When in France...
In front of me I have a form addressed to the director of education, on which I am asking his permission to live in my own house. I have given my reasons in the space provided. I fill it in every year and, so far, permission has always been granted.
You get used to filling in forms when you live and teach in France. Your contract is renewed annually. Your timetable is specified and includes a list of the classes you are to teach and the number of pupils in each. You have to sign your agreement to all that.
Four or five copies pass between the teacher, the head and the education office until the final pink one- or maybe it's yellow - arrives in your pigeonhole, as mine did a couple of months ago.
If this seems strange, the French attitude to matters such as teacher recruitment and promotion can seem positively bizarre. In front of the class, though, you feel pretty much at home, at least at first. The children are just as boisterous and talkative as the ones you left behind, and need the same firm hand to get them working.
You follow the French national curriculum, or programme. The accepted image of this has always been that the Minister of Education could look at his watch and tell you what any child, anywhere in France or even in her colonies, was studying at that very moment. While that was never quite the case, the French programme certainly is more strictly prescribed than the British, and teachers seem happy enough to be relieved of having to make detailed curriculum decisions.
I was presented with the programme on the day I arrived to take up my job to teach music. It is a paperback, about the size of a novel, and specifies in detail all subjects taught at 11 to 16. It was published in 1985, and while there must have been major developments in subjects such as technology since then, my own is only just starting to move. Searching for a textbook to help me implement part of this unfamiliar course, I discovered that one, highly recommended, had been published in 1958.
French students are keen on marks. Written work always provokes the question "C'est note?", which translates roughly as "Will it be marked out of 20?" The "out of 20" is crucial. Each pupil's report carries his or her average mark and position per subject, plus the overall average and position. A child who tries hard, but with limited success, isn't interested in your encouraging comments: he wants an extra half-mark, and will argue for it if need be.
The belief that a year's work can be adequately represented by a single mark out of 20 does make things blissfully simple for the teacher. If the arithmetic is time-consuming and the meetings seem excessive, at least the heartache of judging the child is limited to marking the work. The rest is just sums.
Teacher appraisal, a minefield if ever there was one, runs smoothly too. The headteacher writes a comment, rarely running to two sentences, and - this is France, remember - assesses the teacher's performance out of 20. The teacher signs acceptance before the document is passed to the Education Office for scrutiny. I got 14.25 out of 20 last year, which the Director of Education thought insufficient and upgraded - to 14.30.
Of course, neither the head nor the director of education has ever seen me teach. Nor has either visited my home, yet one of them decides each year if I may continue to live there.
The French education service demands that its teachers live within a certain radius of the school in which they work, or that they have special permission to live elsewhere. None of my colleagues has been able to explain this extraordinary requirement, but it seems to have something to do with insurance as well as, I think, making sure that the school still functions when it snows.
I live about nine miles from school, and find it demeaning to have to ask permission to carry on doing so, particularly in the terms used on the form: "I have the honour to solicit of your extreme benevolence the authorisation to live at ..."
I wanted to know what I should give as the reason. Should I state, for example, that I preferred, if at all possible, to live with my wife and children. Since the head told me to write that this was my family home, I suppose the answer was yes, in a way. "But what if permission is refused?" I asked, incredulous. Madame la Directrice shook her head sadly at my lack of understanding. "But it is never refused."
William Hedley taught in London for 13 years and now lives in the Languedoc