I am an International Baccalaureate (IB) veteran. Most of my secondary education was completed  in international schools, as I joined the program in seventh grade, and stayed there until graduation. However, I experienced the French education system from first to 6th grade, only to be reunited with it once again at Sciences Po. This reunion has made for quite an educational culture shock, as I had forgotten most of the French system’s quirks and rigidities. 

Perceptions of the French education system vary, ranging from elitist rigor to lenient inefficiency. However, it is distinctly competitive. While a degree of competition is productive and necessary, the French system generates anxiety and oftentimes an unhealthy attitude towards other people’s successes. This is because we are not competing with the course material, but against each other. 

Consider for instance rankings that students receive alongside their grades at the end of the semester, which tell them about their position in their class. Suddenly an average of 15/20 looks much less glorious if it is accompanied by a 16/24 in the student rank.

But why should the success of others undermine our own? Shouldn’t we be proud of ourselves for achieving a high grade in the course? With the ranking system, success is not determined by how well we know the course, but how much worse other people know it. This, in turn, creates an unhealthy environment in which the goal is not to excel in the subject, but to make sure that you are doing better than others. Studying transforms from a path of self-improvement into a competition against classmates, fostering a mindset of constant comparison. 

Whilst the education system may seem naturally competitive, having an in-your-face ranking system only exacerbates its toxic effects. Oftentimes, this leads to an unhealthy attitude towards the success of others, and negatively impacts our own self-image. Our academic performance and progress are gauged by how we stack up against our peers rather than the quality of our own work. This version of education arguably detracts from the intrinsic value of learning and intellectual curiosity,  prioritizing competition over collaboration and individual growth. 

A similarly unhealthy feature can also be attributed to the approach to grading. 

In the French system, grades are awarded out of 20, but oftentimes excellent work is not given full marks, obtaining 18 at best, despite fulfilling all of the necessary criteria for the assignment.  20/20 is simply seen as perfection, and since perfection isn’t attainable, neither is a 20/20. This is often the case with the grading at SciencesPo. For instance, my friends received glowing feedback, but were awarded a 17.5 which, in itself, is a good grade. However, when asked for what could be improved the teacher did not give any answers saying everything was good. Through this method it is clearly visible that the true grading scale is not from 0 to 20 but from 0 to 18 at best, reserving the two final points for whatever “perfection” is. 

Thus, in trying to remind us of the human inability to achieve perfection, the French grading system by its very nature makes us feel incompetent. While real perfection might not be obtainable, assignments in education are not about striving for some high virtues of the human mind, but about developing critical thinking and consolidating knowledge. If those expectations are met, there is no reason why excellent work should not be awarded full marks. 

The French education system ranking and its unrealistic expectations on assignments brew a toxic mix, one that corrodes the essence of collaboation. Attention is directed not towards the course material, but towards other people’s failure. This doesn’t just stress students out; it also sidelines teamwork and personal growth.


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