12 May 2016

A recent exchange visit to Strasbourg between East Midlands colleges and local lycée tutors has offered our members the opportunity to find out more about how the vocational education system operates in France. We asked Jon Poxon, emfec's Projects Manager, to share his thoughts.

A recent visit to Strasbourg supported by the Erasmus+ exchange programme has allowed me and the rest of the delegation, consisting of tutors from across the East Midlands, to see in action the differences and similarities between the French and English vocational systems.

I was expecting or hoping that the academic and vocational systems would work better together and were supportive of each other in the French education system, but to my surprise, even when they were based on the same campus, they still functioned separately.

In contrast to the secondary and tertiary institutions in the UK, students in France can stay in the same place for the majority of their teenage and young adult years. The duration of student stay at a lycée – the closest equivalent to a further education college in the UK – could be as long as six years, with students able to progress to Level 4 and 5 qualifications as long as the lycée specialises in their chosen vocational area. One of the students I met was a 21 year old apprentice, but he had been supported by the same college since he was 16 – a big contrast to our changeover to a sixth form or further education college at 16 here in the UK.

While I expected the lycées to be similar to our FE colleges, the campuses were much larger and more specialised, tending to be known for a particular area of study rather than a broad vocational curriculum. The lycées we visited in particular focused on motor vehicle, engineering and design and construction and design and all had a large focus on sustainable development.

The large, specialist resources available to students in this environment are excellent, offering far more space and better staff to student ratios than we are frequently able to offer in the UK. At Lycée Ettore Bugatti, which specialises in motor engineering, students are given driving lessons for cars and lorries as part of their state-funded education for logistics courses, and all of the cars on site are provided by local Peugeot, Citroen and Renault factories – including the latest Citroen DS hybrid for students to learn more about hybrid technology.

All of the lycée staff and inspectors are employed by the government and are Civil Servants, so staff can move readily between lycées on the same pay grade, maintaining their pension and working conditions so there is less competition and duplication of resources.

Despite this, because of the nature of the larger and more specialised institutions, students are expected to travel further than we would expect UK college students to, as there may only be one or two colleges with a specific specialism in a region. Some of the lycées accommodate this travel by offering dormitory blocks for weekday boarders, not dissimilar to students in the UK who attend boarding schools but go home at weekends.

Under the current decentralisation process taking place in France, the number of regions has recently been reduced from 22 down to 13, including the merger of Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine to form the Grand Est region. The new regions will have considerable discretionary powers of infrastructure and operational spending in education, tourism, public transport, universities and research, unemployment and assistance to business. It is hard not to recognise the parallels which are taking place across the UK at the moment in devolved cities.

Because of the larger, specialist lycées, the French system encourages greater travel and physical mobility of students, however there is a far greater drop-out rate in France with less emphasis on getting people back into the system. It seems to work very well for those young people that are motivated and mobile and supported by family, for those that do not fit this profile then there do not seem to be many alternatives in place to help them.

There are also different facilities for unemployed and adult learners, so they do not mix with lycée students in the same way that we see adult learners return to both further and higher education institutes in the UK to upskills and continue learning. The French system in this respect seems to underutilise the resources of the lycée and adds to the cost of specialist premises elsewhere.

There also seems to be limited flexibility in vocational teaching from our experience of the lycées in the Alsace region, as you have to have a qualification to teach, meaning there is no direct route in for people from industry to consider lecturing in a vocational setting.

Despite this, the French system has a very interesting process of promotion: if you have been a teacher for a while, you then can become an inspector in the subject you teach and have to take a national exam. You then are the equivalent to an Ofsted inspector, but combined with an improvement role and you will have to work with the Lycée to develop an improvement plan and monitor its implementation.  You are, however, expected to move to where they need you to inspect, which may be any region in the country as there are fewer lycées specialising in each vocational area than we are used to in the UK.

The Erasmus+ exchange programme has given us an excellent opportunity to explore ideas for best practice between Strasbourg and the East Midlands and to discover in more detail the similar patterns in government change which seem to affect both of our countries. Overall, the visit provided the delegation with a fascinating professional development opportunity and a great reason to return to France in the future.

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Jon Poxon is Projects Manager at emfec. His role includes managing the joint relations between emfec members and the Académie de Strasbourg as part of the Eramus+ programme.