Broadside of rosbif sparks meaty debate

15th October 2010 at 01:00
France A British teacher's attack on the harsh elitism of the Gallic education system has hit some raw nerves across the Channel

As a Parisian by adoption, Peter Gumbel should have known better than to lecture his hosts on the state of their education system.

If there is something the French deplore more than government mismanagement of public services, it is hearing an Anglo-Saxon upstart telling them where they have gone wrong.

It is not hard to see why: if the French cheerfully admit to being among the world's biggest moaners, what need do they have for an outsider to do the moaning for them?

But Gumbel, who lectures at the venerable Sciences Po - the Institute of Political Studies - steamed ahead with his provocatively titled On acheve bien les ecoliers ("They Shoot Schoolkids, Don't They?").

It is a scathing attack on what he calls the harshness of the French school culture, an elitist system producing high rates of failure. Gumbel describes a constant fear of humiliating criticism that induces feelings of worthlessness among pupils so afraid of seeming foolish that they avoid participation in classroom discussion.

Since he works in French education, and has children who attend school in France, Gumbel must feel on safe ground with his criticisms, which go beyond my own French acquaintances' complaints about the bourrage de crane, or relentless cramming.

Given the in-built mistrust towards meddling foreigners, it is inevitable that Gumbel should face a sharp burst of Gallic indignation. Evidence of a backlash is not too hard to find.

In one online discussion, an apparently Leftish teacher notes that the author - "who has never set foot in a French school" - has made the smart commercial move to time publication with the rentree, the start of the academic year when huge national attention is focused on education.

The teacher adds: "He echoes the views of the OECD, an ultra-liberal organisation that interferes shamelessly in the affairs of states and whose aim is to smash public services, notably the French model."

But what do we find when we look elsewhere? Not just a little grudging praise, but serious approval; plenty of French people happen to agree with Gumbel.

As if to anticipate the critical teacher's point, a contributor to another internet forum, where readers were invited to put questions directly to the author, asks whether he realises that "the entire public service will spit on you because you have told the truth about teaching in France".

In several publications and on phone-in shows, the response has been favourable. Gumbel himself welcomes the level of support he has received from education unions and analysts.

Amid all this goodwill, it is almost reassuring to find another voice of dissent.

Commenting on another glowing report on the book, on the website of the conservative daily Le Figaro, a reader recalls studying for two years at a British university where elitism was far stronger than in France and there was staggering ignorance among fellow students, some believing "Himalaya to be a single mountain in America and France to be a dictatorship".

In some quarters, it seems, the normality of Anglo-French discord prevails.

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