If they had told me about Troisième – Choosing Lycées!


If any one had told me that I would have to choose  ‘secondary’ school again whilst still attempting to heal the scars of the last time in the UK – I would never have driven through the channel tunnel. I would have taken the stationary M25, and flashing oil warning light as a sign that it was not meant to be.

Troisième, or year 10 is a year charged with pressure. There are major hurdles to overcome and it is not easy to maintain the calm chic dignity of the average French woman, when you’re a slightly crazed, manic englishwoman running around in circles in a state of partial comprehension.

Some time in September I attempted to pin down our school secretary to make an appointment with the head of  Collège, firmly believing that being slightly ahead of the game, I had a better chance of success if I had the process explained to me by a reliable source. The school secretary smiled sympathetically at me  stating “Mais Madame, C’est vraiment trop tôt”. However by now she is well used to me in a stew, and finally agreed when I announced that my husband was just off to Nigeria again and there was absolutely no way I was going to go through this alone! At very least he needed to know just how much organising I was going to be doing over the next few months so that I could be assured that he would sigh reassuringly and groan sympathetically over the phone at a later date. But vastly more importantly, when it comes to official tasks, two heads are definitely better than one when it comes to total comprehension!

That done, We were informed about the key things; All the marks (or notes) for tests and homework assignments in Troisième counted towards the final grade of the  GCSE equivalent, in France known as the Brevet; that if a student didn’t achieve an average of 10/20 in every subject they wouldn’t be entered for the Brevet at all, and that the final exams were taken in June.

Secondly that all Troisièmes are required by law to undergo a ‘Stage d’Observation’ , a sort of work experience lasting a week in February in their chosen field of career.

Thirdly, immediately after the Christmas holidays all the students of the Troisième sit the Brevet Blanc, the equivalent of mock GCSE’s, only the grades count towards the final Brevet in June. The key subjects tested are Maths, French, History and Geography and last but not least Education Civique.

And finally, and scarily that the time had come to select a suitable Lycée for continuing education on to the Baccalauriat, the French equivalent of the A’level.

I discovered that there was such a thing as a Bac Option Internationale Brittanique, A Bac Mention Européen, and a Normal Bac . These were then all subdivided into three varieties, the Bac L, the Bac S, and the Bac ES.  It was necessary to select the correct Bac, either Literature, Science or Economics and Sociology, then whether to take the standard Bac or the supplementary Bac. The supplementary Bac (IOB, Européen and Anglophone versions) included 3 additional hours of the English Language to that of the standard Bac, with one non linguistic subject (usually history or geography, and occasionally science) studied in the English Language. What it was necessary to understand was that all three Bacs, L, S and ES all follow exactly the same program of 8 core subjects, simply the weighting of hours and marks lean in the direction of the chosen specialism. Therefore, more weighting in the languages, history and arts subjects for Bac L, and more weighting in the science subjects and French for the Bac S, and so on. And did I mention that this was just the choice for the Bac Generale et Technologique!

Having studied all the Lycées in Rouen I Immediately put pen to paper to ask for further details and true to French style – four months on and absolutely not one school has replied! I was later told that whilst French state schools will definitely not reply, Catholic Private ones might possibly. Sometime! If I’m learning one thing from my french life, it  is that the french don’t respond to letters, well not unless they’re love letters anyway (though sadly I don’t have nearly enough experience of this to definitively pass judgement) – And considering the mess engineered by Valmont by his letters in “Dangerous Liaisons”, I’m not actually surprised that responding to letters in France is a big ‘no no’ – I should have known really, if a year of futile  letter writing to our letting agent is anything to go by  – still it was good practice for my written French!

If I haven’t made it clear enough yet how the telephone, the instrument with which I would gossip for hours and hours in the UK, has become an instrument of  semi-torture here on French turf, let me do it now! But taking my role as a sometimes ‘efficient and organised’ mother seriously, I proceeded to phone them all, receiving from one and all a standard reply, “Mais madame Axton, C’est bien trop tôt”. Now where have I heard that before!

