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School wars: France vs England

A flurry of reports that castigates the French school system also highlights the deficiencies of Anglocentric perception, says Anne Corbett.
Anne Corbett
13 September 2010

For the last twenty years I’ve been saying that the best thing we ever did for our children was to send them through the French school system. And now their own children are happily and variously in the maternelle, the école primaire or collège, I haven’t changed my mind.

So I’m struck by the barrage of criticisms of this system from English parents linked to a newly published book by Peter Gumbel, who teaches journalism at Paris’s prestigious Sciences Po institute: On achève bien les écoliers (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They?).

The litany of failings enumerated by the critics includes: teachers who shout, children made anxious, lack of creative space, and the brightest students so introverted at 18 that they fail to intervene in university seminars. All this largely flows from the English belief that the French system is about the transmission of knowledge rather than about the development of character and personality.

The great divide

As a long-time student of Anglo-French wars - lorry wars, apple wars, trade wars, language wars, history wars, and anything to do with Napoleon... - I recognise the signs of another war brewing. And it is being played by the usual rules. There are generalisations from the particular or the anecdotal. The comments are normative and context-free. A village-school represents the system. English primary education appears in all its 1960s creativity rather than SATs-dominated. An outsider holds up a mirror to the supposed defects of the system, and feels superior about his or her own system.   

When we put our two children into the French state-school system, we were a bit like Julian Barnes’s grammar-school boys in Metroland. We had in our heads Jean Cocteau's injunction épater les bourgeois. At the least, if we weren’t going to stun the bourgeoisie, we’d shake up friends and rivals by this dive into French education.

Our children would resurface bilingual and at ease with French philosophers. They wouldn’t be narrowly nationalist. They would have integrated the assumption, crucial in a new European and global age, that there is more than one version of history. And they wouldn’t be hung up by class or religion.

True, this started to happen thirty years ago, and yes it was in Paris's sixth and seventh arrondissements (also a location some of the current English critics will be familiar with). It's also an experience we've continued to experience through grandchildren and the children of colleagues.

This cross-generational encounter has given me a view of French schooling that doesn’t relate to individual teachers who shout (though I don’t remember many of them). It is about the basic values of a system seen as a benefit to a society and not just individuals. The 19th-century promise that schooling  should be obligatoire, gratuite, laique (compulsory, free, and secular) still resonates. There is more of a struggle, perhaps, to maintain a republican concept of equality based on meritocratic values. But if that is elitism, it is something I would far prefer to the social elitism likely to be ever more entrenched by Britain's new Conservative-dominated government - and equally to Britain's "faith schools".

The thick of it

At the time I was raising my children, the schools in the urban banlieues (the ones of which Nicolas Sarkozy, before he was elected president, said On va nettoyer la cité au Kärcher) always had teachers trying to aid the development of able pupils via the hidden selection of Latin, or extra maths coaching or the choice of a foreign language which required them to be at a central Paris school.

As for the transmission of knowledge, thank goodness for it. We could provide the “tender loving care” at home, and we never doubted that the children’s characters would one way or another be formed. We had a lot of respect for the way French schools did their side of the job.

When we were told that “In the cours préparatoire they will learn to read, in Terminale they will do their bac” we translated that telling future tense (which is in fact an imperative) into “when they are 6 they will learn to read, when they are 17 or so, they will do the broad-based exam that gives them access to higher education”. And they did.

We chose to be in the thick if it. I even served a penance as a parent class representative, a situation where mediation was impossible (and that wasn’t because I’d opted for the leftwing association over the rightwing one). A familiar sight would be the regular pursing of lips from a teacher at my attempt to argue for a little more fair play for certain pupils: “Mais Madame Corbette, how can you think like that?”

Perhaps primary-school was the least easy to comprehend. The then 8-year- old had written a few poems and what he called "novels" at his London primary school and there wasn’t the same opportunity in France. But I don’t remember anyone being traumatised. I think back with affection to the friends made at the time, and such signifiers as the  menus posted on the primary-school’s main door implying food was a cultural issue and value.

In secondary-school the education system could be seen to be working up to a peak with a sixth-form college structure of collège and lycée, which also avoids critical choices being made at the height of adolescence. By the time of the bac, our sons too had developed to the point that it was enriching to have the humanities - philosophy, history, geography, a second modern language - alongside their future university choice.

My heart still misses a beat at the thought of the rentrée shopping-list of primary-school exercise-books defined by space between lines and size of squares. And, at a later stage, of the lycée demonstrations in the Paris boulevards that rhymed with the first buds of spring on the chestnut-trees.

It’s given us all pleasure to emerge bilingual and culturally more aware. But the key source of my gratitude, as I look at the divided and divisive English system, is that in France none of us felt like customers. The aspirations for a good education were societal. You see that even in Entre Le Murs (The Class), Laurent Cantet’s film about a Paris banlieue school. But if écoliers achevés exist they are to be found there and not in the middle-class schools frequented by the English critics.

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