Monday, January 11, 2010

Grandes Ecoles 101

...or how to train your child for the new noblesse. According to this article by Monique Dagnaud, France is the only country where your diplomas are still being spoken about and considered even when close to retirement. The nec plus ultra of French education is to go to one of the Grandes Ecoles which take only 5% of each generation. It doesn't guarantee a top job afterwards, but if you don't have one of the prestigious diplomas under your belt, your chances of greatness are severely diminished.

So how does your child achieve access to such hallowed portals? Well, it starts before birth. You, the parent, should preferably be a teacher. There is a strong over-representation of teacher's kids in the microcosm of the grandes écoles. Why? Because of the 'capital culturel' that teachers can offer their kids. A broad culture is actually more important than a family's economic resources. I've mentioned before that teachers are suspected of not teaching other people's children very well in order to reduce the competition for precious places, and this does rather support that notion.

Your child is born, feet on the starting block. Going to a good maternelle is essential. Already, by the age of 10, if your child is falling behind, the chances of catching up at primary school or later are very slim. Many children have private lessons at home to supplement the (lack of good) teaching they receive at school.

Once beyond maternelle, attending a good school is still important, and this will probably be in one of the main urban centres. Jumping a class is considered a Good Thing because it will make everyone look at your child favourably thanks to his precociousness.

Next he has to distinguish himself from his peers. This means taking a first language such as German or Russian although both the schools my son has attended at collège level don't offer German any more because of the lack of interest. Next, he should take a second language such as Greek or Latin. Improve his English by sending him to an (expensive) American holiday camp where the cosmopolitan variety of kids will oblige him to speak English (supposedly). There's no point sending him to a UK family in a group because he'll spend all his time with his French mates speaking French.

Most important, then is the cultural environment, including debating around the family table, cultural visits, travelling, mastering new technologies and, because he's getting such a crap education from his teachers, those all important private lessons. Neglect nothing in the combat for victory and consider your strategy carefully.

The only Bac worth having is the Bac S (sciences) and he'll have to work hard enough to get a 'good' or 'very good' grade if he wants to go further. However, all work and no play makes your child a very dull specimen, so he'll have to improve his personality with extra-curricular activities such as sport or art to such a level that he wins prizes and amazes the gallery.

Post-Bac come two or three years of exhausting unremitting effort at a classe préparatoire where your child will have to dedicate all his time to studying for the final entry exams. It's at this point that many (of the more imaginative) students, exhausted and demotivated by the frenzied competition, jump ship and head off to a university or the purgatory of a lesser school. This does not necessarily scupper their chances for a good career, but there is a glass ceiling that works against managers lacking the most prestigious diplomas.

Becoming a member of the elite takes hard work and dedication by the whole family, and for those who succeed
"c'est comme l'anoblissement du temps de l'ancien régime: une place dans les allées du pouvoir, et un pedigree flatteur".
Are French bosses so much better than German, American or British or any others on the planet? Are French companies that much more successful?

Is all that effort worth it?


  1. Gosh that sounds like quite a system to get your head round! I'm sure you know that the arguments about how to get your kids through school/uni successfully are raging in the UK. We cross our fingers that the decision to settle in our own home rather than take the Armed Forces traditional route of putting our girls in boarding school will be the right one. In theory good grades from an ordinary school will prove a route into a good uni as they want to be seen to take less well off kids, but who knows?! Have never had a French boss, but British ones vary greatly in terms of ability or lack of it!

  2. What I object to with the French system is that either you go to a grande école, or you become a doc/ lawyer, or you're useless.

    There seems to be no appreciation of the variety of intelligence and skills people have. You're just written off if you're not at the top by the age of 19.

    I don't think it's so brutal in the UK.

  3. Well, not really Sarah - there are a lot of good universities in France and unless your child has decided he wants to become a politician, or a captain of industry, they don't have to necessily go to the ENA or Mines.
    Les Grandes Ecoles are simply a way of fast-tracking good brains and getting them off in the right direction. You can still be a politician or a scientist or a captain of industry going through the regular university channels ...

  4. Funny ... look what I saw in the Figaro today!

  5. An excellent article, DD - thanks! I think I'll blog that one too. :)

  6. Great post - this is something I've thought a lot about over the years. I've always found it funny how the French go on and on about libérté, égalité, fraternité etc, but how there's still really this whole unspoken class system out there. Coming from the US, I was very surprised how hard it was for people to move up in life - if your parents were farmers or worked in a factory, you most likely will do the same. If you were parents were teachers or lawyers, you will likely follow suite. I remember talking to my ex about wanting our (future) kids to go to a grande école and as a farmer, he was just incredulous - it wasn't even something he'd ever thought of! But for me, I was like "How could you not want your children to do better than you did? Where did this culture of not pushing them, not raising their expectations, come from?" Not to mention how I would hear teachers say things like "Oh, there's no use trying with that one, he'll never amount to anything" because the child came from a bad home.

    I also had a hard time accepting how diplomas count for almost everything and experience/motivation for very little. I've seen it time and time again where the most knowledgeable people in a company are passed over for a promotion because they don't have the right diploma - so instead they hire some 25yr old with a masters but no practical skills.

    Anyways, this isn't a criticism of the French way - just some observations of the differences I've seen over the years here!

  7. You're right, Sam. There's nothing like everyone knowing their place. France's feudal society swapped an upper intellectual class one so it seems. Hardly a meritocratic one, and many of the types at the top are determined to keep the plebs down because they're not 'our type' and their cosy socio-business culture risks being blown to smithereens by the influx of those pushy plebs. Can't have that, now, can we?


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