I endeavored to re-ring the Lycées in December with vastly more positive results. This time I succeeded to secure interviews with all of our shortlist, and my daughter and I made our way to the first ones before Christmas.

How fantastic to find myself let off the hook, although sitting in the directeur’s office with her,  the Directeur only wanted to speak to my daughter, and other than interjecting the odd comment here and there, I was happy to take the back seat and listen to her answering all the questions with an accent vastly superior to my own, and to smile wryly when she corrected my vocabulary or conjugation  in front of the directeur! I think both he, with all her ‘bulletins’   (school reports) in front of him, and I both realised at the same moment  just how far she’d come since her arrival two and a half years earlier and how far she could go. With  moyen (average) of 14.5/20 it was unsurprising that he offered her a place right there and then. By the end of all three interviews she held three places in her hands. It could have all been so easy if she hadn’t set her sight on the highest target of all.

For biligual or  strong english students the most aspired to Baccalaureat course taught amongst the Lycées of Rouen is the Option International Brittanique. Only one  public (state) school, five minutes from the Rouen city centre offers this option. Students following this class follow essentially the advanced Baccalaureat with the supplementary English, but leave with the added benefit of 3 English A’levels as well as the Bac International. With 500 applicants last year for 37 places, the competition is tough with an additional entry exam to weed out those not strong enough in English to survive the course.

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel, well yes for my daughter anyway, since the entry exam is a test of  English. Lets not rest on our laurels, but this will be the first exam she has sat in her native language since moving to this country. For the first time since our arrival it seems that being English might actually be an advantage! Was it worth braving the french autoroute that very first time – well yes absolutely! Can I see the benefits of  taking up residence in this complicated land and learning the ropes as I go – Without a doubt!

To know that  my children than the opportunity to chose Mediterranean from Mountain, Thames from Tour Eiffel when choosing their futures and the knowledge that against all odds they can succeed? A reward indeed.

(Why the French actually learn to write, in particular with all those lessons dedicated to the beautiful cursif script that epitomises french orthography, whilst having such an antipathy to putting pen to paper by way of responding to correspondence is an entirely different question.)

I shall get to the bottom of it in time!

For information about the Brevet Blanc click here, and for the Stage d’Observation click here. (under construction)

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18 comments on “If they had told me about Troisième – Choosing Lycées!

  1. Steph says:

    Well done you. You’ve done brilliantly to get any information at all out of anyone! And especially to organise interviews. I hadn’t come across the International Bacs, I have to say.
    We had a choice of two lycées – the advantage and disadvantage of living in a very rural area. We went to the JPO of one and Benj was happy so there we were, sorted! Caiti looked into going to an art lycée further away, but changed her mind in the end and went to the same one as her brother in Gueret. And I have to say, it’s been a good experience. Benj came out with a mention assez bien and that’s despite him being very lazy and never getting the hang of philosophy. Caiti is looking at a really good grade since she’s a bright and motivated young lady. I hope your daughter will have as good an experience as my guys have had.

    • I think International bacs are few and far between. We are just lucky that there is one in Rouen. There are at least five Lycée privées in Rouen that all do more or less exactly the same course as the public one offering the International Bac but the Academie Française won’t give the funding or recognition and hence they can’t actually call it the International Bac, nor the Bac Européen. So the students follow exactly the same rigorous timetables and foreign exchange trips but only come out with the normal french Bac. Crazy world!
      What I do know is that the french students come out after the bac with higher skills(particularly maths) than the USA and probably the UK; what the International bac (OIB) allows is a higher ‘point’ scoring so that any one with the OIB can miss the first year USA university, whilst anyone with the normal french bac cannot.
      Its so cool to hear how Caitlin and Benj have got on, but how about Ruiraigh(sorry the irish spelling is not my strong point) M

  2. ourhouseinquercy says:

    You are not alone! We are struggling through this with equally dodgy language skills and general lack of understanding. BTW don’t you just love it when your kids can talk French rings around you? I love love love it. I love that my kids have to speak for me in formal situations – it makes a wonderful change from our Australian lives. I talk for a living in Australia, so I love being able to just sit there and shut up for a change! Good luck to you and your daughter with your choices.

