How not to be a 'loser' at lycée and beyond

My eldest son is 15 and thinking about his future. We are optimistically assuming the world will not end before he finishes school, or the western world be taken over by a far eastern consortium who had to create a police state to sort out the bankrupt mess that the evil bankers left. If you’re wondering where that came from, I’m currently reading The Bailout by Charlie Wade in which that exact scenario is used to turn the UK into a Dystopia where all the old people are shunted to the south east coast, the Isle of Wight is turned into a prison and anyone who disagrees with the new state has a dodgy time.

But we are not there yet, so my son has to think of his après-Lycée. This might be fairly straight-forward if he had a passion for something or was supremely bright and hard-working. Unfortunately, the only thing he’s passionate about is having a good time, playing on the XBox and looking cool. One cannot base a future on any of those things, and he’s bright but not so brilliant that he doesn’t have to work.

The French are pretty merciless when it comes to lycée upwards, in certain circles at least, and of course the ones I move in, starting with my son’s father. So, received wisdom on schooling amongst the bourgeois goes like this:
1. the only Bac to do is the S Bac (formerly the C) and anyone who doesn’t do S is a loser. S is the Scientific Bac but such is its aura of influence that you can go on to do anything you like post-Bac. Basically if you are brainy you do S, and if you are not scientifically brainy and good at maths you are a loser. The government is leading a losing battle on overcoming this prejudice by declaring that all Bacs are equal because they appeal to different intelligences. The bourgeois public know better and are having none of it.

2. Post-Bac you have 3 choices of further education for those who want to carry on in academia. The brightest are supposed to do a preparatory class lasting two years after which they enter exams for private Grand Ecoles. Grand Ecoles are not universities, but specialist centres of further education such as HEC (Hautes Etudes de Commerce), Ecole Polytechnique, and the Ecole Normale Superieur to name but three. They are not cheap, costing thousands of euros per year but do guarantee excellent career prospects. Prépa, as it’s called, is two years of hell if you want to do well, demanding long hours of work, no social life and lots of reading.

If you do not go to prépa, you are a loser and end up either at the fac (university), or an IUT (Institut Universitaire de Technologie) which are a bit like the old UK polys. You can stave off loser status only if you are an academic nerd, or want to study for a profession such as law, medicine, pharmacy, or become a teacher. The fac has to take anyone who has a Bac and wants to go there. The first year is hell as it is stuffed full of people who shouldn’t be there, and those who can’t cope fall gradually by the wayside after wasting a year or two. You leave at the end with a Licence, a three-year degree which is useless unless you go on to complement it with post-grad studies. The French love people to enter the workforce already trained and specialised in something.

The IUT offers two-year diplomas which can be transformed into a Licence Professional with a third year, but the IUT is also an alternative way of preparing for the less prestigious Grands Ecoles without the breakdown-inducing workload.

My son is not interested in any of the above. To start with, he doesn’t want to do the Bac S (cue apoplexy from papa) because he hates physics, so he wants to do the ES which is Economics.

Next, he doesn’t want to do a prépa (cue apoplexy from papa) because he is a lazy sod but did have the idea of going to the fac and then doing a Masters in the UK (Plan A).

Then I suggested a third way (ignoring the IUT which was never on the books) - doing a degree in the UK at a good university and coming back to do a Masters or something if he wanted. He would have to do a foundation year in academic English, dissertation/report writing etc but that could only stand him in good stead in the future. One company that offers this worldwide is EF (Education First) which also has links to many UK universities including Nottingham and Exeter.

My suggestion, to get him motivated, would be to do the foundation year in London ( “Oooh yes!!”) and then go to a good university to do something like economics because there’s no way he’ll get into LSE or UCL. There’s no point going at all and incurring all that debt if he doesn’t get a good bac. In that case he can just go to the fac and implement Plan A.

British universities have the equivalents for A levels all sorted:

UK GCE Advanced Level grades French Baccalaureate equivalence (overall average, plus this score in specified subjects) Option International (overall average, plus this score in specified subjects)
A*A*A* 18 17
A*A*A 17 16
A*AA 16 15
AAA 15 14
AAB 14 13
ABB 14 13
BBB 13 12
BBC 13 12
BCC 12 11
CCC 11 11

One possibility, for example, would be to apply to do Economics at Nottingham which has a requirement of three As. My son would have to get an average of 15 at his Bac. Exeter requires 14.

