The very fact that Baccalauréat is in the singular should be a pointer to the major difference. A-levels can be collected and accumulated. You can sit three one year, fail one, take it another year… decide to add one later on if you want, it’s up to you. Whether the subjects you decide to sit actually go together is another matter. No one will stop you doing chemistry, Swahili and needlework if all are available at your school and that is what you think you will do best at. Teachers, parents and university requirements will guide pupils in the usefulness of their choice, but that’s about it.
The Baccalauréat is a state diploma awarded to pupils in their final lycée year. To obtain it they must pass a multi-subject examination which will include certain obligatory core subjects French, philosophy, maths, two foreign languages but which will vary according to the sections (series) they have chosen in première (with an accent on science, economics, humanities or technology). The weighting (coéfficient) applied to different subjects will also vary from one series to another.
Pupils sitting the Baccalauréat (le bac as everyone calls it) are assessed by examination (written and oral) of the final two years at the lycée. For borderline cases, the Baccalauréat examiners will also consult the school reports for the final last two years, as well as the head’s opinion expressed in this report. Only in those circumstances is continuous assessment used.
How are pupils tested and marked?
1. In première
The first part of the Baccalauréat is the examination in French literature. Pupils sit this a year ahead of the rest, that is, in première. The exam consists of written and oral tests with equal weight. For the oral, pupils are asked to analyse texts studied during the year, around a specific theme such as the Enlightenment or the Romantics.
After this exam, French ceases to be on the curriculum but the marks are carried forward to the grand total that will be obtained the following year with the remaining subjects. In terminale year, French is replaced by Lettres (humanities, in which students will study non-French writers, including Shakespeare) and Philosophy.
2. In terminale
Pupils are tested at the end of their final year in the lycée for the remaining subjects studied. This stage is divided into two parts: premier groupe and deuxième groupe.
The premier groupe is preponderantly a written examination, only some options are tested orally. After the written papers have been marked, pupils learn whether they have passed with various levels of distinction (mention très bien, mention bien, mention assez bien) or have simply passed (passable). For all these pupils, le bac ends here. They are automatically assured a place at university. For those with the highest honours, they will go on to classes préparatoires and hopefully find a place in a grande école.
For those who have not obtained enough marks at the written there is an opportunity to earn a few more at the épreuve de rattrapage (literally the “catching up exam”) also called the deuxième groupe exams. This takes the form of an oral based on subjects studied during the year. It takes place just a few days after the written results have been published.
Borderline cases have access to their marks, see where they have failed and with the help of teachers will calculate which subjects they would do best to offer at the oral (choice will depend not only on competence, but also on the particular weighting of different subjects).
Those who fail to catch up at the oral examinations will have to repeat their year. You cannot just sit the subjects you have failed, you sit the whole examination again.
The high degree of written French needed makes this a hard examination for anyone entering the French school system at a late stage. Not only is an excellent level of French necessary, but an understanding of what is required in, say, essay-writing is essential. For non-French pupils, it would be extremely likely that they would have to repeat one of these years if they have not been through the earlier stages of the French system.
The French approach to the essay is far more Cartesian than the Anglo-Saxon freewheeling style. There is a framework and progression to be respected, pitfalls to be avoided. It is an excellent way to help pupils organise their thoughts in a logical way, but not easy when you haven’t acquired some grounding in the approach earlier on, in collège. As for philosophy, even the French find this hard, but if you have mastered the logical approach to setting down your ideas in première, it is certainly a help.
The section you choose will also influence future employers. There is a definite preference for Série Scientifique pupils, and many a literary-minded pupil will choose this option for that reason alone. Next in pecking-order preference for employers (and selective further education establishments) is the Série Economique et sociologique. The Literary section tends to be, unfortunately, for weaker pupils…but this is also the section with creative options such as music, cinema and fine arts. The technological bac is geared to those who see themselves in the world of business: sales, accountants, secretarial, etc… This section also has a poor press, but many a pupil who is better at oral expression and who has good interpersonal skills but weaker academic ones will find him or herself here.
The big plus for the bac over A-levels is that it ensures that pupils leave with an all-round education. There is no specialisation in France at lycée level. This may require more effort, but it gives pupils a wider choice of studies, so more adaptability later on. It is also important to understand that the bac is essential to go on to further studies in France and that to find work without it (or a professional qualification obtained in France) would be extremely hard.
By Jacqueline Karp