    • You can’t go back you know – and besides what would you do with your house!! Other than let it to me!!( I hope I didn’t post hundreds of repeated comments on your blog, it wouldn’t seem to connect properly.) I ‘d also like to get email updates of your blog but ATOM doesn’t work for me – can you install a ’email update button’?
      How cool are the kids for getting where they have today. Half the reason I do my cooking course is because it’s 4 hours of intensive french – the other half of course because I love to eat!!! especially pudding, and my poor husband just has to make do with looking at them on the internet!!!
      Love your truffle post – we’ve been to that village and know it well!

  3. Wow you were lucky, when I got my brevet I had no idea what to do afterwards, nobody even told me there was an international baccalaureat! My college wasn’t great, they wanted everyone to go on to do the BAC S and if you weren’t interested in that they didn’t want to know so, as my marks weren’t great I ended up in a BAC PRO =( it was only a year ago that I realised that I could have done a BAC L, which would have been brilliant but nobody bothered mentioning it to me.
    You must be proud of your daughter, congratulations to her!

    • I think every Lycée seems to push the Bac S, and the impression I get is that only the Bac S is worth anything in the eyes of France in general. But science isn’t for everyone and the the literature course sounds great. I wonder if it really does affect job applications or not – I guess only time will tell!

      • Unfortunately it does. The French don’t think highly of BAC L. My daughter got her Brevet last year and had 13,5 average. She had her heart on studying STD at the Lycée Laplace in Caen or the Lycée Jeanne d’Arc in Rouen. This is an art section. She wants to study fashion since she is passionate about sewing, knitting, and textiles. Well, she was refused outright in Caen and put on a waiting list in Rouen. She was number 77. Needless to say, we have still had no explanation of how the students are chosen. Although we suspect they choose the students with the highest grades. They don’t even ask the students to provide a book or to go to an interview. We became very disgusted with the French education system. So my daughter has remained at the lycée in her school which is a private catholic school. Last year she passed her PET Cambridge exam with Distinction and I was very proud of her. I’ve been living in France now for almost 23 years and the school system has been a jaw dropping experience for me. Frankly I can’t wait until it’s over. My daughter is studying in L but only because she has to, but when she leaves the lycéee she will be looking to study abroad. I think she will find learning and studying more interesting abroad certainly because the job market in arts is nile. L’s can only look forward to being teachers or going on to study to be a translator or interpreter. I commend you for getting all the information because the French are notorious for being late with everything. Continue to ask questions early. It’s the best and fastest way to get everything done because you’ll surely have more than two things to prepare. This year I’m doing it all over again with my youngest who’s 14 in December and in troisième. I’m currently on the path of search for a stage. Arrghhh!

      • Hi Didi, We have just done the 3ième stage for my son. Easier 2nd time round and in computers which was easy. Isn’t it interesting about schooling. we have found it a positive experience. I think we were really lucky to be recommended our school. I recommend the lycée Gustave Flaubert in Rouen because entry is on exam and is really enriching my daughters school experience as half the subjects are taught in english, but you still get a full choice of L, ES and S.and a bac at the end. You would get a place no problem because of being english speakers. I recommend you give it a try. It also gives students the opportunity to miss first year US university, because they are already considered having reached the level. It also gives UK exam entry qualifications (A’levels). Let me know where you are based, you must be nearish us!

