught to examine critically the documents from historical knowledge: treatises, maps, photos, etc. Geography examines the relationship between mankind and his diverse habitats—the diversity of terrains, climates, urban and rural settings, and population densities.

Civics, now incorporated into the history-geography section, deals principally with the pupils and their fellow peers in the college itself. The establishment's structure is examined, as are the people who make it run (the student body, the faculty, the principal, and the social worker). Also, the principles of rights and obligations are closely studied, as is the text of The Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Life and Earth Sciences capitalize on the young adolescents' fascination with nature and its manipulation, as well as on their love of experimentation. In this class they study the classification of plants and animals, the cell, animal and vegetable reproduction, and the food chain. They also examine various types of tissue under the microscope, graft plant cuttings, and dissect a flower.

Technological study examines how objects are produced, manufactured, and placed for sale by different kinds of enterprise. Each pupil works on a specific project and is taught computer technology word-processing, searching, and how to use the Internet in order better to do so.

Physical education and sports focus on the latter during the sixième: pupils are introduced to gymnastics, swimming, combative and racket sports, and team sports. Motor capacities are developed, and special attention is given to a sense of effort and responsibility.

The plastic arts emphasize creativity in two and three dimensions and use various techniques and materials (clay, paper, collages, paint, and ink). Meetings are arranged with local artists and field trips are taken to museums.

In music, special attention is given over to the "education of the ear." Six major compositions from various periods and genres are listened to and studied. In addition, six vocal works are sung by groups of pupils, and they are also initiated into playing instruments of percussion and the recorder. Some attention is paid to electronically generated music.

Thus, the above describes how the sixième builds on the advanced primary school program. Its major curricular innovation lies in the pupil's serious undertaking of study of a modern foreign language. Most colleges offer English, Spanish, German and Italian, although some also provide for Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, and the local regional language. Latin is offered in cinquième where a full quarter of collegians opt for it; it has the reputation of being the place where the "better pupils" are. The first year of foreign language study is largely "cultural." Pupils are introduced to how people relate to each other in Britain and the U.S. and how they express their tastes and dislikes. Some effort is made to have the young French boys and girls speak the language with a suitable pronunciation and a vocabulary that stresses the individual (size, clothing, and age) and his or her activities (games, holidays, and travels), as well as family relations. Some historical and geographical information concerning the country, or countries, in which the language is spoken are given.

The cinquième and quatrième years constitute the focal point of the four collège unique years. Essentially the program of study follows through on the subjects taught in sixième (including a modern foreign language—a second of which must be added as part of the quatrième), but the sciences are broken down into Earth and Life Sciences and Physics and Chemistry. It is here that many children, especially those from recent immigrant and disadvantaged families, find their studies to be fairly difficult. This is especially the case in mathematics and the sciences. Numerous pupils require remedial help. By and large the program does not differ radically from the older, traditional collège and lycée curricula that led to the "classical" baccalauréat and from there to the university. Moreover, in addition to the weekly 23 or 24 hours spent in the classroom, the pupils find themselves with homework assignments amounting to between 20 and 30 hours a week. Work in all the curricular subjects takes place on an ever higher level of abstraction (for which not all pupils are yet quite ready), and, of course, the work requires well-organized and critical consultation of manuals, dictionaries, and other reference works. Frustration and a sense of failure consequently affect many collegians at this level, particularly among males it seems. Of course, without the establishment of the collège unique a quarter-century ago, many of its present pupil clients would simply not be in a college at all, and this, of course, has no doubt prompted many conservative critics to question the validity of its establishment.

The subject-matter covered in the two-year course curriculum includes French, mathematics, foreign languages, history and geography, civics, life and earth sciences, physics and chemistry, and technology. More advanced classes in the plastic arts and music, as well as in physical education and sports, continue throughout these two years.

The troisième is the terminal middle-secondary school year constituting arguably the single most important school experience in the lives of French schoolchildren. It comprises three elements: the continuation and "perfection" of the studies undertaken so far; an endeavor to all the studies accomplished to date; and a way to determine the orientation to be followed by each individual pupil in his or her three year subsequent lycée level higher secondary schoolwork. Furthermore, at the close of troisième, or each pupil takes his first national examination: the Brevet d'études. This diploma is awarded, or not awarded, on the basis of each child's course grades in all classes taken during quatrième and troisième (these grades are counted with a coefficient of 1), as well as in combination with a timed written examination in French, Mathematics, and History-Geography (with a coefficient of 2). The brevet and access to the lycée is awarded to pupils attaining a global average of 10 through 20 (it should be added that grades exceeding 17 are very rare). The success rate for the brevet usually hovers around 75 percent. Enrollments in the state-run colleges in recent years have averaged about 3 million pupils.

Upper Secondary Education: Three main, and quite different, specialized options are open to brevet holders at the lycée level: the General Baccalaureate (baccalauréat general), which leads to the university, and to specialized schools of higher education (e.g., the grandes écoles, with their highly competitive entrance examinations); two types of Technological Baccalaureate (baccalauréat technologique), which opens to various specialized schools of a technological, professional or artistic sort; and the Professional Baccalaureate (baccalauréat professionnel), leading directly to insertion into the job market and on the job training (this last program involves two years of study, the previous two comprise three). Of these three options, the General Baccalaureate is the simplest; it also comes closest to the older, more traditional lycée; the Technological Baccalaureate structurally resembles the first. The "professional" curriculum is much more complex in that all its options (including a Baccalaureate-less path) recognize many diverse goals and levels. It is highly recommended that each pupil make as solidly based a decision as possible concerning his or her eventual path, and that both parents and school counseling staff be closely involved in this process which, it is urged, should begin no later than the year of the cinquième.

The Technology option, as well as the Professional curriculum, can lead to a Technological (or Professional) brevet, as well as, in the first case, a baccalauréat and, in the second, a Certificat d'aptitude professionnel, (Certificate of Professional Aptitude or CAP). Those youth who choose either the brevet or the CAP path usually go directly on to a job, with or without a formal program of on the job training. The lycée programs attempt to provide a basis for as many types of jobs as there exist in the country's job market; some programs combine school programs with apprentice-type internships in various firms. In the case of those who successfully pass the Technological baccalauréat, many specialized institutions, both public and private, are available.

Lycée enrollments have totaled on average over the past five years of about 1 million; slightly more than half of enrolled students have chosen the Professional option. The various apprenticeship programs attract an average of 350,000 students each year, while the special secondary level programs (e.g., agriculture, health services) enroll about 250,000 boys and girls. Thus, most collegians go on to some lycée level work; however, the programmatic unity imposed on pre-brevet pupils is followed up by an extreme diversity in the lycée.

Grosso modo, the French secondary educational system, seems both to promote and to respond to a division apparently built into French society. One large segment of its clientele uses the secondary school to prepare for advanced higher educational training and therefore postpones its insertion into the productive economic life of the country. An equally large segment either drops out of the educational system as such altogether or uses it as an immediate springboard to a wage-earning career. It is very much an either/or situation. Unlike the United States and Canada, France has no community college-type alternative, nor does it possess a truly varied gamut of institutions of higher learning. Also, theoretically at least, the state-recognized masters degree delivered by a remote provincial university or "university institute" in no way differs from the one earned at an older, established provincial institution or, for that matter, at the Université de Paris IV (Sorbonne).

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceFrance - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education