French connections: ce n'est pas impossible

If you have wondered about emigrating to France to become a teacher in the land of cheese and wine, all you need to take the qualifying exams is a university degree. And, of course, your French will have to be reasonably good as well. I had taught in British state secondaries for 25 years and, although I had no formal qualifications beyond O-level, I took the exams in 2002 and qualified. I am still in France, but have left the state education system and am working freelance doing language work.

There are drawbacks and pitfalls to starting out in French education but I am glad I tried it and would encourage others to do so, even if only for the experience. The qualification is called the Capes (Certificat d'Aptitude Professionnel de l'Enseignement Secondaire). If you succeed, you become certifie and have the status of a civil servant, which gives you certain rights, including the right to be offered a teaching post. Then you have a year as a stagiaire, a trainee teacher in a school, if you already have teaching experience, or in a teacher training college if not. After that, if the inspectors decide you are competent, you become titularise.

The Capes is gained through a concours, a competitive examination in two parts, written and oral. You need to have a degree, but that does not limit which subject you enter for. My academic qualifications were in the classics, which I had taught for 25 years in England, but the obvious choice for me was the English concours, since half the exams are in English.

In May or June you find out, on the internet, the syllabus for the following year's exams. You enrol, again via the internet, in autumn and send proof of your qualifications. The cost of the examinations is minimal, but you'll need to travel to the examination centres in France and stay nearby. The written exams are at the end of March. They each take five hours, on three consecutive days. You are allowed to take food and drink but no reference books into the exam room.

The exams relate to the three parts of the syllabus, which are literature, civilisation and translation. Of the first two exams, one will be written in French, the other in English, but you do not know which beforehand. The third, the translation, is half and half, French into English, and English into French.

In June you receive the result. If you are among the successful 20 per cent or so, you are termed admissible, but are not told your mark yet. At this point, you are asked to state which academies (educational regions) you would prefer to work in.

The next stage, in early July, is the orals. There is no fixed syllabus.

For each of the two exams, you have preparation time in which you can make notes, before you face a jury of three examiners.

The first session is based on passages in English, which might include a pictorial element. You have 30 minutes to deliver your ideas in English, using your notes but not reading from them. Then you are questioned, in English, by the panel. In this session you also have to give a grammatical explanation, in French, of three pre-selected phrases from the passages and to give a resume, in French, of a short tape-recording in English. The second session is entirely in French and is based on documents related to the philosophy and practice of English-teaching, most likely extracts from textbooks, teachers' notes and pupils' work.

You get the result a couple of weeks later and if you are among the 50 per cent or so of the admissibles who succeed, you become admis. Then you learn in which academie you will be teaching or doing your teacher training. You do not learn even in which town you will be teaching, let alone in which school.

Only two or three days before the start of term do you find out where you will be working, in what type of school, and your timetable. You will be likely to start your career in French education living in temporary accommodation, even a hotel.

You may be asked for documents, which do not exist since you are British.

It is not worth attempting to reason with the authorities: the regulations rule, even when they make no sense.

If you already have teaching experience, it will take at least two months for your salary level to be confirmed.

The procedure that decides where you teach is different from that in Britain. For your first post, the decision is impersonal. Some official who knows nothing about you will apply a system that relates vacant posts to the list of newly qualified teachers. After your first year, you may apply for a mutation, a transfer, and you have a little more say in the choices available, but your fate is still in the hands of the authorities.

In Britain, you apply for a post and the school decides. The apparent disadvantages of the system are outweighed, in the view of French teachers who have these qualifications, by the security and perhaps the status that comes from being a state functionary.

I would encourage people from Britain to have a go. You must have a fall-back position, though, if things don't work out. So, provided you do not burn your boats, there is not much to lose and much that you could gain.

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