He is pretty enthusiastic about this because it will no longer matter that he does the ES Bac, it'll even be coherent with his further studies, and I'm hoping it'll encourage him to aim high rather than doss about and scrape through his Bac. Even my bourgeois TWDB (who has a son at HEC) thinks it's a good idea, a solution to escape the tyranny of hard line critics in a system which doesn't suit my son.

He sounds like me when l was young. I'm a 'people person' and the only thing I wanted to do in school was party and do art. I thought about what I wanted to do for years. I asked school counselors for help, I attended 'job assemblies', I read books about it, talked to peers, all to no avail. I couldn't figure it out. I worked in restaurants and just 'any jobs' for a couple of years after finishing high school. Then I spent a summer in Italy, (my second long stay there), and I wanted to live there. I naïvely thought that I could teach English as a second language, for it was a subject I liked, therefore doing well in school at it. Ha ha, nothing doing without a 4 year degree. Actually, it was just a job I thought I could do, it wasn't my passion. Upon further reflection I realized that I was having fun doing haircuts on myself and others, indeed even just styling my friends' hair. Voilá I had found my calling! I went back home, moved back in with Mom, I finally had my plan. I would go to beauty school, get some work experience, build a portfolio, and moved back to Italy. I did just that and stayed in Italy for a few years doing hair. My time in Italy was fulfilling, but I decided to move back to my home-town and continue my career and I've been happy ever since. Ten years ago I was restless and returned to school to get a degree in Fashion Design. I learned a lot and it was a valuable experience, however, near the end of my schooling I discovered that while being in Fashion design is glamorous, it is NOT lucrative, unless you become one of these huge designers. The hours are long, commuting was going to be a reality, and creativity? What creativity. For how that business works, I might as well have been designing tin cans. I realized that what I was already doing, (hair) was much more lucrative, creative, autonomous, and relaxing, and I didn't take my work home with me. I re-dedicated myself to being a hairdresser. Of course every job has it's challenges, if not it would be boring. Those are few and far between and very easy for me to navigate. Like being physically tired. I just rest and exercise.

Now after 28 years in the business, I'm planning on opening my own salon. I'm on the search for a location. Point is, I still love my career and see a bright future in it even now. I was recently talking to a leasing agent and he pointed out that a lot of retail is moving to the virtual sector.

If your son is more about people, maybe he should think about some service industry. My husband is in the restaurant biz, or there's the hospitality/hotel/travel industries that can't go virtual. He could own a B+B someday, or his own tour company.

Of course if he's more into computers, he could get into video game design/marketing/ or tech support.

I think that if one doesn't have an interest in being a doctor, teacher, lawyer, or something else where University is needed, the answer can be as simple as finding a passion, deciding how that can apply to a career, and going to a tech or trade school. Apprenticeship programs are also an option.

By the way, I recently saw a news report about ''boomerang'' kids. Those are the young adults with degrees from University that can't find a job even remotely related to their field. They move back home and get a job at the local fast food joint, or something equivalent. This is the world we live in now. Scary, or just different?

@Emily - I'm pretty sure there's an accredited centre for the IB in the Lot somewhere. I have to give my 13 year old exam conditions for her to pass her 1st 3 years with Oxford homeschooling next year. But for the lycée - if she doesn't want to physically go, she will have to pass exams at the closest centre after following the course work at home. If she wants to go to Lycée - it's the Lycée who will test her before she enters. Of course - that's a whole other can of worms.

@Miranda - I already find it harder getting my son to work than the two girls. He's only 8. Are you telling me this is likely to continue??? Arghhhhhhhhhhh ;-)

Yes Elaine, it's just something you have to start thinking about so it doesn't take you by surprise when the time comes.

