10 main differences between French and American high schools


photo by Victoria Muller

Picture from the class of Evan Kershner. The American flag is displayed in each classroom at Meridian, a concept you would not find in France.

With an entire ocean separating them, we all know that France and the United States have a lot of differences at all levels, including School. Mentalities and organizations are different, as well, the design of schools and the school program.

Here are the ten main differences between them.

The schedule: In France, from elementary school to the 10th grade, students can’t choose the classes they attend. All French students have the same program depending on their age.

In High School, they have to attend the classes of French (the equivalent of English for the American students), Maths, Geography, History, P.E., Sciences (the equivalent of Biology and Anatomy), Chemistry, Sociology and a class of Digital and Technological. They also attend the classes of English (the equivalent of Spanish), but also Spanish (sometimes German or Italian), and can choose an option like Art, Romane, or Drama, depending on the School, but they don’t have to.

The schedules are not the same every day like in America but spread over the whole week (for example, the schedule of the students on Monday will not be the same as the one on Tuesday). Moreover, some subjects are more important than others, so French students will have more hours in one class than in another. For example, French is very important, so they will have 6 hours of it in the week unlike Sociology, where they will only have 2 hours of it.

The organization: School days in France are longer. Students begin around 8 a.m.-9 a.m. and end school around 5:30 p.m. But they have 2 weeks of vacation at the beginning of November, 2 other for Christmas, 2 weeks in February, and 2 on Easter. The school year begins the first week of September and ends the last week of June.

All classes last 55 minutes, but students have a break of 15 minutes in the morning, lunchtime takes one hour and they have a last 10-minutes-break in the afternoon.

French pupils are divided into classes of 35 students for the whole year. They have a “principal teacher” and one or two delegates (a student the class elects at the beginning of the year) to transmit information and manage possible conflicts and difficulties of the students.

The desks: In France, there are not individual desks, except for the biggest exams. Indeed, the rooms are small and students are many, so the desks are side by side by two, sometimes by three. They are rectangular, not triangular, and most of the time, pretty cheap and weak (wobbly and scratched).

The country flag: The American flag is in all classrooms in the United States and the pledge of allegiance is solemnly announced every morning. In parallel, there is no French flag in the schools there, this act would be considered too conservative. But we can sometimes see the bust of Marie-Anne, an important French symbol at the reception.

Taps in hallways, drinks vending machines, and individual lockers: Typically American, you’ll never find them in France. The French students drink in the bathroom and at lunchtime. They carry everything in their backpacks or in their handbags for most girls. Everyone has to eat a hot lunch at school, except if they have allergies.

Taking notes and homework in France: Things are changing because of the pandemic. But French schools are not well developed concerning computers, taking notes, and doing homework online anyway. Students have a book in almost every subject with a notebook or a binder for each class. It helps students to memorize well and not to do something that has no report with the school on their computer (like watching YouTube videos). When they write, French students use bill pens or fountain pens, rarely pencils. They don’t have School Chromebook and have to use the ones in the library if they have to do a task such as a slides presentation.

Transportations: Most of the time, American students go to school by a school bus or drive them-self from 16. In France, teenagers can’t have their license until the age of 18, and it takes a lot of money and time. School buses are rare, even non-existent, and parents can’t always drive them to school. That’s why they have to find another way to go to school.  So they have to take municipal buses, trains, subways (if they live in big cities), bicycles, walk from their home, and sometimes motorcycles (the ones which not need a license). It can take a few minutes if they live close to the school, but usually, they have to switch and it can take more than one hour. Thereby, students learn how to be more independent, organized, and on time.

Sports spaces and fields: Sport at school in France is definitely not as important as in the United States. French Students have 2 hours of P.E. per week, but there is no activity such as football, basketball, or volleyball in school after class. France doesn’t invest in the sports infrastructure of schools because it is not essential for it. 

Every school in France has a very basic gymnasium for sports lessons. On the other hand, for the swimming, the French students go to the municipal swimming pool and if they have to run, it will take place either in a public forest or on the athletic track of the town. 

If the French students want to practice a sport or any other activities, they will have to go to a specific club, or association, which has no report with the school. Obviously, there’s no School football game, cheerleading, band, or clubs such as Scholastic Bowl or FFA.

The School colors and Mascott: A concept that you can only find in the United States. Most of the time, French School has a logo for official and important documents, but it’s just in order to certify them.

To conclude, the school in France is essentially made to study and to keep the work attitude. French School System prefers to avoid any activities that could be too entertaining for the students, like sports, spirit week, homecoming, games, or prom. Success comes first, fun comes next, during vacations and weekends. Through series and movies about American High School, French students often dream of the same ambiance and events that American schools have.