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Divided by more than La Manche

If Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, were to ring her French counterpart, Francois Bayrou, and suggest that they compare diaries, one can bet that they would be sympathising about their similar problems.

Standards. Evaluation. The curriculum at various ages and stages. Failure, especially when linked to violence and the hostile 14 and 15-year-olds many would like to boot out of school. Youth unemployment. Teacher issues in multiple forms. The Muslim question. Resources. Higher education. Management of systems which in the EU take around 6 per cent of GDP.

It would be odd if it were otherwise. Nothing separates the French and British education systems in the broad-brush sweep of social and economic development and in their educational aims. They are both about transmitting knowledge, preparing tomorrow's citizens and trying to find the right fit between education and employment.

But the similarities stop there. Teacher bashing to the north of the Channel, teacher support in word, if not always in deed, to the south. The "turning-the-clock-back" debate on selection and teaching methods in Britain. In France the issue is how to make a comprehensive system work better - one that is already scoring far higher than our secondary system in terms of pupils' ultimate level of achievement.

As for reform, British government feels free to launch highly-politicised reform that cuts off roots and branches. In France reform may take an age - think of the demos - but when it happens it is national.

Nursery education is a good example. In Britain, the Government's commitment stops at its pygmy voucher initiative. In France the ecole maternelle for four and five-year-olds and most three-year-olds has existed for as long as anyone can remember. Now nearly a third of two-year-olds are in nursery school.

Research from the University of Bourgogne shows that the extra year has a positive impact on performance, showing up strongly at entry to secondary school. This research, which is among a selection of readings we're bringing to an English-speaking public for the first time, shows that the children of manual workers make the greatest gains.

In a tradition our own fragmented research community would appreciate, Jean-Pierre Jarousse and his colleagues provide a solid basis for debate with their calculation that the average cost of an extra year of school is equivalent to the corresponding costs of a reduction of five pupils per primary class nationally.

Of course the French system has problems. Those who have seen the award-winning film La Haine made by a lad from the banlieues perdues - the "lost suburbs" where poverty and unemployment are rife - will know these areas present as great a challenge to schools and to public authorities as the run-down urban areas of big British cities.

But in a crucial election year for Britain it is worth looking at ways that give the French system its enviably upbeat status due to the tradition that is the national cement. For the difference between the French and the British education systems lies - need it be said? - in values.

Equality is at its core. Equality for the citizen is something the French Right and Left understand and cling to. We report a characteristic ministerial statement from Francois Bayrou, right of centre education minister under Mitterrand as well as Chirac and tipped as a possible prime minister. Interviewed by Le Monde, he said "French children must be taught together through common programmes because they are an essential factor in social cohesion".

There are plenty of adepts of the systeme D (D for debrouillardise or getting round the system, finding a place for your child in the best end of town). But French ministers and top civil servants have a personal stake in the public system.

If one can believe Jacques Chirac, there is no sign of the French national commitment to its public education system letting up. Last week he was hassling Bayrou to produce results of change.

Bayrou's comment - again to Le Monde - was in words many British would surely love. "The way forward is by dialogue, by consultation and by concertation. It is essential to give reform time." He added that he as a "mere minister of education" could do nothing without the president's whole-hearted support. Proof that all are in it together.

Education in France, Continuity and Change in the Mitterrand years 1981-1985, edited by Anne Corbett and Professor Bob Moon, was published last week by Routledge.

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