We could get up and running forever on that one, I am a social anthropologist so the human being is my workplace and playground all in one. Your point is true to a point, but when people asked advice in the uk it was often about getting their young out of the uk to study elsewhere, admittedly disproportionately thinking USA. Here the people ask me which countries are good to study in so that their children can get the language skills. I have naturally worked in the UK for many years and plenty of french students do go there, I was also based in Berlin as part of a UK/German joint research and we had plenty of french (and other) students. Surprisingly for some people a lot of students do go to other countries, however I find the preparation (at present) not encouraging here. Back to an early point Sarah made about the quality of teachers in france and the sad truth of it. I get asked to do trips to Lascaux and the museum of prehistory with a bit of archaeology, which I do with great pleasure, but when I have offered to help the English classes, knowing that each of the three top classes have teachers who are to say it mildly weak (the top class teacher, also school director, admits she cannot speak or understand spoken English yet has to teach it!) should they not be happy to have me in? It is all rather a mess because the government lost its way several years back, universities and teacher training have slipped and students pay the price. So island mentality the majority of brits (certainly not I) may have but with things in the mess they are in they are looking for ways off the island!

Brian, is that a French trait? Or a non-British one? Don't we as British tend to have an island mentality, for example having to get special car insurance to go across the channel?

yes miranda, and therein is another thing that irks me. why do so many french parents want their children to study abroad, at least do one degree at PG level, and french schools are all but actively discouraging preparation for that?

yes, many of the French pupils in my daughter's class are doing the OIB precisely because, for them, it opens the doors to higher education in English speaking countries and they want to go to university in the UK or US.

To answer Brian - certainly none of these extras like ESOL, OIB or iGCSEs are a prerequisite for British kids in France to enter UK universities although we can see from Sarah's chart that the OIB is highly regarded. Hey, at least none of our kids are doing A levels!

@Ian - why am I not surprised?!!

The advice our boys was given is that studying in France is not a great option unless you want to do medicine AND retain the possibility in future of working here in France.

The fact that a pupil wants to go abroad to study rather than doing so here is not necessarily well received by some of the French teachers, unfortunately.

Thanks, Lynda. Your experience is very interesting, I hope your son manages to find his way in the end.

Aha, ESOL, right Miranda but again not absolutely necessary if the applicant is confident enough not to need it, the intent is for those who have learned English as a second language, for instance at school, to cover the level required byhaving ESOL. Anecdotally, I had a student I supervised on two papers in the early 1980s who came from a Welsh speaking community and only began to learn English at secondary school and whose vocabulary was vey limited, apart from the fact he took some getting used to understanding to begin with. Because he was a 'home' applicant he slipped through the net, so too could people from the isles and highlands of my own country of origin, so a little tongue in cheek with some of those qualifications.

Incidentally, beware of any impression that something like OIB that is owned by the University of Cambridge Syndicate will necessarily help anybody get into thtat university. There is a big difference between the many money earning possibilities and their application and it is as easily said that some faculty selection board people might adopt the line that somebody who is English speaking, living abroad and then gets ESOL or its ilk is trying too hard. There are no hard and fast rules in the whole process, as said much earlier do not believe scoring 18 is necessary although it may say so on a piece of paper. The preference is for students who are interesting and challenging to teach. To that end I shall need to remind myself that if my coming up nine year old decides to try for Cambridge!

Here's my experience with lycee and beyond, for what its worth. I have three children now aged 25, 23 and 21. My partner and I are both English and we decided to move to France when the children were aged 13,11 and 9 respectively and put them straight into French schools, the youngest into ecole primaire and the older ones into college. None of them spoke French.

My son who had never done well at school in England did equally badly at school in France and after one year, upon the advice of the director of the college, we moved him to a private international school where he could learn in English. What a waste of time and money. He boarded and got in with a bunch of American rich kids, started smoking dope with them and as a result got expelled at the start of his GCSEs. He was allowed to take the exams most of which he got low grades in. He got an A in French however. After heartaching discussions... because he had no idea what he wanted to do.... and still hasn't, we got him an apprenticeship in a local hotel , alternating with studying hotelerie and restauration at catering college. Since obtaining his CAP, he has always worked and now has an appartment, car, girlfriend and student loans but no great options open to him in the future . He recognises now that he screwed up his education and ruined his career options.

