The Education System and School Life in French Guiana

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. –Nelson Mandela

Now that I have been living and working in Guyane for over two months, I have gotten an intimate look and good insight into the education system and school life here. I will start with the general basics about the French national education system, then get into the details of how things work at Collège Constant Chlore, the middle school where I am currently teaching.

Le Système Educatif de la France

The development of France’s education system is largely attributed to Napoleon (how surprising—isn’t everything in modern French society?). It is overseen by the Ministère de l’Éducation Nationale (Ministry of National Education).

School employees in France are considered civil servants, making the Ministère the largest employer in the country. Teachers, professors, and researchers (even at the university level) are employed by the government.

A French education is divided into three stages:

  • Enseignement primaire (primary education)
  • Enseignement secondaire (secondary education)
  • Enseignement supérieur (higher education)

Système Educatif Français

In order to graduate from each level, students must pass rigorous exams in order to obtain their diploma. Upon graduating from Enseignement primaire, they must pass the Brevet des colleges, and in order to finish Enseignement secondaire, they must pass the infamous Baccalauréat.

French university degrees are broken up the same way as in the U.S., as follows:

  • Licence and Licence Professionnelle (Bachelor’s)
  • Master (Master’s)
  • Doctorat (Doctorate)

The most prestigious higher education establishments in France are known as the Grandes écoles, highly prestigious and competitive institutions that allow students to specialize in one subject area, such as business or engineering. In order to gain admittance into the Grandes écoles, university students must pass two years of prépas (classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles), horrendously competitive programs that only the best students complete.

Something to note—tuition. School is free for French students up until university. Even higher education at public institutions is funded by the state, leaving only a small portion to be paid by the student. Low-income families can apply for financial assistance and sometimes even receive a monthly stipend for attending university. Private schools, on the other hand, can cost up to €15,000 per year (still less than many American public institutions, mind you).

Administration

France is divided up into regions to make for easier administration (i.e. Paris, Rennes, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Nice, etc.), and each of those regions has its own Académie. Guyane and all of the other Départements d’Outre Mer are considered their own regions. Each Académie has several inspectors who oversee the curriculum, meeting national standards, and hiring.

The school year extends from September to June, with classes in session from Monday through Friday. One major difference between the U.S. and France is that the French school day lasts much longer, leaving students with less time for extracurricular activities. In general, the school day starts at 8:30 am (7:30 am here in Guyane, because it is cooler in the morning), with a pause around noon, and ends around 5:00 pm.

Another major difference between the French and American systems is the amount of vacation time. Whereas French children spend considerably more hours per week in the classroom, they also benefit from longer and more frequent breaks. Roughly every six to seven weeks, teachers and students are awarded with two weeks off. Several of these breaks coincide with the major Christian holidays:

  • La Toussaint (All Saints’s Day): two weeks around the end of October and the beginning of November
  • Noël (Christmas): two weeks around Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
  • Hiver (winter): two weeks starting in mid February
  • Printemps (spring) or Pâques (Easter): two weeks starting in mid April
  • Été (summer): two months starting in early July

Regions are grouped into three zones (known as A, B, and C, easily enough), and each region has its vacations at slightly different intervals, so that the whole country is not off from school at the same time.

La Journée Scolaire

Students have each class every day, for about an hour, with a few longer sessions throughout the week. There is no such thing as “block scheduling” here, which tends to keep students on top of their subject matter throughout the year to prepare them for national exams. In France, students typically eat lunch in the cafeteria, but here in Guyane, where there is no school lunch hall and the town is so small, students return home during the pause de midi.

Curriculum is nationalized, although there are options for specialization (as students get older) that allow the students to choose their scholastic path. In high school, students can choose from multiple academic tracks.

There are three general series:

  • L (littéraire)
  • ES (économique et sociale)
  • S (scientifique)

There are also eight technological series, ranging from hospitality to applied arts to agricultural science. By the time French students finish Enseignement secondaire, they are already highly specialized in their respective field, so their university education does not include the same general courses that most American institutions require.