  4. Phil says:

    Interestng reading! Our eldest has just finished 5eme and has plans to do a BAC S in two years time (science to her seems to be like falling off a log – she just gets it), but, whilst her grades are good with only PE falling below the class average, she is bored in class. She has looked into taking some IGSCEsto keep her brain going and to use up all those ‘free’ periods with something constructive! I will look into the BAC L

    • We also had alot of free periods in 5ième. But by Qutrième they had all been filled. Ours had to take up another language in Quatrième and found it more challenging than we had anticipated. We also put ours in for IGCSE’s. We registered witht the ‘British School’ near Paris which was very happy to put them in as external candidates. I had planned to do english literature, language and maths too but found it more difficult to allocate time for teaching them. We have applied and got a place for the OIB (option International Bac) – check it out if you haven’t already found that post, so as she will now get A-levels in English Lit and History (and French) I’m not sure I need to put them through IGCSE’s anymore – with the exception of maths maybe! Good luck

  5. expatfamily says:

    Hello! Very good article! We are not French but have chosen the French school system because of my husbands work which takes us around the world. my son is in 4éme and is struggling this year. What happens if children do not pass the Brevet in 3éme? Does anyone have info on about this? Thanks for your help.

    • Normally a student would redouble the year. It’s a horrible idea for english kids because they don’t do it at all in England, butit is really common in France. I imagine your son’s problem isn’t the work but the language which delays learning. He’ll be so much improved in a year’s time you will wonder why you’ve been worrying. I’ve sent you a separate email. Keep being optimistic. Your son will amaze you, just as did my daughter.

    • artdpart says:

      Help me find the correct direction for my child. She entered the french school system as a 4 year old with zero french. Six weeks she could speak french.She attended a french public school until CM1 and had a 18+ result each year. She is now in a Catholic school near Paris for CM2 and College,Lycee. She is the best in her class in French and loves language and writing.
      I thought the BAC L was the correct course but I have read the BAC S is the route to the Grande Ecole.(if she can make it )
      She wants to be a surgeon or writer.

      • Hi, Unfortunately, as it stands at the moment, the Bac S is still highly revered by the French establishments. I have heard of students that haven’t been told that the Bac ES or Bac L exists. If your daughter wants to do any form of medicine, she will need to do the Bac S. I don’t think that the medical schools would take her otherwise. I suppose that in general terms all Bac students follow similar courses and take all the same 8 or so subjects. The number of hours for each subject differs slightly, and the ‘co-efficient’ for the marking during the exam differs greatly for each type of Bac. For a Bac S, the physic/chimie and Maths Coefficient will be 4, and history and French , 1 or 2; for the Bac L, the physics/chimie coefficient will be 1 or 2 and the Literature , French and Histor will be 3 or 4. You have a particularly difficult decision because she sounds like a good ‘all rounder’ and spans all the spectrums.
        I would definitely put her in an Anglophone class if you can from 6ieme through to the bac (and especially for Lycée) The advantage is that she will do more language lessons at a higher level and usually in lycée some additional exams in languages. My daughter does the OIB (option international Brittanique Bac). She studies an additional 3-4 hours of english literature per week and several lessons (English lit,history/geo) are taught in english. At the end she will get the French Bac and also English A’levels in English literature and History. She is going to do the Bac ES because her mastery of French is not good enough for the Bac L, and she detests science. She also wants to be a journalist. She loves it, and the literature level is extremely high.
        I would say not to be afraid of changing her school again at Lycée. My daughter did Catholic privée until the end of college, and now goes to public lycée as Rouen is one of the few places that does the OIB( and has an internat) I would say that if she is good at science, your daughter would be best doing the Bac S, and finding her options open for far longer. The Bac L is starting to get recognised but isn’t highly enough regarded yet. It may all change in the next 5 years. Whatever, she doesn’t need to make up her mind until the end of Seconde, although the lycée likes to have an idea of orientation when they start. My daughter, currently in seconde, has just swapped her orientation decision from Bac L to Bac ES for next year.
        I hope that helps,

