Portrait of a teacher : Here and there by Alec fullerton

Why is no one wearing a school uniform? What’s all this about secularism? It’s 5pm and they’re still in classes, what’s going on? Why do you swap from a collège to a lycée at 15?

Sindy Walsh Portrait of a teacher


When I first expressed interest in writing for this magazine, the idea of comparing the French and English education systems seemed natural, since this year I’m working as an assistant de langue in a lycée in Nîmes. However, despite having a fair bit of experience studying in the UK (some might say too much) and almost a term’s worth of teaching here (any teachers, please withhold your guffaws), I still didn’t feel adequately qualified to draw any conclusions. Thankfully, one of my new work colleagues outranked me in this department and I knew she would be far better able to compare the two systems.


Sindy Walsh Portrait of a teacher 2Sindy Walsh, currently a high school teacher in Nîmes, is half English and has spent time living, studying and working in both France and England. Despite starting University in Nîmes, a chance encounter in a Manchester pub would result in a prolonged stay. I asked her some questions about her experiences of both studying and then teaching on both sides of the Channel.





What was it that first brought you to England?

Well, my dad is English but has lived in France for the past 30 years. Back in 2005, my Nan got poorly, so he went back to Manchester to stay with her and I went to visit in summer 2006. It was supposed to just be a summer holiday but I actually met my partner there so I decided to move to Manchester.


How did the two of you meet?

As a matter of fact, we met in the local pub. He was the best pool player. How could I resist?


Haha, ok, what about University in England?

I had just finished my first year of Uni in Nîmes and I wanted to carry on my studies but it was too late to register there in Manchester for the following school year, so I ended up getting a job at Boots the chemist. I went to Uni in Manchester the year after.


Did you notice many differences between studying in England as opposed to France?

The first thing that shocked me, and annoyed me, was having to pay tuition fees. In France, it costs more or less nothing to study. In England, I had to take out a loan! I remember thinking it was scandalous having to pay to get an education.

The actual studies themselves were also different. My timetable in England was a lot lighter than in France and I didn’t have as many subjects to study, which was nice. Also the dropout rate is quite high in France as everyone can go to Uni if you have the Baccalauréat, but it’s so demanding. Finally, I’d say student life is different, there’s less social life on campus here in France.


What did you prefer — studying in the UK or in France?

I’d say in the UK mostly because when I studied in France I felt like I had no life! I had long days at Uni and spent hours studying in the evening and at the weekend. Also when you finish your studies in France, you receive no recognition. I mean, you look on a board to check whether you’ve passed your exam or not. Then months later, you go and pick up your diploma at the University’s reception. When I passed my PGCE in England, we had a graduation day, which was absolutely amazing and so rewarding. It was an absolute honour for me and a wonderful way to celebrate all our hard work with my peers.


Could you tell me a bit about when you started teaching in England and what it was like?

It was hard and great at the same time. People often don’t realize how difficult teaching is; my brain could never switch off. I was always thinking about how to get my pupils interested in the subject, how to keep them focused or how to help them the subject, how to keep focused or how to help them all make progress. That’s got nothing to do with working in the UK or in France, I’m the same nowadays. Most, if not all, teachers are like that. Also, teaching methods are different. In England it tends to involve more games and fun activities and over here, pupils tend to get very stressed about making mistakes and getting bad marks.


Then when you came back to France and started teaching, was it at all different?

Yes, there are many differences. Like I said before, teaching methods and the subject department’s organisation are different. In France, teachers don’t really have to get involved in after school clubs like they do in England. Schools also look different. Classes and corridors here aren’t often as brightly decorated as they are in the UK, they’re not as colourful and fun. I suppose that’s down to the teacher’s choice though, but generally speaking it is different. Kids in the UK have to choose which subjects they want to study for GCSE in Year 9 and have to specialise even more for A levels in Sixth Form. Here, in France, they have to study most subjects for le Bac, which is difficult as their school days are long — 8am-6pm some days at college — but, in the same breath, maybe they get a broader education? Finally, whilst school days are longer in France, summer holidays are too. We break up at the beginning of July here and start again at the beginning of September. Some people love it but some think two full months of holidays are too long.


Would you encourage your children to study in the UK when they’re older? If so, why?

I would encourage my children to study in different countries, not necessarily just the UK, to broaden their cultural knowledge, discover different cultures, languages and to open their minds. It has been a fantastic experience for me, so I would encourage anyone to study abroad. I actually said that to my students!