Offspring number two, a girl, continued at college until she was 15, passing all her exams and then chose to return to England to live with her father and do an international bac and drama course(at the time she wanted to be an actress... English, not French, but that changed eventually). Having then worked for a year in bars and restaurants, she chose to go to university to study event management and business and came out last year with a first class honors degre. Within six weeks she had found herself a job working in digital marketing. Its true that she has all her student loans to pay back eventually but she has her house, boyfriend, car and cats, so is truly independent.

The third child who had started in France at 9 years old went through the French system but at 15 started at a Lycée International run by the state, finally taking the ES route. She had wanted to do an Bac L as she was good at languages but was told that there would be more career options if she took a Bac ES. She had excellent teaching and excellent results, gaining her BAC ES with top marks. After much soul searching she decided not to go the Grande Ecole route, nor the French Uni route and elected to go to Exeter Uni to study Marketing and International Business with Spanish. Her reasoning was that an English University degree is worth more than a French equivilent in the eyes of th world. Her third (Erasmus) year is currently being spent in Barcelona(where she observes that the demands on students at the business school there are much greater than in England) and her fourth year will be spent back in Exeter. As part of her Erasmus year she is working for an event management company in Barcelona who have asked them to join her when she finishes at University in 2013.She speaks English French and Spanish fluently and is planning to learn German soon; but she too will have a student loan debt to eventually pay back. She does not want to work in England but hopes to make a career in either Spain or France.

In conclusion.. we were not rich enough to pay fees either at University of Grande Ecoles so the children have had to bear this in mind in their decision making. Good teaching and hard work, on the part of the child, is all important as is a desire to suceed and do well. Above all, the choice of degree course is vital... ie one that will offer multiple job options.

It is perhaps telling that my partner's 25 year old daughter who was educated in England and has a first class degree in zoology, is now working in a pub because she canot find a job in her chosen field!

OIB is an option as too iGCSEs but not, if people follow the EQF criteria, something essential. It also happens to matter where one is and some of us are not in places where those options (and/or the extra work) are available.

I e-mailed a colleague in Cambridge who knows these things and he made it very clear that he only tests allowed are for reading and writing since regulations on the admission of persons who are either seriously speech hindered or speechless entirely would exclude them. This is part of the standard protection of all disabled applicants and students. I almost cursed myself for the stupidity of my ignorance in not knowing that since I was one of the people who pressed for those protections to be adopted and enforced in the 1970s.

Meant to add - both mine automatically did the university of cambridge ESOL exam (english for speakers of other languages) at lycée (2 different lycées) so am guessing this is pretty widespread in France? I believe this proves proficiency in English should they be asked for it (although my son somehow managed to get only a B!)

thanks Ian. I never thought of iGCSEs. But my daughter, who is in terminale doing an OIB, has offers from Bristol and York (her top 2 choices) of just 13 and 14, so it seems to have done its job. Her teachers want her to do prep and grandes ecoles which she most definitely is NOT interested in!

Sarah - think OIB is more of a girls' option than for boys! OK, it's awful to generalise but hands up who finds getting boys to work about one million times harder than their daughters...

@Miranda, thanks for the link. The OIB is so not what my son would want to do with all the extra work. Any suggestion of him doing an extra 6 hours would be met with derision. He's the sort that does nothing until the last moment and then does enough. Constant work is not his style at all at the moment!

Miranda, my boys do the OIB and yet they also did the iGCSEs in English. I'm not sure it's required, exactly, but I think that it helps hugely. Also, if they follow the OIB it's easy to do the iGCSE's the time because they cover all the material anyway in their normal syllabus. If they discover later that they need they need the iGCSE it's more of a pain. The fee is something like 120 euros where we are, if I remember right.

Sarah, yes, they go to the lycée internationale in Grenoble. So sort-of international, but not international in the sense of having all lessons in English.

Brian, no, not leg pulling about the phone call. That said I don't know how it was managed. The guy who mentioned it was the guy who has worked for years in this role, so perhaps he (as an already known person) called the university and confirmed the identity of the person at the time of the call then passed the phone to them. I don't know for sure. Anyway, as you say it's not necessarily as straightforward as simply calling.

I'll look at the EQF thing. Thanks.

If your kids are likely to want to go on to university in the UK, and they are reasonably bright, it's worth thinking about doing an OIB - (option international du baccalaureate) then there won't be any need for English tests - info about what this is/involves here