French pupils have collected their baccalaureate, or bac, results, their spirits undampened by media reports of grade inflation.

Policy-makers across the globe have flirted with introducing an equivalent qualification in their own countries. So what’s all the fuss about?

What is the bac?

The bac is the qualification for school-leavers in France. Typically teens take it aged 17 or 18.

It confirms successful completion of secondary school education, and results help determine places in higher education institutions.

Unlike A-levels in the UK or Scottish Highers, it is comprehensive, with compulsory exams across the entire spectrum of school subjects.

How is it graded?

Pupils are awarded a mark out of 20, with 10 as a pass mark. It will take a while for this year’s pass rate to be finalised, but in recent years it has hovered around the 90% mark.

Better performers obtain a “mention”. Between 12 and 13.99 brings a “mention assez bien” (quite good), between 14 and 15.99 a “mention bien” (good) and a mark of 16 or more brings a “mention très bien” (very good). Around 10% of candidates in the general bac now fall into the highest category.

The percentage of pupils obtaining a mention is steadily increasing. In 2005 for the general bac only a third of pupils got a mention, but last year just under two thirds did so.

The marking scheme is negative. Each candidate starts with a perfect 20, and then points are deducted for errors. This approach makes it extremely rare for anyone to score 18 or above.

It is often said that “20 is for God, 19 is for the King and 18 is for the President, so 17 is the maximum grade a student can attain”.

Candidates with borderline marks of 8 or 9 go on to sit an oral exam, to see if they can be bumped up to a pass.

What subjects are involved?

This is where it gets complicated.

There are several different types of bac, of which the most common are:

  • The general bac: taken by students within the conventional academic system, and often leading to further study.
  • The professional bac: includes some general academic subjects, but gives weight to study and work experience within the candidate’s chosen professional field. Pupils often go straight into work but can also opt for more study.
  • The technical bac: this allows people to go straight from school to work and has a focus on more practically-based training.

Within the general bac programme, candidates opt for one of three specialisms after the first of three years of study: S (scientific), L (literary), or ES (economics and social sciences). Candidates within those streams will take broadly the same subjects, but their results will be weighted differently within the overall result.

It is often said that the French are biaised towards the bac S, deeming it to be a more worthy qualification than a bac L or bac ES.

Some schools are able to offer an international option called the OIB, enabling candidates to gain a special additional mention in their bac. To achieve this they sit additional exams in a chosen second language, including on history and geography.

Not to be confused with...

The International Baccalaureate is a global qualification, originating in Switzerland, that is completely different in character.