Culture clash in the classroom

"THE culture in France is that kids should be in school," says Carl Parsons of Canterbury Christ Church University College. "When you speak to French teachers, they are almost outraged that kids could be excluded from school, as they are in England."

This is because of the French republican ideal, he explains. In France, the state requires every pupil to have an education so that they can take their place as citizens in French society. In England, education is a personal good that can be taken away if the pupil is undeserving.

Thus a French pupil who is causing problems at a school can only be removed when another school or special unit is able to accept them. In England, until this month, a head could exclude a pupil who would be left roaming the streets until some kind of provision was offered.

This is one of the key differences thrown up by a comparative study of youth disaffection in England and France carried out by Professor Parsons and his team at Canterbury and by researchers from the University of Lille.

The two-year study, funded by the European Union, looked at two primary and two secondary schools in similarly deprived districts of Thanet and Lille. They found that teachers in Lille face constant, low-level disruption, just as their English counterparts do. And how do they deal with it? "They teach over it!" chorus Parsons and co.

It is widely held that the French teacher teaches for 15 to 18 hours a week and has nothing to do with discipline or pastoral care. That is something of a caricature: the French teachers who are now qualifying do see a commitment to their pastoral role. But there is definitely an attitude of "I'm here to impart knowledge and the children take notes and go", says Paul Welsh, a former Kent secondary head who was part of the Canterbury team.

However, Professor Parsons thinks it is misleading to suggest that the French do not cater for pupils' pastoral needs. There are more adults who are there specifically to deal with home liaison and truancy or to handle a breakdown in relationships between pupil and teacher, he says. Each school has a principal education adviser, one of the senior staff on the school's administrative council. Their duties include supervision of pupils'

behaviour and attendance and they consider themselves the pupil's advocate. Advisers are rarely ex-teachers: they are graduates who take an exam to qualify for special training.

Other pastoral help is given by young educational assistants (emploi-jeunes), employed on five-year contracts under a national scheme to help counteract youth unemployment.

The Canterbury team found education much more highly valued in Lille than in Thanet and French teachers - who are civil servants - enjoying much higher status. Expectations were higher in Lille too - good news for those who wanted to learn, but it leaves the disaffected further behind.

They also discovered the joys of a centralised state committed to the idea of education as an entitlement. Schools like those they visited in Lille receive generous extra resources - mainly staff - under a system of priority zones and networks that covers about 11 per cent of the school population. They do not have to compete for funds against other schools or approach the private sector. "We do projects: the French enhance core provision," says Professor Parsons.

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