Culture of content

Anne Corbett

After their years in French public sector schools, I have one bicultural son who sees himself as primarily European and - let's face it - one Anglophone frog. When my children are together, they speak French. When with me, they speak English - unless we are with Francophones.

I think that is of secondary importance to their having had what most Europeans would recognise as a good general education which has left them intellectually curious, surprisingly organised, and on good terms with their parents. I also believe that they were ethically admirably equipped by the French schools' strong secular values and emphasis on equality.

It is 20 years since my husband and I set off lightheadedly to Paris with our sons, then aged eight and four. The project was to become instantly bilingual and return to dazzle our friends.

Our children said nothing in French for three months, however, till the urge to scream Gallic insults got them launched. But why did they develop differently? I put it down to the older one having arrived in Paris with a mind and imagination shaped by English primary school.

The younger one went straight to French primary school, where learning to sit still was as important as learning to spell. His reflexes, subversive and otherwise, have from the start been French.

At the higher education stage, when we said the equivalent of "Dear boys, you have been schooled in France. Now be wise, enjoy the gift of biculturalism, and go to England for higher education," the older one said 'Yes, mum,' and the younger one said 'Chill out'."

There were hiccups on the way - particularly for the older one, for whom English was the intellectual language, French the emotional one, until work became serious in the lycee. Now we have reached a watershed and they've both gained post-graduate diplomas.

When Simon Jenkins was editor of The Times and learned of our schooling choice, he threw up his hands and said: "But how will they know what they are?" The answer is that both are launched into modern and multicultural European life. What's more, they think it's fun.

After 20 years in Paris in which she has combined journalism and some part-time university teaching and research, Anne Corbett has enrolled for a PhD at a lycee to study the effects of European policy on French higher education.

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