Students are scored the same way, all across France, from Enseignement primaire to Université. All classes and most individual graded assignments have a value of 20 points. 18 and above is essentially perfect, anything over 14 is considered solid, and 10 is considered the lowest mark in order to “pass.” Here, the academic philosophy is similar to that in the U.K. In the U.S., all students start out with 100%, and points are deducted for errors made along the way. In France, students begin with 0 points, and points are added for what the student gets right.

There are national standards indicating which capacities students should have achieved by each level of their schooling, dictated by the Livret Personnel de Compétences, a document adopted by the Ministère de l’Éducation Nationale. For foreign language learning, competencies to be developed by students include the ability to hold a conversation, understand oral and written messages, and write basic compositions. In addition, there are international standards of language learning to which French schools are held accountable, as set out by the European Union. These are described in the Cadre Européen Commun de Référence pour les Langues: Apprendre, Enseigner, Evaluer, a document adopted by all of the states in the European Union.

My Encounter with the French Education System in Guyane

No country can really develop unless its citizens are educated. –Nelson Mandela

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A painting done by the students at Collège Constant Chlore depicting the bridge between Brazil and French Guiana.

Other than the fact that administratively, the French education system resembles that of any wealthy, developed nation, it is quite distinctive academically. I first began to learn about the differences between the French and American school systems from my friends at the University of Maryland who had attended a French high school in the U.S. These differences have been confirmed and reinforced during my short time here, but they are by no means an accurate reflection of procedure throughout France (mainland and overseas departments alike).

The first thing I noticed during my initial observation week was the disciplinarian liberty afforded to the teachers at the collège. Students’ behavioral problems here do not even come close to equaling some of the actions I witnessed during my formative years at school in the U.S. Yet teachers often yell at individual students in front of an entire class, publicly chastising them for silly things, like making too much noise when pulling a chair out from under a desk, in order to enforce their etiquette. I was also surprised to hear teachers use the casual “tu” form of “you,” instead of the more formal “vous” with their students. Perhaps this convention is reserved more for lycée (high school) and université.

One practice that I have abhorred from the beginning of my time here is that of teachers handing back graded papers and exams in order of the lowest to highest grades, calling students by name and publicizing their scores. I actually spoke to the department head, also my professeur référent (mentor teacher), about this, and he agreed that it should be stopped. For one, it is an ancient academic practice, and two, it hardly motivates students. Rather, it damages their psyche and destroys any chance of positive motivation.

The second most prevalent difference I noticed was the tendency toward “aesthetics,” a practice that carries through from école maternelle (preschool) all the way to lycée (high school). Students are not only expected to complete their work, but they are also required to maintain a standard of appearance in their notebooks and assignments. From a very young age, they write in an elaborate French script that is much more elegant and refined than the American cursive we learn in third grade. Notebook paper is lined with a grid, instead of just horizontal lines, so everything—from letters to graphs to sketches—is supposed to be measured out and evenly spaced. Students will even go so far as to write with a ruler underneath their pen, guiding it along as they write. In every class, note-taking is color-coded. For example, in English class, students will write English words in blue and their French translations in black. Green and red are reserved for mapping various grammatical structures. Students tote little pencil cases as complete school kits, filled with everything from a ruler and protractor and compass to assorted colored pencils and glue sticks. These materials are required for their studies—largely due to this culture of aestheticism.

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On a similar note to the aesthetic tradition, much emphasis is placed on copying text from the blackboard or a textbook, verbatim. This leaves little room for students to identify the most important information from a lesson and write that down. I once read that when taking notes during a lecture, you should listen 80% of the time and write 20% of the time, taking down only the main points—when studying the notes, the rest will come from your memory. In the language classes I assist, the amount of time spent copying translations detracts from time spent speaking, reading, and writing—the three most important working components of language learning.

Geographically speaking, there are many external influences on students’ learning here in St. Georges. The tiny Guyane-Brazil border town is isolated in the jungle along the Oyapock River, but is a hotbed for diversity. My students speak many different languages, including French, Portuguese, Creole, and several Amerindien dialects. The school is taught only in French, which creates many problems for learning English in an already foreign language. It brings to mind much of the literature I have read regarding the importance of learning new languages in one’s mother tongue—perhaps a future dissertation topic.

