Universities and Prepas for the Uninitiated!

Somewhere between choosing lycées and choosing universities I must have dozed off! Suddenly I find myself with an 18 year old in the throes of exams, with conventional school aready behind her. I’m not quite sure what happened but as parents, we find ourself in a dilemma, and one surely lots of other parents suffer, (not least foreign parents trying to make head and tail of a new education system), the dilemma of “I’m not sure if I’ve made the right choice.

I’m not even going to begin to classify myself as an expert in the french system, far from it. Only an hour ago I had a lovely french girl-friend over for coffee, for a moment of “conseils”, or advice, who amongst other things even managed to put me straight on the fact that my lovely 16 year old, who has a habit of letting important letters fester in the bottom of his school-bag, still has one major french exam to do next week, and that he hadn’t “finished everything” as I was led to believe yesterday! The fact that he’s playing computer games and hasn’t come down for breakfast (or lunch) despite the fact it’s 3.45 pm probably resonnates with many parents out there – please tell me i’m not alone!- and may in some way help to explain why I have totally screwed up in terms of parental responsibility over university applications.

The problem with adolescents these days is that one minute they are adults and know best about their future, and the next they are hiding information in unread emails and letters and wondering why their “do it all” parents have failed to adhere to important deadlines. They lurch from shouting battle commands to their friends at the top of their voices through their headsets whilst at the same time failing to shower or wear anything other than a pair of boxers for the majority of the day, to “revising , honestly mum” with a split computer screen simultaneously showing a movie on the left hand side, and typing in revision notes to the right. Motivational comments and messages fall on deaf ears, usually because there is a set of headphones wedged into them.

And so I come to the dilemma. Initially my 18 year old was all set for university in the UK. A year ago, this was the only considered course of action, and so we spent a great deal of time writing all the necessary personal statements and filling int the UK UCAS form for the required dates, and then sat back to wait the result. A few months later it was the turn of the french online application form, The “Admission Post Bac”. This was the point of error. As the direction was UK, UK, UK, we filled in the french web-site as an afterthought, without nearly enough parental input, research or dedication. The purpose of this post is not to tell you how to do it, but to tell you what to do when you have passed all the deadlines before you realise that you have screwed up!

Essentially in france there are several different undergraduate educational routes, and the system is far more complex than in the UK. After the Baccalaureat students can go onto normal universities which can be good, mediocre or downright terrible, depending on location, courses and teaching staff,(and for that matter the aspirational quality of students), or they can apply for a “prepa”, otherwise know as the “cours preparatoire” which lead onto application to selective schools (schools of commerce, or business for example) and “grande écoles” (prestigeous selective type schools which are on a par with Oxford and Cambridge and MIT) ; or finally for “concours” (selection tests) directly into selective schools. For the universities and “prepas” the route is through the online application site, otherwise admission aplications are made via the “concours” to schools or through the “Sesame” online application site with strict compliance to key dates.

The problem arises when after a cursory glance and hastily filled online french university application in march your potential student decides, in june, that they are not cut out for the overseas course they originally applied for, and no longer want to study abroad. It is only at this moment when it is far, far to late, that you realise that those hastily filled-in details on the french site counted for far more than you had originally believed, and are now totally inadequate.

If, amongst the 6 or so french university applications made on the on-line site, your number one choice of university gives you an offer, you will never find out what offers the other universities would have given you, nor will you get the possibility of turning down your first choice in favour of your second. This means that if you have chosen hastily the wrong course or the wrong city for your future education, it is too late.

Or is it? And this is the question I posed to my french girlfriend.

There are three different routes possible:

If you are a french resident you are entitled to university education. You are entitled to visit your home-town university to request admission into the fac (faculty) of your choice, beit law, beit economy etc. As long as they have places, a home-town student has a right to a place. In otherwords free education and living at home, which is win-win for parents and students alike in the era of huge education loans, although most students wouldn’t necessarily see it that way. Three more years with parents isn’t always every student’s dream… or their parents, for that matter! At the end of three years study, the student makes an application for the concours (selective tests), known as the “Passerelle”, or “concours parallel”, into the “école” of their choice in any city – for example an école de commerce or business, and once accepted is leap-frogged immediately into the second year.

The second route is that of the “Sesame” on-line application. The student doesn’t take up the place offered for the current academic year, but takes a year out and starts building up their general knowledge, maths and language skills, and in the January applies, through Sesame, for the concours into the Ecoles of Commerce, Business etc and then, if successful, goes onto study the full course starting in the first year.

The third route is to reapply by the web-site for “Admission Post Bac” for the desired course in the following March, taking every effort to pay more attention second time round, and then simply take a year out and try to gain some extra attributes, a job, or a work-placement (stage) in the desired field to augment the application before the March dead-line.

