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Learning from les differences

A bit of French rationality mixed in with English pragmatism wouldn't go amiss in the secondary sector, writes Don Lillistone

A European Union study visit looking at education in other member states has given me copious food for thought in considering the respective merits and demerits of the French and English education systems.

Education leaders in both countries are currently dealing with essentially the same issues, such as widening participation, lifelong learning, providing for individual learning needs, including the development of e-learning, while at the same time discharging ever increasing responsibilities that result from greater decentralisation of control.

But, if the issues are the same, the national contexts can vary significantly. It is, of course, not a question of one system having everything right or being better than the other. The simple reality is that there are strengths and weaknesses in all education systems and what is really important is to be open to that realisation and to be able to learn from others when it is beneficial to do so.

For example, I doubt that many headteachers in the UK would envy their French counterparts who do not have a role to play in appointing their own teaching staff, including their deputies. This is because teachers in France are civil servants and are posted to their schools centrally by the ministry of education, as are headteachers themselves.

Moreover, the power of the unions in France is significantly greater than here, such that a French colleague agreed that I was not being unfair in concluding that French teachers' conditions of service can be seen as drawn up in the interests of the teachers rather than the interests of the students.

An example of this is the standard contact time for a teacher of 18 hours per week (15 hours per week for a teacher who has achieved the agregation, the higher teaching qualification that some upper secondary and university teachers have), but with classes in a lycee of up to 35. Apparently, increasing contact time in order to reduce class size is not seen as a workable way forward, which might cause us to question just how "Cartesian" our French colleagues really are.

On the other hand, French rationality really does come into its own in at least two areas of prime importance, the structure of education provision and curriculum planning.

In England, our historical predilection for local decision-making has led to an incoherent patchwork of secondary provision (11-14, 11-16, 11-18, 12-18, 13-18, 14-18, 16-18, etc) for which, in many instances, there is only the most tenuous of rationales. Such a lack of coherence is very damaging to effective strategic planning which can be at the whim of local politicians and administrators with vested interests and personal axes to grind.

In France, by contrast, as a result of the overwhelming force of the ideal that students throughout the country should be entitled to the same education irrespective of where they live, there is an emphasis on national rather than local strategies. Secondary education is divided into two cycles. The first, from 11-15, takes place in a coll ge and the second, for 15 years of age and above, in a lycee.

There is no question of local politicians or administrators having the power to change the established national pattern of provision, which means that education initiatives can be planned effectively and implemented efficiently within a consistent and coherent framework.

Approaches to curriculum planning are equally different. In my experience, consideration of the post-16 curriculum in England has been limited to discussion of the types of examinations and qualifications available. Until the establishment of the working group on 14-19 reform, the overall educational experience of the student was simply not on the agenda. Hence the bizarre combinations of subjects many students choose to take at A-level.

The French baccalaureat, on the other hand, is based on a common understanding of the breadth of content, experience and skills that it is appropriate and desirable for 16 to 18-year-olds to acquire before higher education or employment.

Anyone sceptical of the French approach to planning and the curriculum might like to consider that Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures show the post-16 participation rate in France to be 12 per cent higher than that of the UK.

Vive la difference? No, thanks. Give me English pragmatism on conditions of service and French rationality on structure and the curriculum and I think we could be on to a winner.

Don Lillistone is principal of St Mary's sixth-form college, Middlesbrough.

Details of the EU's Arion study visit scheme can be found at

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