One advantage, you might think, is that it’s free. Well, not quite. That’s to overlook the rather long list of items that parents are expected to pay for at the start of each school year. Actually, there’s a bit of good news this time round. François Hollande has kept his campaign promise to up the government grant given to parents to help them meet this expense. This year at primary level there’s a payout of €356.20 for each child, a rise of 25% on 2011. And yes you can claim this if you have a child in one of the international schools on condition you are within the qualifying income band and you produce a certificat de scolarité from the school. To find out more ask at your caisse d’allocations familiales.
Incoherence of educational policy
In theory, there’s great uniformity among schools at every level in the French system, a notion much cherished by Napoleon. In fact, there’s quite a lot of variation. One point not always appreciated by foreigners is that the local mayor has considerable influence over the école communale for which he has direct responsibility. I recall a story from the Var of some years ago about a mayor who was violently anti-British after his daughter was dumped and divorced by a man from perfide Albion. His lead was followed by the primary school’s directrice and a couple of English kids in school weren’t treated too well. Teachers, of course, are a mixed bunch and expat parents have talked to me over the years of a range of attitudes from the immensely helpful to the openly hostile.
What I’m talking about here really are the public schools, attended by 80% of children; the rest are in private schools, mainly run by the Catholic Church. These have a reputation for higher academic standards, stricter discipline and a more pastoral approach although these days religion is less salient than in the past. Funded by the State, they are remarkably cheap and are subject to overall government direction. To a greater or lesser extent, they share the problems of the public schools.
One of those is the incoherence of educational policy which is constantly being modified. In half a century there have been 30 ministers – an average of one every 20 months – and each appointee likes to appear to be a new broom. Sarko’s last Education Minister, Luc Chatel, was pushing for “philosophy from age five” (Huh!). His socialist successor, Vincent Peillon, has binned that idea but, to the sighs of many teachers, has announced a great debate about the schools covering everything from the length of the school year and pay to the training of teachers.
In recent years, there has been increasing criticism of the schools by French observers. Jean-Paul Brighelli, a vociferous commentator on the topic, calls the primary schools “a factory for making idiots”, employing a style of teaching which still depends largely on the mechanical learning of facts then measured by old-fashioned testing methods. This makes pupils anxious to show they’ve done what the teacher required but offers little scope for originality. On the other hand, they often become anxious over their marks and, according to several studies, are prone to stress-related conditions such as disturbed sleep and stomach upsets. They are also frequently tired, given their long school day. As Peter Gumbel, a British writer (who’s had three children in the system) has said, “Just look at the kids in the école primaire – at that age they should look happy; often they don’t.”
What strikes foreign – especially Anglo-Saxon – observers is how the French school, and this is especially damaging in the earlier years, reacts to the child who is clearly “different”. Historically this is explicable. Until the end of the 19th century the official doctrine was that l’instituteur institue la nation. In other words, it was the task of the primary teacher to create good little French citizens out of a population in which there was enormous cultural and linguistic diversity. The legacy of that mission survives in the often poor and uncomprehending treatment accorded to dyslexic and autistic children in today’s schools and, in some places, the less than warm welcome given to foreign pupils. Slow learners – defined as anomalous – are also offered little understanding. The common remedy for a poor report card is to make the child repeat the year (redoublement). This happens to one pupil in six, on average, in primary classes. It often achieves almost nothing (performance in 80% of cases remains static or declines).
Christian Forestier, a former senior Ministry of Education official, points to two major deficiencies in the French primary school: “First, our teachers get no serious training in how to teach, just a basic grounding in subjects. That’s a huge lack. Secondly, the curriculum is in a mess. On one hand, certainly in practice, it’s too rigidly academic – virtually no music or art, very little sport – and on the other hand it’s always being tinkered with. Start English at five – a great idea but not for kids who in many places aren’t being taught their own language properly.” If you’re thinking of the French school up the road Bonne chance!