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All stop to discuss violence

After a boy was shot in a French school, every class halted for two hours.

Bill Hedley sat in on the lesson.

I'm at the back of the class for a change, watching a French teacher in action.

Her subject is English, but this is no ordinary lesson. Her class and mine have been grouped together to discuss one particular topic. The same thing is happening in every class in the school, and in every school in the country, because at ten o'clock this Friday morning lessons throughout France have been suspended by ministerial decree and a two-hour session on violence is taking place instead. The Minister of Education, Francois Bayrou, ordered this three days ago.

On Monday in another part of France a long way from this small, country town, a boy took a loaded pistol into school and spent the day showing it off to his friends. When the pistol went off accidentally another boy was killed. It was the latest in a series of tragic incidents involving young people, and the Government has responded with this morning's special lesson.

It's a grand, dramatic gesture, typically French in style. Any outrage I might feel, as an Englishman, that a government minister can intervene in school life so directly certainly isn't shared by my colleagues, and the French are great improvisers, so the short notice doesn't bother them either.

We each have a copy of the minister's communique. "Nothing is more precious, " he begins, "than the life of a child", and when a child loses his life in an act of violence French society as a whole must respond. We must all address the issue.

"That is why I have decided that lessons will stop in every school in France this Friday from 10 until 12. Teachers, parents if they so wish, and children will discuss what must be done to calm the violence in which modern society is immersed." He calls on French schools to create anti-violence committees, and hopes that his initiative might give rise to campaigns, even to a wholesale rejection of violence.

Any preparation the staff might have made for this special session proves largely unnecessary, as a sheet of paper Sellotaped to a table in the staffroom tells us exactly how the head wants the subject to be covered.

Our group of 11-year-olds is too large for any real discussion, but my colleague does her best. The children are dismayed at the boy's death, and roundly condemn his father for keeping a loaded pistol in the house. But for them it's just a story - they've seen it on television - and when we move on to their own experience of violence they become much more animated.

Fights, extortion, threats, bullying, all this they bring up with relish and not a little regret that not much of it happens at our school really. For the boys, violence comes mainly in the form of rough, careless play. One proudly displays his arm, newly in plaster after a playground game went wrong.

Of course, boys have tripped each other up and leapt on each others' backs in school playgrounds for generations, but this particular wrist was broken just as the minister told us all to discuss violence, so the boy responsible is called up to explain what happened and to acknowledge the consequences. Only a plastered arm, but how easily it could have been so much worse. He duly cries, slightly bewildered, this being the first time, I think, he has ever thought of himself as a violent person or a danger to his friends.

The girls' experience seems similar, even if their games aren't quite so rough. They admit to pulling each others' hair sometimes, but the main problem as far as they're concerned is the boys. They are very violent, pushing them, for example, in the lines to go into class. They call them names too, and this is seized upon as violence of a verbal kind, less dangerous perhaps, but scarcely less hurtful than the real thing.

Coming to any shared conclusion proves difficult and the resolutions that the children write down and sign at the end are largely dictated by the teacher. From now on, and thanks to Monsieur Bayrou, these children have said they will never again play rough games in the playground; they will strive always to be tolerant towards other people and their points of view; and they will react to name calling by turning the other cheek.

My five-year-old couldn't remember much about his lesson. He knows already that guns are bad, though he shoots me regularly with sticks he finds in the garden. His brother, who is seven, has a firmer grasp, though. We have no television, yet he somehow seems to know all the warlike characters who infest children's programmes and cartoons here. Even so, for him, as for the older boys, rough games are out. Even Power Rangers.

After the session I passed a young mother and her two small children. She was giving one of them a good shake and speaking in that ultra-quick French I still struggle to understand. "If you don't stop hitting your sister you'll get one yourself!" Bill Hedley is a music teacher at Collge Jeanne d'Arc, Castelnaudary, near Toulouse. The shooting happened on September 16.

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