According to the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) league tables, of which there will be a new batch out next week, there seems to be little to choose between the UK and French education systems. And a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development placed England's 16- to 24-year-olds 21st in the world in numeracy and France's only two places above.
However, having taught in England - and as the mother of children who attend school in France - I believe that when it comes to education, the latter has a lot to teach not just the English, but the rest of the world.
Many expats with children of school age describe the country's educational system as competitive, even elitist, which doesn't suit all young people. But, knowing from experience how bright and hard-working students in UK schools too often find it necessary to hide their talents, I feel that this unashamed focus on success is far healthier than the alternative. It is wonderful to see clever children unafraid of attaining the high grades they deserve.
In addition, children are regularly moved up a class if they are working at above-average level or held back if they are struggling. There is no shame in either of these eventualities, and it means that teachers are able to pitch their lessons more effectively without worrying that some students are lagging desperately behind. For those who do require it, a lot of support is available in the form of extra lessons: my three-year-old daughter is currently receiving additional French instruction at lunchtimes, for example.
Although compulsory education and formal teaching do not start until children turn 6, they begin maternelle (nursery school) at the age of two and a half. Some may argue that this is a little young. However, for the most part, children rise to the occasion and enjoy the simple curriculum of painting, drawing and learning numbers and letters. Starting school this early also ensures that children learn to cope with formal situations and gain some level of independence, meaning that when the official curriculum begins, they are ready for it, both behaviourally and academically.
In addition, rather than struggling to enforce rules on junk food, most French schools insist that school dinners are eaten as standard. Menus consist of three courses, all checked over monthly by a dietician to ensure that they are balanced. This cannot help but have a positive effect on children's health and, of course, behaviour.
Respect where it's due
There has been a lot in the press recently about the behaviour of French children. Let's be honest, they are still children - they still misbehave - but in general I would agree that young people here seem more disciplined and respectful. Perhaps this is a result of an earlier introduction to the formality of school or simply born out of a culture that promotes respect for elders and those in authority. Family ties are often stronger here, and old and young generations mix without complaint or issue.
The attitude to teachers seems more positive here, too. It always upsets me when I hear yet another tirade being aired on UK television or radio about the so-called "failings" of teachers, the fact that they are "overpaid" or don't deserve to complain when their pensions are meddled with. In France, not only do the teachers command a great deal of respect (from both parents and children) but they are also supported in their actions. Here, you will not hear cries of "that's well out of order" or "I'm going to sue you" when teachers discipline students, and in most cases staff will not get an irate call from a mother at the end of the day. This parental support and student acceptance means that discipline, when administered, is effective and usually unchallenged.
At the opposite end of the scale, teachers are not afraid, or forbidden, to be affectionate with children: in my daughter's maternelle class (full of three-year-olds in their first year of school), and even in older years, children greet the teacher with a kiss, something that might cause outrage in the UK.
When it comes to lessons, some argue that the French curriculum harps back to the 1950s. In a way, it does. But it is a system that is not constantly tinkered with by politicians, and it leads to a valued qualification (rather than one that is criticised for being too easy) or a useful vocational alternative. And don't think for a minute that there isn't room for fun: in fact, on a snowy day, it has been known for lessons to be cancelled in favour of play, and physical education at my local school includes kayaking on the river and swimming in the nearby pool without fear of the dreaded health and safety risk assessment.
All in all, although the French could perhaps learn a little bit about flexibility and encouraging children to have their own opinions (and voice them), many other education systems could learn a thing or two from the French. Teachers need to be supported and valued, and the government needs to trust them to do their job rather than constantly criticise and meddle. Good education should be measured not only in test results but in the ethos and conduct of the young people who attend school, their level of happiness and the value placed by the country as a whole on a good education.