English schools scrimp while... French funds are more generous

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
Within a stone's throw of the monumental high-rise business and commercial complex of La Defense, west of Paris, College Bouvets is tucked away in a narrow street in Puteaux, just off a pedestrian-hostile arterial road system.

Last Monday morning, this lower secondary was settling down for the week. A group of fidgeting boys was waiting nervously outside the school nurse's room for vaccinations; a couple of girls were reading in the newly renovated, computerised library which is still redolent of fresh paint; some pupils were playing table-tennis in one of the two courtyard playgrounds, while the rest were getting on with their lessons.

The school's principal for the past two years, Anne Saar-Demichel, is responsible for nearly 700 pupils and heads a team that includes 47 teachers and strong managerial support.

Like other colleges in France, hers receives a lump-sum grant - "Let's say 600,000 francs" - from the local departement, in this case the Hauts-de-Seine. This goes towards maintenance and upkeep of buildings, costs such as heating and, augmented by rent from making the school available for adult evening language classes, equipment including television sets, videos, computers and photocopier. But since teachers are classified as civil servants it does not cover their salaries which are paid for by the state according to a national scale; nor does it include sports equipment, social aid for pupils - or textbooks.

For the books, a fixed subsidy comes from the academie (the local arm of the national ministry of education). "Each teacher tells us their needs, books which need replacing or changing, and we put all the requests into order of priority," explains Mme Saar-Demichel. Textbooks are free to the pupils, and there are enough to go around.

The social composition of the pupils is very mixed, ranging from children of the wealthy and privileged, including a number of foreign diplomats, to kids from the sink estates of Nanterre.

A recent appointment was a sociologist with specialised training to deal with drugs and other relevant problems, he advises and mediates between pupils with grievances and "is very much appreciated by the children", says Mme Saar-Demichel.

Class size varies substantially at Bouvets. The statutory maximum is 36 pupils; but though some here number up to 32, most classes contain about 28.

However, in some forms in certain years there are only 17 pupils, or even 11 where they need extra help and support.

Unusually, Bouvets' 27 classes (up to seven-form entry for each year) include two for foreign pupils who cannot speak French when they arrive, and who are gradually integrated into the mainstream over time. A recent count revealed that more than 40 nationalities represented among the pupils.

Following college reforms announced a year ago by education minister Francois Bayrou, which give headteachers more freedom to organise the weekly timetable, Mme Saar-Demichel has plans to introduce three Latin classes for pupils aged 13, a year sooner than before.

Underlining its strong emphasis on languages the school is able to organise a relatively high number of trips abroad, thanks to a 50 percent subsidy from the local town hall, which benefits from the lucrative business taxes generated by La Defense.

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