Some French teachers do more egalite than others

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Train journeys in France are interesting educational experiences

Train journeys in France are interesting educational experiences. On the short trip from Paris St Lazare to a school in one of the capital's leafiest suburbs, a student stood up and treated the carriage to a poem. Further down the line, a young woman entered the carriage to show off her charcoal sketches. The third was a musician who played Chopin on his accordion.

"A good education system does not neglect art and music," my old friend Madame Bertalloin, now a deputy head, tells me at the station. "Art and music are so important for the development of the right side of the brain, where our creative ideas come from."

I arrive in time for a school lunch. A dinner lady serves me a veal cutlet with broccoli and cauliflower, brie, bread and an apple juice which contained sugar and starch. It was a case of "hmm" rather than "mmm".

France could also improve its curriculum, which is struggling to cater for the increasingly diverse range of pupils in the country's classrooms. "One hat doesn't fit every head any more," Mme Bertalloin says. "Fortunately, our curriculum is not allowed to become a static thing which never changes."

In Scotland, I have heard the baccalaureat, the rigorous exam taken by French pupils at about age 18, applauded as a possible alternative to our Highers. In the Parisian schools I visit, Le Bac is often derided and criticised as a middle-class obsession which distorts learning and entails, for those who fail, stigma and a much narrower range of career opportunities.

France's schooling, like Scotland's, has excellence at the top and mediocrity at the bottom. French education certainly needs a bit of fixing, but no one is quite sure what to do. Employers are demanding more workplace skills, while universities want more learning skills.

The need for change is most obvious in French universities. Campuses are overcrowded, under-funded and hidebound with few facilities for students. Most undergraduates live at home and study at the nearest university.

A grande ecole is the prized destination for France's most ambitious students. Graduate teachers from the grandes ecoles are known to be aloof, but their impressive qualifications, and higher salaries, don't always make them more effective. "Egalite, fraternity and liberty" is the national motto but, in reality, some teachers do more egalite than others.

Sitting at a pavement cafe on the Boulevard Saint Michel, my six-year-old daughter tells me her P2 class receives French lessons. "Do you know the difference between `oui' and non'?," I ask. "Oui," she replies confidently, "for sure."

Perhaps Scottish education is less static than is sometimes thought.

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