  6. Jina M. says:

    I am studying your experiences with the school system with a little trepidation, I have to say! Especially the comment by one reader whose 4 year old learnt to speak French in 6 weeks! I moved to France with my family from the United States this past March. We immediately put our 4 year old son into French school. He is just finishing he school year. He has survived, but we are not sure that he is really learning much French, as he seems to think that everyone should just speak English and everything would be a lot easier. At the same time, during the 4 months that we have been here, his schooling has been so interrupted and lacking any kind of continuity – 2 2 week holidays, all the national holidays, every Wednesday off, and so on. You know how it is. As he is 4, we feel that he has a full year ahead, in which we hope that he will be fully immersed and on his way. Fingers crossed! In the meantime, I have set up my own blog, which is like yours, which you can find at http://masabicou.com and plan to start blogging about my experiences with french schooling, as you have done. I would love to hear from you with any pointers. In the meantime, I am going to go and read a lot more of your posts! Thanks so much and good luck! Jina

    • Hi Jina, Every couple of years May is like a gold-mine for kids with bank-holidays and “ponts”. Arriving in March is in that respect a bad time to arrive as school tails off by the end of may. My own kids were a varied bunch. My 6 year old refused to speak french for a year and then one day quite suddenly came out with perfect fluent french, my 10 year old was basically fluent in 6 months. But in hindsight fluency for a ten year old is still limited to a ten year old’s vocabulary, which is reasonable but not extensive. My 12 year old had the most dificulties, and even now aged 17 she would not class herself as fluent – she is very self judgemental, and you or I couldn’t tell that she wasn’t fluent. Do not panic – he will have absorbed loads and as long as the people around him (with the exception of you) refuse to speak to him in English he will soon be fluent and you will look back and wonder whatever you were worried about! Starting in September in a new class with all the other children, learning french grammar and the way of life from first basics will ensure he is fluent by the end of next year, and very probably much much more quickly than that. My 6 and 8 years olds (now 11 and 13 are now getting better marks than their french class mates in French – and most probably because the only french they’ve been taught is by trained french teachers, and not the slang and colloquialism that comes from daily french spoken within the family.
      I can’t wait to read your blog, and when I have a bit more time I will write to you again!

  7. Vivienne says:

    Hi, I have lived in France for seven and a half years and for most of that time I have had a pretty traumatic time trying to understand the school system. I think it’s fine if you are confdent enough in the language, which I am not, and I get no assistance from my children at all. My children are now 17 and 16, the eldest is studying a BAC ES at Lycee and doing OK but the younger one is currently doing a BAC PRO, is having to board, as the Lycee is too far from home and says he can’t learn because most of the students are aged 20 years or more, who back-chat the teachers who are not capable of controlling the class. Several children have been taken out of the school after only one week and since ours is calling for us, his parents, to do likewise we have made enquiries with the Lycee that our eldest attends. It simply is not easy to change orientation, as this will have been determined by the college my son attended during troisieme. Mmmmm…..the same college that stitched me up by giving me and our son only two days to help make such an important decision. Since my son wanted to study mechanics, specifically motorbike mechanics, they held their hand in the air as though to say…we have absolutely no idea where he can do that (like no one from their school ever did such a thing before)…and I was forced to ask why they had left it so late…again…hands in the air…maybe your son forgot to give you the papers? Non, I said, we filled those in months ago but have not seen them since…I said. Why have you left it so late to warn me nothing was being discussed with my son…don’t you have a careers officer? After several Gallic shrugs I managed to obtain the phone number for a Careers advisor….she turned out to be brilliant, after sharing her equal disgust with the school. However, my son believes it would now have been much better for him to do a BAC Generale and follow that with a course in mechanics afterward. However, it just isn’t a simple matter to change after the event (or so we are told). The options are: for my son to return to troisieme, (but he already has his Brevet) and then be declared fit to do a BAC Generale….they don’t seem to be able to slot him in now….which I find hard to understand. I am so distraught….again! I don’t think the French system allows for thinking outside the box. Any clues?

