A comparison of assessment and accountability in the French and English school systems

In 2018 President Macron announced that the compulsory age for starting school would be lowered from six years’ old to three, a decision that came into effect in September 2019. It was largely symbolic as nearly 98% of three year olds were already attending Ecole Maternelle anyway but is significant because France now has one of the lowest school starting ages in Europe. School is compulsory up to the age of 16 but 64% stay on to take the Baccalaureate at the age of 18, a similar proportion to that achieving three A levels in England.

School Structure

There are four main phases of the French education system:

  • Ecole Maternelle: Pre-school, ages 2-6.
  • Ecole Primaire: Primary, ages 6-11
  • Collège: Middle School, ages 11-15
  • Lycée: High School, ages 15-18

Note that the school year runs from 1st September to 7th July – it is standardised – but it is is the calendar year of a child’s birth that determines their year group (or grade). In other words, unlike in England, children born in August and September of the same year will be in the same school year group.

Key Stages

The French education system has four key stages known as cycles pédagogiques. Following re-organisation of these cycles in 2015, they are now evenly distributed with three years to each and do not precisely align with the phases listed above: the third – ‘Consolidation’ – cycle straddles the primary and secondary phases. The following table provides a summary of the structure of French education system alongside the equivalent English key stages and year groups for comparison. Note that year group numbers in secondary education are in descending order:

AgePhaseCycleYearKey Stage (Eng)Year (Eng)
3-4MaternellePremiersPetiteEYFSN
4-5MaternellePremiersMoyenneEYFSR
5-6MaternellePremiersGrandeKS11
6-7PrimaireFondamentauxCours Préparatoire (CP)KS12
7-8PrimaireFondamentauxCours Elémentaire 1 (CE1)KS23
8-9PrimaireFondamentauxCours Elémentaire 2 (CE2)KS24
9-10PrimaireConsolidationCours Moyen 1 (CM1)KS25
10-11PrimaireConsolidationCours Moyen 2 (CM2)KS26
11-12CollègeConsolidationSixième (6e)KS37
12-13CollègeApprofondissementsCinquième (5e)KS38
13-14CollègeApprofondissementsQuatrième (4e)KS39
14-15CollègeApprofondissementsTroisième (3e)KS410
15-16Lycéen/aSeconde (2nde)KS411
16-17Lycéen/aPremière (1ère)KS512
17-18Lycéen/aTerminale (T)KS513
A comparison of the structures of the French and English education systems

To a certain extent, pupils can learn at their own pace and take less or more time to complete a cycle:

Although each cycle normally lasts three years, it can be completed in two or four years, depending on a child’s progress. The decision whether a child is ready to progress to the next cycle is made jointly by a teachers’ council (conseil des maîtres du cycle), the school director, the pupil’s teachers and a psycho-pedagogical group. It’s no longer possible to fail a year and have to repeat it, as the new system allows pupils to progress at their own speed and doesn’t require them to repeat the same work as in the previous year. Parents are able to appeal against a school’s decision regarding progression to the next cycle. (Source)

Assessment in French Schools

There is a wide range of statutory assessments administered in French schools and these take place through primary and secondary phases. Assessments take various forms: periodic teacher assessments of performance in the various subjects reported to parents, end of cycle assessments of progress towards objectives, universal standardised tests, and sampling exercises carried out by a group of schools.

Pre-Primary Education

There is no formal national assessment but schools are required to maintain a logbook of learning and, at the end of cycle 1 (Premiers), make a record of children’s achievements against a list of skills for each of the five areas of learning. This requires the completion of a grid and is similar to the foundation stage profile, with a three tier system of assessment for each skill recorded in the following format:

  • Does not succeed
  • Is on the way to success
  • Often succeeds

The areas of learning are:

  • Mobilize language in all its dimensions
  • Acting, expressing oneself, understanding through physical activity
  • Act, express oneself, understand through artistic activities
  • Build the first tools to structure your thinking
  • Explore the world

Livret scolaire unique

All pupils receive a livret scolaire unique – unique school book – at the start of primary education (age 6) and this is used to record two types of assessments:

  • Les Bilans Périodiques: Assessments of performance in each subject each term
  • Les Bilans de Fin de Cycle: End of cycle (key stage) assessments relating to progress towards the common core of knowledge and skills

The book follows the child through their education and will pass from school to school. The assessments will help determine whether the child can move to the next cycle and will ultimately contribute to the final qualification at age 15 (Troisième grade in College). The book is moving to a digital format on a national platform, which will be accessible by parents and guardians. The assessments recorded in the book are standardised, which means that there is a common language used across all phases of the education system.

Les Bilans Périodiques (Term Report)

A record of performance in each subject is recorded every term (period). There are four options:

  • Not achieved
  • Partially achieved
  • Achieved
  • Exceeded

In primary, the focus is on the domains of French and maths; in secondary it is on the separate subjects. The approach is similar to the non-statutory recording of objective-level assessments common in primary settings in England. Examples of the standardised report form used by French schools can be found here.

