My two teens are taking their bacs at the moment. The bac, le baccalauréat, introduced by Napoleon in 1808, is the qualification students gain (hopefully!) at the end of their three years in lycée, when the majority of them are aged around 18. Technically it is an academically qualifying degree, so if a student definitely doesn’t want to go on to university, he or she can refuse to take the bac. However, the vast majority of students sit it.

Benj and Caiti are taking the Baccalauréat general. (There are two other types of bac – Baccalauréat technologique and Baccalauréat professionnel.) The Baccalauréat general is divided into three strings. For each one, the exams are spread over two years. Benj is doing a bac L (littéraire i.e. arts). Last year he took exams in maths and computer science, natural sciences and French language. He was assessed on a TPE (Travaux personnels encadrés) project which counted towards his final marks. He then dropped all those subjects, and this year is in the process of being examined of French literature, philosophy, history and geography, English and German. Even his achievements (or lack of) in physical education over the year are taken into consideration. Caiti is taking a bac S (sciences). This year she is taking her French language exam and will have an oral exam too. She’s already had her TPE assessment. Next year, her last one at lycée, she will sit maths, SVT (sciences vie et terre – life and earth sciences), philosophy, physics and chemistry, maths, history and geography, English and German, and get a mark for her PE during the year. As you can see, her workload will be a lot heavier than Benj’s has been this year. There is also a third type of bac – bac ES, sciences economiques and sociales.

The exams are up to four hours long, which seems rather fierce to me. The longest I ever did were 3-hour ones at A-level and then at Uni, and also when part-qualifying as an accountant. Those were quite long enough! Benj had two of these 4-hour horrors on Monday. He still looks tired!

This being France, we need to complicate things. Each exam has a coefficient i.e. a weighting, which makes some subjects more important than others. For Benj, philosophy has a coefficient (coeff) of 7, which is a bit of a pain because Benj has found it harder going than he thought it would be. However, for scientific Caits, it will only have a coeff of 3. However, Benj did well in his bac last year and got well over the 50% overall you need to pass. Those excess marks will contribute towards this year’s scores. He has another secret weapon too. He has been taking an optional European German course, which he will be examined in orally. If he gets more than 12/20 for this, those marks will be added to his overall total, giving a nice little boost. (Caiti does the same course, so she stands to benefit next year too.)

If a student’s overall mark for the bac (i.e. from all the exams over the two years) is between 8 and 10, a near miss, he or she can sit the épreuve de rattrapage. This consists of orals in two subjects that the student can choose. And if these go well and bring the average up to 10, the bac will be awarded. But if they don’t, the student has the option of retaking the final year at lycée and resitting the next June. The results come out on 5th July this year, and the épreuve de rattrapage is held over the following few days so everyone their final result very quickly after the exams. This puts England and Ireland to shame where the waiting periods of several months for exam results are frankly ridiculous.

Pass rates nationally for the bac are generally above 80%, so I don’t think my two have too much to worry about. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed anyway!

STOP PRESS: It’s emerged today, 23rd June, that a question on the bac S Maths paper, which kids took on Wednesday 22nd, was leaked on Monday. However, the education minister decided not to cancel the exam, which is what students and teachers are saying he should have done.  The question, on probability and worth 20% of the marks, is simply not being marked and the other questions, more difficult ones, are being given a higher weighting to compensate. This isn’t fair at all, since, as Caiti tells me, probability is one of the more straightforward areas and candidates can usually pick up good marks on this question. There are rumours that questions from the English paper were also leaked, but I haven’t been able to find out  much about that yet.