Flying the flag for teachers' prestige

11th April 2014 at 01:00
From parents to the president, people value educators in France - and its schools feel light years from the negativity of England

Having lived in France for many years, I have experienced first-hand the positive atmosphere surrounding education and teaching here. And after working in both France and England I find it impossible not to ponder the reasons for the enormous differences between the two.

The countries are of a similar scale, and have similar demographics and similarly sized post-industrial economies. Surely these parallels should mean that schools on both sides of the Channel experience the same issues. But they don't. Why?

Although many distinctions, both favourable and unfavourable, can be drawn between the two systems, I can't help but feel that the key to the French ethos is the status that teachers are afforded here and the respect that the profession receives.

Admittedly, former president Nicolas Sarkozy's dramatic reduction in the number of teaching jobs (as well his general negative attitude towards teaching staff) caused some damage to the prestige of the profession, which used to be on a par with that of medicine and law. Nonetheless, France's educators are still treated with deference by the majority of society. Moreover, president Franois Hollande's pledge to improve training programmes and pump more money into education could lead to further improvements in how teachers are viewed.

Importantly, the relationship between teachers and students here is generally good. Young people are eager to learn and they appreciate the work that their teachers do. They stand when one enters the room and create home-made gifts and bouquets for their professeurs at the end of term.

Teachers are also valued by parents. Any concern expressed regarding a student's behaviour or progress is seen as helpful and informative, not derogatory and critical. At the maternelle (nursery school) attended by my daughter, parents wait patiently to be asked to enter at the end of the day, and have a wholly respectful attitude towards her teacher, the matresse.

Although the Varkey Gems Foundation's 2013 Global Teacher Status Index rated the profession's prestige as slightly higher in the UK than in France, this does not chime with the reality that I see every day, and with what my friends and acquaintances in many areas of the country tell me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the regard in which teachers are held in France far surpasses that shown them in the UK. Indeed, the survey found that teachers in France were more often compared to librarians than those in England, who were grouped with social workers. Although librarians are administrators rather than professionals, they are at least imparting knowledge. Comparing teachers to social workers connotes a more pastoral role than an educative one.

Position of trust

The higher esteem in which teachers are held this side of the Channel is also demonstrated in the respect accorded to their professional judgement - when they keep a student back a year on account of poor progress, for example.

At the UK schools where I taught, it was common for parents to contest educational decisions, particularly when it came to which set their child was assigned to. Despite assurances that students would progress best in a class pitched to their current level of ability and attainment, parents often wanted their child to be in the top set no matter how much they might struggle. The fact that the recommendations were made by trained professionals seemed to carry little weight.

Furthermore, French teacher strikes are often successful - unlike those in the UK. A school near where I live held a protest when a class was threatened with closure owing to poor student numbers; their objection was upheld and the class remained in place. On a national level, when Sarkozy's government wanted to change key clauses in teachers' contracts, a protest led to the changes being scrapped. Clearly, not all such actions have an impact, but the fact that some do suggests that teachers are listened to and their views are taken seriously.

Teaching is a difficult job but it has many rewards. One of those should be the recognition due to being well qualified, hard-working and dedicated. If teachers are given greater autonomy and are listened to by those in power, the perception of the profession improves. And when this happens, students and parents follow suit. Visit a French school, or simply ask a passer-by on a French street their views - you'll be astonished by the attitudes you encounter.

Gillian Harvey is a teacher and freelance writer based in France

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