Oct 25th, 2022, 03:20 PM

France is Breaking Their Most Valuable Asset, Their Students

By Molly Eklund
Image Credit: Unsplash/christnerfurt
France's education system does not allow students to truly succeed.

Trigger Warning : suicide, self harm, suicidal ideation

“Je suis nulle” says Nathalie*, the French 14 year-old I am tutoring. She slumps in her chair. We are drudging through her English homework on the fourth floor of her home, where I also live and work as a nanny. “I am worthless,” I translate. I stop the lesson, shocked at her self-analysis. “You are not nothing, you are never to say that again,” I respond. Her eyes become saucers and she looks at me with a combination of incredulity and incomprehension. Sadly, I would come to hear this plaintive refrain from students and teachers alike in the Parisian lycée générale where I worked as a teaching assistant.

The French pride themselves on having one of the best educational systems in the world. Xavier Darcos, Former Minister of National Education and Youth of France called the bacalauréatone of the bedrocks on which the [French] republic is based.” The conditions leading up to the bac, however, are so restrictive that students must sacrifice their mental health to succeed and are not as well equipped for their career trajectories as previously promised. The bac, the 200 year old “national symbol, alongside the Tricolore and Marianne”, may as well be a straitjacket. 

At age 15, students enter lycée, or “high school”, where they will choose between 3 trajectories: the lycée générale, technologique, or professionnel.  The most desired and respected track for most parents and teachers is the lycée générale, the university track. Lycée technologique requires shorter studies and typically earns less prestige. Students train for professions in hotel management, the arts, or other technical services. Lycée professionnel trains students for less esteemed professions like sales and hospitality.  Each track dictates your courses, and arguably the rest of your life. 

It is rare and difficult to change careers in France, and only 22% of the population will take the plunge, compared to a staggering 57% in the United States. Critics of the bac point out that it does not prepare today's students for what will soon be a gig-based economy, one that requires a more holistic background than the bac and the systems around it support. One former colleague of mine, a lycée teacher named Sophie*, observed that students are not encouraged to be well rounded, emphasizing that “...[students] lack free time, and probably study too many subjects. Young people are not [encouraged] to pursue any artistic activities, sports or any kind of extracurricular activity.” 

Image credit: Unsplash/museumsvictoria

“Why is France the only country in the world that discourages children because of what they cannot do, rather than encouraging them to do what they can?” Peter Gumbel, author of They Shoot School Kids, Don’t They, asks. Gumbel is an expatriate from the United Kingdom, who teaches at Sciences Po and has two children in French schools. Gumbel can see what the French are not able or willing to. The author summarizes the French school system in three familiar words: “t’es nul” (“you’re worthless”). This statement, “t’es nul”,  is powerful because it alludes to the intergenerational cycle of abuse that is a by-product of the school system. It also supports the startling statistics around the lack of wellbeing of French school-aged children: 71% suffer from irritability, 63% from bouts of nervousness, 40% experience difficulty sleeping and one in four experience stomach and/or headaches weekly

I did not hear many kind words from staff to ease the side effects of the suffocating curriculum. The teachers' lounge is the epicenter for harsh criticisms of their students. One teacher bemoaned the completely débile (moronic) questions a student asked her in a computer science course, and another quipped that some students “should have kept the mask on, because without it they are hideous.” I thought again of sitting in Nathalie’s room, where these internalized criticisms interrupted her homework. Teachers complained about their students with gusto, often, and by name, both in private and in the classroom. The students were clearly absorbing the vibe. Several students had visible cut marks on their arms and legs, the cuts as neat, linear, and uniform as their mandated cursive handwriting. Some students disappeared for weeks from school, either from suicide attempts or ideation. If or when they came back, it was with fresh bandages tactfully hidden by stacking Cartier LOVE bracelets.

If they saw me looking, they didn’t acknowledge it. In the same vein, these realities are hard for teachers and administrative staff to see. Sophie insists that while resources to help students in crisis may be scarce due to lack of funding, they do exist. In classes of 30 to 36 students, Sophie says “teachers nowadays are too busy to detect when a student is suffering. It is usually a teacher who alerts the counselors then and prompts the student to get help.” I did what I could to invite my students warmly into my classroom, and began each lesson by listing things they were grateful for. For a few brief moments I could see their light and vulnerability as they shared leurs remerciements aloud. It will take more than gratitude, however, to change this system where every student begins at nul.

*Names have been changed