With this cultural diversity also come poverty and a lack of employment opportunities beyond those offered locally—like running a small shop or driving a pirogue. According to my professeur référent, about 85% of the families in this town live on the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales—government welfare. When many parents receive the check at the end of the month, they line up outside the post office (which is also the bank—la banque postale) to cash it in, and then immediately begin to drink it away, one beer at a time. This is certainly not the case for all families here, but I have seen the long line outside la banque postale, and I have wondered.

Many teachers have personally taken on the responsibility to show the children the life that exists in the rest of the world. In a few cases, I get the impression that the teachers are not there for the kids, but rather for the simplistic, carefree lifestyle that the region offers. For the most part, though, they are dedicated to their work and genuinely care about their students. They seem to enjoy teaching while detesting the administrative side of affairs—like teachers anywhere. The large majority of the teachers here come from metropolitan France, and return to the mainland after a few years. They are mostly between the ages of 27 and 35. Just two weeks ago, my roommate (who is also a math teacher at the school) had two friends from France come to visit on their way backpacking through this part of South America. They had planned on working small jobs along the way, but when they asked to fill the vacancies for a music and technology teacher at the school, they were hired within a week. Fact is, it is better to have someone than no one.

Then there are the teachers who genuinely care about their students, who come to the school on a daily basis to improve their lives and empower them as they become young adults. A few weeks ago, one English teacher that I work with set aside an entire hour of class to discuss with her 3ème students (9th grade, 14-15 years old) puberty and the importance of personal hygiene. The talk granted quite a few laughs, but in retrospect, it was probably the only candid discussion of those issues these children have ever had. The teacher recounted a story of a former thirteen-year-old student who had gotten pregnant and left school. She is now fifteen years old with a two-year-old son. Last week just as class was beginning, one girl (fourteen years old) quickly ran out to go to the bathroom. When the teacher asked the other students where she was going, they said she left to go vomit. The girl returned, smiling and looking fine. The teacher turned to me and said, “There is a good chance she’s pregnant.” I was stunned. I asked what happens to students who get pregnant, and he said that they usually complete as much schooling as they can, have the baby, and never return.

On the administrative side of things, teachers are held quite accountable outside of the classroom. They teach 18 hours per week and spend about one hour preparing for each class, making a 36-hour work week. They are asked to evaluate students once per trimester (three times per academic year), both online and in person at conseils de classe. The conseils de classe are a series of meetings, each one focused on a different grade and level. Teachers attend the meetings where their students are concerned, and discuss each pupil individually among teachers of other subject areas. I went to a conseil de classe last week to observe how things are managed. Before the meeting, teachers provide an individual online commentary of a few sentences for each student in their particular subject. At the conseil, the principal and other teachers give more detailed remarks about that students’ academic performance and behavior. I found that the teachers were quite frank about students strengths and weaknesses, occasionally having disagreements. It showed, however, that the teachers are invested in their students’ performance. In addition to the conseils de classe each semester, teachers are expected to hold parent-teacher meetings for the classes for which they are the professeur principal. Essentially, each teacher is assigned one or two classes for whom they are responsible for tracking students’ progress in all subject areas. At parents night, they meet individually with the parent(s) as well as the students. Typically in the U.S., students are not part of the parent-teacher meetings. Here, I get the sense that it affords the teacher a higher sense of authority. Rather than protecting their children and insisting that they are perfect angels (as many would in the U.S.), they tend to acknowledge their children’s weaknesses. One mother blatantly stated that her daughter did not do any work at home, and another admitted that her son was always too tired to do his work when he came home from kayaking.

Students here are also held accountable for their education thanks to a decent level of bureaucracy. They each have a carnet de scolarité (academic record book), which they tote to every class. There they write their parental contact information, glue little flyers handed to them by teachers, and keep record of their absences and detentions. Children here each have a carnet de santé, a complete record of their health from birth to present, which they present to the infirmière (school nurse) at the beginning of each year. Unfortunately, the collège did not acquire an infirmière until mid-November this year. Each class also has an elected délégué de classe, a fellow student chosen by his peers to take responsibility for the attendance records and represent that class, acting as a liaison between the other students and their teachers. The délégués de classe also participate in the conseils de classe with the teachers, providing feedback on their peers and reporting back to that class with the comments from the conseil. In addition to the délégué position, students have the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular activities, such as soccer, basketball, kayaking, theatre, and choir, but they are not as popular (nor as “mandatory”) as they are in the U.S. for keeping kids well-rounded in their studies.

