Language of learning

12th December 2003 at 00:00
The French may have much to learn from other Europeans, but they can teach us something about education, says Nicholas Tate

he one major commitment I have outside my international school at the moment is to attend meetings in Paris of the Haut conseil de l'evaluation de l'ecole. This was set up by Jack Lang when he was French education minister three years ago to advise the French government on the development of the education system.

These days we usually meet in the Lycee Janson de Sailly, the old school of former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the 16th arrondissement. In the middle of the school is an impressive courtyard, laid out in traditional French formal garden style, with clipped shrubs, a fountain and gravel paths, where students sit with their books or eat their lunch.

This meeting was an exciting one as we considered a report analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the French system, only to find in the middle of the meeting that it had been leaked and splashed all over the next day's edition of Le Monde.

The minister of education, Luc Ferry, has launched a grand national debate on the future of education and the purpose of our report had been to advise the commission masterminding this debate. As Le Monde was passed round the table, it rather took the wind out of our sails.

Nonetheless, the discussion of the strengths of the French education system was interesting. Major issues included low spending on higher education compared with other developed countries, the failure to increase the numbers gaining a baccalaureate, and the familiar worldwide complaint about pupils leaving primary school without having mastered the basics.

What was striking about the discussion, however, was the almost complete absence of concerns that have been prominent in England in recent years.

Because of the overwhelming force of the republican idea that pupils throughout France should get the same education wherever they are, there is a tendency to think in terms of national rather than local solutions.

So there was little in the report about school improvement plans or about schools being judged, and inspected, in relation to their success in achieving their objectives. There was little about teachers setting individual targets or about being appraised.

Making this point, in my imperfect French, was my contribution to the discussion. I also said that, coming from an independent international school, I had no national solutions to fall back on, and that my school would succeed or fail by its own efforts. That is why so many such schools belong to the Council of International Schools - it provides an accreditation service to support what is the essential element of educational progress: an ongoing process of self-improvement. I am not sure how much my intervention was appreciated, though as ever it was listened to with great courtesy.

France is clearly willing to borrow ideas from elsewhere, and the fact that there is an anglophone etranger on a major education committee is evidence of this, but there are limits and at the end of the day France will have to work out its own solutions in its own terms. That is as it should be.

At the end of the meeting, I sat for a few moments looking at the amazing murals around the walls of our meeting room. These paintings must date from the Thirties and evoke an inspiring notion of La Patrie - sturdy fishermen, robust peasants, a family relaxing at a Renoir-like picnic - that would no longer be seen as appropriate in 2003.

It was a reminder, however, of the strong emphasis that France still places on the core civic purpose of education. Making my way back to the Metro, I also passed again through the school courtyard, in all its Cartesian formality. That, too, was a reminder of the impressive rationality that is still one of the best products of a French education, and one that had been well reflected in the meeting I had just attended.

The French may have things to learn from us, but we also have much to learn from them.

Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva

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