Les Bilans de Fin de Cycle (end of key stage report)

This report is prepared for the end of cycle 2 (fundamentals), 3 (consolidation) and 4 (deepening) and is therefore made in CE2, Sixième and Troisième grades (equivalents to Years 4, 7 and 10 in England). Whereas Les Bilans Periodiques has a different format in primary and secondary phases, here the format is common throughout with a focus on mastery of ‘the common base of knowledge, skills and culture’. It builds towards and contributes to the Diplôme National du Brevet qualification at age 15, at the end of college (middle school) education. The eight domains of the common base are as follows:

  • Using the French language, written or spoken
  • Using a foreign language, or, as the case may be, a regional language (or a second foreign language)
  • Using the language of mathematics, sciences and computers
  • Using the language of arts and of the body
  • Methodologies and tools to learn
  • The training of the individual and the citizen
  • Natural and technical systems
  • World representations and human activity

Assessment of mastery of each of these takes one of four values:

  • Insufficient
  • Fragile
  • Sufficient
  • Excellent

The closest equivalent in the English system is assessment at KS1 (and writing at KS2), which takes the form: working below, working towards, working at, and working at greater depth within the expected standard.

Other forms of statutory assessment

Beyond the livret scolaire unique – which forms the common thread of assessment running through both primary and middle school phases – there are several statutory tests administered in French primary schools. There are the Repères, which all pupils take in grades CP and CE1, and the CEDRE, which is a sampling exercise and therefore not taken by all pupils.

Repères

Repères are standardised tests in French and maths taken in grades CP (age 6-7, equivalent to Year 2 in England) and CE1 (age 7-8, equivalent to Year 3 in England). In both years, there are three tests – two in French and one in maths – and each test takes 20 minutes to complete. Individual results are only available at school level and are provided to parents; anonymised results are provided to local school inspectors. In terms of age, these tests are broadly comparable with the phonics check and KS1 tests carried out in primary schools in England. An example of a Repères test book for children in CP grade (age 6-7) can be downloaded here.

CEDRE

CEDRE, which stands for Cycle des Évaluations Disciplinaires Réalisées sur Échantillons (Subject evaluation cycle on the basis of samples), is a PISA-style assessment sampling exercise carried out annually involving a randomly selected, stratified sample of several thousand pupils from several hundred schools. It assesses one subject each year on a 6 year rolling cycle and involves pupils from grades CM2 (final year of primary) and Troisième (final year of middle school). The subjects involved are:

  • Language mastery
  • Modern foreign languages
  • History, geography and moral and civic education
  • Experimental sciences
  • Mathematics

The Brevet Informatique et Internet (B2i)

A certificate of competence in multimedia and the internet. There are three levels and it is awarded at the end of primary (CM2), middle school (Collège) and at any point during high school (Lycée).

Sixième Grade Standardised Tests

There are no tests at the end of primary education as there are at KS2 in England. Instead, at the beginning of the 6th grade – the start of secondary education (equivalent to year 7 in England) – students are required to sit a series of standardised tests in French and maths, each lasting 60 minutes. The tests are online and adaptive, which means that the student is routed through the assessment according to their level of mastery. Teachers receive a detailed question level analysis for their class and students are guided towards homework tasks that will address specific weaknesses.

Le Diplôme National du Brevet (DNB)

The DNB marks the culmination of collège (middle school) education*. Over three days, at the end of the Troisième Grade, pupils tackle exams in mathematics, life and earth sciences, physics and chemistry, technology, French, history and geography, and civic and moral education. There is an oral exam on the third day. The points gained from these exams are added to the results of the continuous Fin de Cycle – end of key stage – assessments recorded in the livret scolaire unique and the B2i, and the total determines the grade of the DNB with ‘honours’ ranging from assez bien (fair), to bien (good), to très bien (very good). Obtaining the DNB is not a requirement for entry to high school (Lycée) but the result will influence the path taken next.

*A small number of students that follow an adapted education pathway may gain Le certificat de formation générale (CFG) rather than the DNB. This certifies mastery of the common core of knowledge and skills and can lead on to acquiring the Certificat d’Aptitude Professionelle (CAP) at a vocational school (Lycée Professionelle).

The Lycée pathways

Moving from Collège to Lycée (Middle to High School), after the troisième grade, students will follow either a general or technical path at a lycée général/lycée technologique, or the vocational path at a lycée professionnel. The decision on which school a student will attend – and therefore which pathway they will follow – is the responsibility of the headteacher following a meeting of the class council. The decision can be appealed. The pathway will define the type of baccalauréat the student will take.