I had heard rumours that applying to university in France one year late, or taking a “gap-year” was unheard-of, but my friend explained that there are many students who either start a prepa, or a “license” (degree) at university and then find it so tough-going, or not their “cup of tea” , that in fear of failing the first year they make a “safety-net” new application to the on-line “Admission Post Bac” for another course and another university just in case…and they do receive offers, which they then later take, or discard, depending on the results of their year exams.

The key is to keep hold of the initial “Admission Post Bac” student reference/application number, as, despite not having done any studies, the students are classified for new applications on the website as “Bac+1”, rather than “Bac” applicants and use the same application number.

It is somewhat of a relief to know that there is indeed a way through, and that the future doesn’t end at a giant brick wall.

But if you want to avoid all the stress, best to pay a little more attention than I did from the outset!

The things you wish you knew about Troisième – Applying for Options International, Européen and Anglophone.

Troisième is a year of choices, options and decisions. Today, the culmination of all these decisions took a unforseen twist.

For those that remember my last post on the subject of Troisième, they may remember that there are three basic choices for the Baccaleaureat General once one has decided whether to follow the Science, Literature or Ecomomic route. Broadly these are the OIB (Option International Baccalaureat in which the student will gain not only the bac in the leaning of their choice, but also A levels), the Option Anglophone or Européen (which follows essentially the same course with one subject studied in the English language and receives a ‘Mention Européen’ but no A levels) and the standard Baccalaureat.

In April we filled in our application form for consideration for the OIB. There are only two Lycées in Normandy which provide this option, Lycée Gustave Flaubert at Rouen, and Lycée Privée St Joseph at Le Havre. Each lycée has only 35 places and it is considered an elite course. The application was detailed and required a ‘Lettre de Motivation’ from each potential student – in English for the French applicants, and in French for the English applicants. Included with the application were the last three years of school reports and a personal report and declaration from the Directeur/ Directrice of the current Collège, as well as from the Professor Principal for the student’s class and also from the English teacher. There was also a score card (1-10) assessing the student’s ability in reading, writing, oral and comprehension.

A fortnight after the application was submitted, all the applicants were called to sit an entrance exam. This consisted of a written paper and an oral exam, thankfully for us in English, and which I imagine was the most daunting part of the process where the French students were concerned.

Before one starts to imagine that the oral was a ‘piece of cake’ for the English students, factor in conversing in English with a French examiner with a heavy French accent, and aged 15 answering these type of questions –

“If the price of oil rises in the Middle east, what will happen to comodities in Europe and why?”

The other terrifiying aspect of the whole process was the parental ability to misread the timetable and documentation and to forget to arrive at the exam hall with the student’s passport. No passport – no entry! Having lived on the edge of my nerves desperately trying to meet all the deadlines, I was hugely thankful when the process was over and the wait for results could begin.

However, there was never going to be just one option and just one application. With an initial starting point of 500 interested applicants, there needed to be a ‘fall back’ option.

In January we had interviews at two Lycées privées to register for the Options Anglophone and Européen. At both Lycées we were welcomed with open arms. Our daughter was a prime candidate for their  Anglophone and Européen courses, they said. In front of us they read the three years worth of ‘Bulletins’ (school reports), ticked all the appropriate boxes on the Inscription forms, handed us the registration form to be completed at home and gave us a deadline for its return along with it’s obligatory ‘reservation of place’ cheque for 150€. It was in the bag. If the OIB didn’t work out we had an excellent ‘fall-back’…

or so we thought!

Suddenly in early June, a letter arrived in my letter box from one of the Lycées requesting that we filled in an application for the ‘Option Anglophone’. Hadn’t we done that already, I mused to myself -but knowing that France likes its paperwork, I sent the form into Collège to be duly signed and completed by the Directrice, the Prof principal and the English teacher. My daughter sat down to write another ‘Lettre de Motivation’ and we rushed it to the Lycée with a day to spare before the deadline.

On the 22 June I received an identical letter from the other Lycée Privée requesting the exact same procedure for the Option Européen. The deadline was the 21 June. You see my problem! It had been lost in the post. It was friday evening and would have to wait for monday before I could ring the Lycée to explain what had happened, and the French are  strict on their deadlines.

On monday I returned from work to find a letter in my mailbox for the Option Anglophone. My Anglophone daughter had been refused a place for the Option Anglophone. It dawned on me that I had paid 150€ in the belief that I was reserving a place for an Option which in fact was not a certainty, and had only been offered the general bac instead, but not only that, thanks to the postal situation I had also paid 150€ reservation fee for the Européen option for which I had missed the deadline for application. And would she have got onto the option if she had applied in time anyway?

The good news is that we have heard verbally that our daughter is accepted for the OIB at Gustave Flaubert which is where she really wants to go. So all in all it’s a financial loss we had been prepared to take anyway, even if right at this moment we feel a little misled.

But I won’t rest easy until the confirmation letter is in my hand.

You might also like to read:

Troisième – Brevet Blanc
et Tiers Temps

Troisième –
Choosing Lycées

Troisième –
La Stage d’Observation

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)