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I created an American Culture Club in order to get to know some of my students better, and to share a bit about my experiences in the United States with them. Although only a few showed up each week (roughly five or six), I felt the endeavor was a relative success. We would begin the session by watching part of the movie “Forrest Gump,” discussing afterward the cultural implications of the scenes depicting different moments in American history. I thought I would get bored watching the movie over and over again, but I realized each time just how nuanced the script and plot are. The students enjoyed the film, finding it funny and easy to identify with the characters, despite their cultural differences. I also enjoyed getting to know the students better, asking them questions about their cultural backgrounds in exchange for details about American history and culture.

In terms of classroom resources, Collège Constant Chlore is quite well-equipped, compared to other schools in the region. Each subject has textbooks of various levels, and they are in pretty good condition, though somewhat dated. Each classroom has a blackboard or a white board, and there is a small library with books, magazines, and about ten computers. There is also a separate IT room that offers internet access on about twenty monitors, but students are only able to use this room when their teacher reserves it for a class project. Unfortunately, I find that not many of the teachers make use of this facility. Not all of the classrooms have air-conditioning, but the heat is made bearable by large window flaps that remain open to circulate what few breezes come through. While all this is provided by the school, teachers are responsible for purchasing project materials—they have to be very creative in order to incorporate different media into the classroom. In effect, the students have the equipment they need to learn, though it may not be up to the shiny standards of U.S. schools. I would even say that this school is better equipped than some schools in the U.S.

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Before I conclude this 3,500-word piece (congratulations if you have made it this far, by the way), there is one more story that I believe exemplifies the education situation in Guyane. One day as my professeur référent and I were walking down the street I believe this example reflects the major problem with education in this tiny overseas department of France: the infrastructure and bureaucratic administration is there, but the resources and exigency to drive Guyane’s education to the same level as metropolitan France are missing. My référent saw a former student of his outside the patisserie, and immediately the boy, of about sixteen or seventeen years, smiled shyly and shook his hand. I did not catch much of their conversation, but when my référent into the patisserie, I asked him how he was doing and if he enjoyed English classes at the collège. He was very shy and I could tell he had a slightly learning disability, but he had a very sweet personality. After we said goodbye, my référent told me that he was about sixteen or seventeen and had one year left of collège, but he was not able to finish because the school could not find a specialist to accompany him to class and help with his learning disability. Other than that, he had been an excellent student, both academically and behaviorally, and had loved school. It was devastating to hear.

To conclude this quite lengthy and heady blog post, I can say that while Guyane is endowed with a highly organized, deep-rooted education system that tries to emulate those of developed nations around the world, there are many learning gaps and scholastic opportunities still to be addressed. Many aspects of the French system, such as the emphasis on copying and little homework, discourage academic independence, creating a huge learning outcome deficiency. So while French Guiana has the best education system in the region, attracting immigrants from Suriname and northern Brazil, it still has a long way to go to give its citizens an education equal to that in metropolitan France.

In two weeks, my term at Collège Constant Chlore in St. Georges will be over, and in January I will begin teaching at École Duchange, a primary school, in Roura, a wealthy Creole village in the jungle about 30 minutes (with no traffic, of course) away from Cayenne. My students will be much younger—between ages 6 and 10. They will be curious, but not as interested or receptive as my current students. I will miss the kids in St. Georges very much. Even in my short time here, they have always greeted me with smiles and an accented “Good morning, Andrea!” They are at the age where they are still cute but can hold a decent, mature conversation, about the movie “Forrest Gump” (which I have been showing them), for example. I hope that during my time here I have shown them a glimpse of the opportunities that are out there beyond the confines of this town—opportunities that they can achieve if they study hard and aim in the right direction.

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This blog post is dedicated to Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), a champion for human rights and dignity around the world.

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. –Nelson Mandela

Mandela

Source: Education in FranceCarnet de Route de l’Assistant de Langue en France

12 December 2013

This post is one of a series I wrote for my personal blog La Vie en Guyane, about my experience as an English Teaching Assistant (TAPIF) in French Guiana from October 2013 to April 2014.

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