An idea that turned into France

Anne Corbett

Anne Corbett reveals how the French stay. Ending the French school year at the Sorbonne recently, the minister of education, Francois Bayrou, renewed a Napoleonic practice, writes Anne Corbett. He enlisted Nobel prizewinners and fellow ministers to award prizes for outstanding performances in every subject in the French curriculum. This year plastic moulding rated with philosophy.

Dr Nick Tate's plea for the British to be more like the French is interesting. But I believe he is wrong to suggest that in France this operates via the curriculum and to suggest it is nationalist.

The national curriculum is important as the epitome of shared references. From Brittany to Corsica the young with the general Baccalaureat have a common baggage; a wide knowledge of French literature largely learnt from extracts, and an encyclopaedic view of history to the present.

Schools tackle the big questions of existence via philosophy not religion. The French, believers in a universalist way of thought, have a more outgoing curriculum than the English.

But what crucially gives French education a national identity is its high constitutional profile. Sonorous political cliches underline its importance to the country as well as to the individual: The School is the crucible of the Nation, Knowledge is Liberation (that incidentally comes straight from Robespierre), France is an idea.

British researchers in French schools note the relative formality of French classrooms, and the fact that the teacher is there to dispense knowledge, not to act as counsellor, substitute parent or nurse. They also note pupils' relative commitment to high levels of achievement and hard work.

In France the education system was born of revolution and war. Defeated by the Prussians in 1870, divided by the Commune and Dreyfus into monarchists and Republicans, embattled over Church and State, the French were pacified by the establishment of compulsory education in the form of a republican school.

The system was obligatory, free and secular. The militantly secular and public approach, bringing together the Republican commitment to equal rights and to advancement by merit in the public service, along with the insistence on respect for the French language, are the basis of a cultural identity.

This is often simplistically seen by outsiders as assimilationist. Yet while from the 1890s the French school system successfully turned millions of peasants into Frenchmen - that is to say citizens who actively adhered to republican values and were numerate and literate - it also enabled millions of foreign origin to follow the same route. Not as communities, but as individuals, they have in turn enriched French society: Poles and Italians between the two world wars, and afterwards Spaniards, Portuguese, Algerians and other North African Arabs.

Having long worked in France on Britishness and Englishness I find Nick Tate's reflections familiar. I recognise too, as a French person would, his concern to strengthen common cultural references in terms for the 21st century, and for a multicultural society which is partly mired in poverty. The National Front's recent electoral successes and some signs of Islamic extremism cause intense concern to mainstream parties.

Schools in such conditions have an almost impossible job, but in France are helped by a political tradition which sees them all as the institution on which not just society but La France rests, and by which it is renewed.

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Anne Corbett

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