Not so much a channel as a gulf

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
My friend Sylvette is a headteacher in France. She and I run schools of a similar size and catchment, but I fervently hope any other educational comparisons terminate la.

When I first met her, she and her family lived on her school site. Chickens ran through the playground and into the classrooms. They used the same outside toilet the schoolchildren used. Sylvette's office was in the corner of the classroom, where she was the proud possessor of a photocopier bought by the commune. Ten years ago we stood together admiring a row of identical painted clowns, taped to the walls over peeling plaster and municipal paint. "So artistique," sighed Sylvette.

Last summer, as Parisians wilted in the heat, we visited Sylvette again.

She had taken on a much larger, purpose-built, establishment.

Bleak is too small a word. We went from room to room searching for something to admire. Each identical room gave no clue as to its purpose.

Only the library was distinguished by the laminated notice telling us that it was, indeed, a bibliotheque.

I looked in vain for Burglar Guillaume and his mates and found only Disney versions of Blanche Neige. My husband valiantly praised the light fittings and the window frames. I tried to find words of encouragement over the caged playground.

Over dinner that evening we talked about the merits of the French education system, a system often cited as a reason, alongside all the obvious, for moving to France. The perceived idyll of rural schools where the Monsieur Frittes de nos jours as portrayed in "Etre and Avoir" is seen as a huge selling point. Sylvette's enthusiasm for her minimalist school building was in reverse proportion to her opinion of her pupils. "No one takes any responsibility for their children's behaviour these days," she said with Gallic melancholy.

En route for home we were enjoying our last breakfast before the ferry. The only other customers were a young couple with their three-month-old baby.

"We'll have to save thousands for George's education in England," said Mr Hooray Henry to the baby-worshipping proprietor "...or, of course, we could always move to France."

I flung down my napkin, my gauntlet and my dignity and gave a speech in defence of British state schools. The proprietor joined in. "She's right, Monsieur. These days a teacher in France daren't turn her back on the class for fear of a knife in her back."

Back at home and the phone rings. "Allo, Veekkee! Nous sommes en vacances.

I am coming to see your school." Not a word of complaint about workforce reforms, Sats, targets or budgets will cross my lips. It will be excellence and enjoyment from dawn till dusk. L'honneur is at stake.

Vicki Johnson is head of Northwood primary school, Cowes, Isle of Wight

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