Strong lobby from a distance

7th November 1997 at 00:00

The French education system has traditionally been highly centralised, but recent moves towards local autonomy are encouraging French teachers to explore the advantages of partnerships with others - especially parents. At the same time, consumerist notions of the education market place, increased parental choice, and even league tables are creeping into the system.

Increased immigration means that most schools need new forms of communication between home and school; teachers have to reach out to parents from different cultures to encourage them to support their children's learning.

Current official policy is to include parents as full partners in education; this is particularly true of legal frameworks set up over the past 10 years. Parents are now represented at every level: in class councils, school councils, local administrative councils, and on the Conseil superieur de l'education at national level. Class councils are particularly important in the French system; they consist of the class teacher, two parents, two pupils, and a career counsellor.

Councils meet at least three times a year, and examine the teaching and learning in that class, and the progress of each child.

France has several active parents' associations, all founded earlier in the century. They differ in terms of the ideas they put forward, and in their politics. For example, the Federation des conseils de parents d'el ves de l'enseignement public (FCPE) is on the Left, and the Federation des parents d'el ves de l'enseignment public (PEEP) is on the Right. Activity within these associations is part of the French political structure, and can lead to a career in national politics. This strong representation at national level contrasts with the fact that French parents often play little part in the life of the school. They are not encouraged to help in class, and only since 1968 have they officially been allowed into schools.

Most French parents, however, are very conscientious in supporting their children's education. New efforts are now being made to treat them as partners, or as "active parents," rather than keeping them at a distance. Parents receive a report card three times a year to inform them of their children's progress, and most schools use two-way homework diaries.

* Programme d'aide a la lecture (PAL) - Programme for Help in Reading. PAL was set up in 1989, and now includes 86 schools in the Departement des Hauts de Seine. This local authority is partnering its schools in a "fight against school failure", and PAL is one of several schemes. Its aim is to reinforce school-based learning by motivating children to read.

About 70 per cent of the adults involved are teachers, and 30 per cent are mothers; activities include writing poetry, making a newspaper and working on computers. Sometimes the sessions - which take up about an hour and a half per week - are held at pupils' homes.

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