    • Hi Vivienne, What a time you are having! I’m going to reply telling you what I would do based on my experience in France and hope it helps you out. You don’t say what part of France you are in, nor if you are countryside or town, but I hope this helps.
      I have two teenagers currently in Lycée. They have both chosen which one they wanted to go to and while they are both actually studying the Bac general, they are both in different options and at different schools. Both had been at Catholic collège beforehand even though we are not Catholic. There are many non catholics, and non practicing catholics in a private Catholic school, as well as traditional catholic families. So no matter the background, this option could work for you. We chose Catholic collège for one reason, and that was that when we arrived they had places for the two older children, and places in their primary section for the two younger ones which meant that all four could be in the same school. As they had arrived with no french language, we felt it was important for them to be together. One of the most well known factors of catholic schools is the attitude to families, and to believing in the well-being of the individual. When we arrived the school was happy to give over an office to our children, and allow me to employ a private tutor, who was not linked to the school, to come in and give them french lessons every time they had an “etude”. This is just an example of their accomodating attitude. At the end of Collège both my older two chose different lycées. My son went to Catholic private lycée and my daughter to public lycée. Both are happy, but my son at the private lycée probably the happier. My daughter does report that there is more bad behaviour in her lycée and more disruption than my son.
      In terms of fees, they are nothing compared to the UK or the USA. The fee scale that I can quote is from 2012. For a monthly salary inferior to 1100, the fees for one child were 38€/month, for a monthly salary inferior to 1922, the fees were 64€/month, and so on up to the highest fees, for monthly salaries of 4500€ where the fees were 118€/month. The more children in catholic education, the more percentage taken off the additional children. All the Bourses for school dinners exists just as in state school, and the Internat (boarding) facility exists as well.
      At my daughter’s school, one of her friends who has moved with her from Catholic collège to public lycée was in difficulty. Her parents had a rethink and appraoched the private catholic lycée right in the middle of the autumn term – on the friday she was in public school and on the monday she was in a catholic lycée, and from what i’ve heard is doing well. She changed from the OIB International option Brittanique Bac to a general bac with no problem at all.
      Another french friend sent her son to an english boarding school for a year and when he came back he went straight into a catholic lycée without having done 3ième and without having his Brevet. He also is doing well. Essentially the Catholic schools have a certain freedom that the public ones don’t. Many of the private schools are firmer with the kids and expect them to work, but also many parents of the kids at private schools puch the kids to work too, which isn’t allways the case in public. Many private schools also do the Bac Pro.
      If I would you I would analyse what the principle problem is – distraction in class, or lack of enjoyment in the bac pro. If it’s the former, I would simply change Lycées; if it’s the latter I would change to a Catholic lycée firmly asking to restart Seconde in a bac general. If he has a Brevet pass, then he will have no problem, the orientation document is more of a formality, and certainly the parent that moved her french child back to a french school never went through the orientation process with the collège but simply rang the catholic lycée direct and got a place. I actually don’t think that a child is obliged to pass the Brevet to go to Lycée, but I may be wrong -nevertheless your son already has his.
      Anyway that’s what I would do. Study your local town or city and see which private lycées are available, ask for an appointment with the directeur, and see what happens. If necessary, if you have a bilingual friend, or go online to Le Boncoin to hire on an hourly rate an english/french bilingual tutor for assistance as translator for the difficult bits, I would get some help.
      As for you, I would head to your nearest city and approach the department of International relations and get yourself on their French courses. They start at A1(no french) and go through A2,B1,B2,C1 and C2(fluent), and subscribe. It has made the world of difference for me. On the course that I was attending there were fellow students my age who were travelling at least an hour to come to classes, and the university grouped the classes to fill two days so that long distance students had fewer journeys to make. I would never have found the course had existed unless someone had told me about it. They are called the DELF and DALF exams. The entry level tests are imminent here in Rouen, and I imagine elsewhere, so you have nothing to loose by paying 25€ just to discover what level you are, even if you decide not to do the course after all. But for my opinion, for improving quality of life and integration they are excellent.
      Let me know if I can help you more with other ideas. But where the public system with it’s “dont care” “red tape” attitude is letting you down, the Catholic private system may be the solution, for not a great price.
      Best of luck.

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