As Hannah Tyrell's First Appointments diary shows, you can learn a lot from spending a month on teaching practice in a French school
Monday March 13
Starting to regret agreeing to teach in France for a month, having not spoken a word for seven years. I'm struggling to follow the teacher's onslaught of fractions. Thankfully, the children also look bemused.
The day is long, with children here from 8.30am to 5pm. There is no school on Wednesday as pupils attend on Saturday mornings. Lessons are 90 minutes and whole-class teaching is used virtually all the time. The consolation is a two-hour lunchbreak, presumably to please the gastronomic French!
There are no rewards for the pupils and differentiation consists of extra help with the same activity, plus extension work for the higher ability groups. How does this work, you may ask? I don't know, but it does.
There is an emphasis on grammar and teachers follow the "lire, dire and ecrire" scheme; it's arduous. Writing has to be neat and accurate; if it's not up to standard, you do it again. One pupil who refused to write until a year ago dictates his work to the teacher. Homework is set daily and corrections are marked in red, but include a positive comment. The 27 pupils range from nine to 11-years-old. Files on the children are kept with sample pieces of work. There are no Sats or league tables, but the teacher uses frequent class tests to assess how the children are doing.
Tuesday March 14
The first group work I saw was in science, where children had to make a working arm joint using wood, Blu Tac and drawing pins. As a treat, the teacher brought in a pig's leg from the butcher's shop to demonstrate the movement of joints, muscles and bones.
The school is 10 years old and a credit to modern design. There is wheelchair access to accommodate the class of nine disabled children. There is no sports hall as assemblies are rare. For PE, the children walk a short distance to use the basketball team's facilities.
Thursday March 16
Swimming is held at the same venue. Children are grouped according to ability and allocated an instructor. The top group perform impressive strokes and dives, the middle group have races and a game of volleyball, while the bottom group (many of whom have an aversion to water) are encouraged to jump in the deep end, touching a stick held aloft by the teacher.
Friday March 17
My English lessons leave me despondent. My opening line: "Good morning, children" produces the response: "Goowd moaning shildren." I ask if anyone knows any English words or phrases. They range from a Peter Sellars-style "duog" to the rather more surreal "Do you like bananas?" For St Patrick's Day, they learn about four leaf clovers and how you might find a pot of gold underneath a leprechaun. The children ponder this before one tentatively raises a hand and asks if that's really true!
Monday March 2O
The school has two heads, one for the ecole maternelle (ages two to five) and one for the ecole primaire (ages six to 11). There are 29 children and they have the option of staying all day. The facilities include beds, toys and plenty of space. There is one teacher and one assistant per class, but they cope well. My fellow student Vince and I are introduced to a class of four-year-olds. "Vince and Hannah have come a long way, can anyone guess where from?" asks the teacher. A small voice exclaims confidently:
Thursday March 23
The children have a great relationship with the teacher and it occurs to me that I have never heard him raise his voice. That's not to say that they are angels. He keeps the troublemakers near the front, and once while using the overheard projector he was momentarily distracted. Three boys, forgetting about the presence of Vince and myself at the back, proceeded to perform a variety of hand puppetry. One boy could make a crocodile with teeth while the other, a bird, flew into his mouth. As if on cue, the teacher turned around and saw two innocent, attentive faces. The lesson resumed with him none the wiser.
Thursday March 30
As my time draws to an end, I'm sad to be leaving. I've enjoyed lunchtimes sipping hot chocolate and gazing out of cafe windows. I will miss the relaxed approach to planning that stems from the headteacher, she has time to make coffee for everyone at breaktime! The enthusiasm of the children towards their classwork and homework is a credit to the teacher, and the depth of knowledge they acquire is extensive in comparison to their English counterparts. The lack of a rewards system means that pupils approach each task without asking "what's in it for me?", a tendency I've often seen in England. Creativity is excellent in the nursery and lower school but it is phased out by Years 4, 5 and 6 in favour of French grammar.
On the downside, I found the lessons long and many children struggled to stay on task at the end. Whole-group teaching in places was ineffective; those children who needed extra help were left frustrated as the class sailed on without them. Remaining with the same task for 90 minutes was tedious for me, let alone for 27 children.
There is no assembly so the school lacks a sense of community, as a result children can't cope in large groups. Few sanctions mean children often laugh off the teacher's attempts to restore order.
Hannah Tyrell is doing her PGCE primary with French at Kingston university, London