Seconde Grade Standardised Tests

At the start of Lycée (High School) in seconde grade (equivalent to year 11 in England) students take standardised ‘positioning tests’ in French and maths similar to those taken at the beginning of middle school. They are designed to identify individual strengths and weaknesses and results are reported to parents.

Lycée Général/Lycée technologique

Students attending lycée général/technologique are preparing for the general or technological baccalauréat in the final year of high school. This is the main route to university and involves a mix of continuous assessment and exams. Following reforms, students do not opt to follow the general or technical path in second grade (the first year of high school). Instead they follow a common programme, studying a broad base of subjects in the first year, before specialising in first grade (the second year of high school). Those opting for the general path will specialise in three areas initially and then further specialise in two of those in the final year. Students opting to follow the technical pathway can choose from eight areas of specialism, which can lead to more advanced training and a technical license.

Lycée Professionnel

Students that take the vocational pathway attend the Lycée Professionnel (Vocational High School) and this will lead on to recognised trade qualifications. The two main qualifications attained in the Lycée Professionnel are Le certificat d’aptitude professionnelle (CAP), which requires 2 years of study, and Le baccalauréat professionnel, which is achieved after 3 years of study, at the end of High School. Le brevet d’études professionnelles (BEP) – an intermediate diploma often gained en route to the baccalauréat professionnel – is being phased out in 2021.

A comparison of national assessments in English and French schools

AgeYear Group
(France)
AssessmentYear Group
(England)
Assessment
4-5MoyenneYRReception Baseline (from Sept 2021)
EYFSP
5-6Grande1Phonics
6-7CPRepères (Fr, Ma)2KS1 tests (Re, Ma) and TA (Re, Wr, Ma, Sc)
7-8CE1Repères (Fr, Ma)3
8-9CE2livret scolaire unique – fin de cycle4Multiplication Tables Check (MTC)
9-10CM15
10-11CM2B2i
CEDRE (sampling)
6KS2 tests (Re, Ma, GPS) and TA (Wr, Sc)
Science tests (sampling)
11-126eStandardised Tests (Fr, Ma)
livret scolaire unique – fin de cycle
7
12-135e8
13-144e9
14-153eB2i
DNB
livret scolaire unique – fin de cycle
CEDRE (sampling)
10
15-162ndeStandardised Tests (Fr, Ma)11GCSE & BTEC
16-171èreCAP/BEP (Lycée Pro)
B2i*
12AS Levels (in some schools)
17-18TBAC Gen, Tech, or Pro
B2i*
13A Levels & BTEC
Comparison of assessments made in French and English state schools (*B2i assessment in Lycée can be made at any point)

Accountability

Monitoring of the effectiveness of education policy is mainly done through sampling exercises such as the CEDRE assessments. On the whole, assessments are carried out for the purposes of supporting pupils through the various cycles of learning although some test scores, such as the repères carried out in lower primary, are made available to local school inspectors.

Inspection of French Schools

Quality assurance of education in French schools involves numerous agencies working in a fragmented system. Inspections are undertaken by regional inspectors and – in contrast with the Ofsted system in England – are predominantly concerned with the evaluation of individual teachers rather than schools. Headteachers score teachers for ‘punctuality’, ‘authority’ and ‘standing’ but it is the inspector who scores the teacher’s pedagogical performance. The teacher receives an overall score 60% of which is accounted for by the inspector’s assessment; the remaining 40% is contributed by the headteacher. Primary school teachers are usually inspected every 3 to 4 years; for secondary teachers the gap between visits is 6 to 7 years.

A similar approach is taken to the inspection of headteachers with a score given for their teaching as well as administrative duties. There is a focus on relationships with teachers, local authorities, and parents. The outcome of this process, which happens every 3 years, determines career progression and whether they stay in their current post. The evaluation of performance of secondary headteachers will have a greater focus on official indicators, which will be used to determine whether set goals have been achieved.

Since 2010, there has been a shift towards a more Ofsted-like collective evaluation of the performance of primary schools ‘to re-centre schools’ practices around teachers’ collective work in order to analyse and understand the parameters likely to explain pupils’ results’. This approach – adopted by some but not all regional education authorities – results in an oral report delivered to the headteacher and teaching staff, and a written report sent to the regional education office.

Evaluation of secondary schools involves various key performance indicators, including contextual value-added measures intended to show the school effect on pupil performance. Each school has objectives to be met within a specified time frame and the indicators are used to evaluate these. The data is for school leaders and inspectors and is not made public.

Further reading:

https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/national-policies/eurydice/content/france_en

https://www.education.gouv.fr/organisation-de-l-ecole-12311

https://about-france.com/primary-secondary-schools.htm

https://www.justlanded.com/english/France/France-Guide/Education/The-French-school-system

https://www.education.gouv.fr/le-socle-commun-de-connaissances-de-competences-et-de-culture-12512

https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/national-policies/eurydice/france/quality-assurance-early-childhood-and-school-education_en

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