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They do things so differently there

Peter Newsam finds France really is a foreign country for 11-year-olds. It was during the fleeting passage of Mr Kenneth Clarke across the educational scene, so the story goes, that the UK decided not to take part in the latest round of international comparisons of educational standards to be published. Foreigners cheat on such occasions, seemed the Portilloesque reason for that decision. Anyway, the consequence is that no one really knows how well or how badly the UK is doing, in certain basic areas of the curriculum, compared with, say, the French.

The French? For better or for worse, they certainly do things differently. My awareness of that comes from a rising 11-year-old daughter's experience in an ecole bilingue in Paris. Bilingue, I should explain, means a school which follows the French national curriculum, whose teachers are paid for by the state, whose bills for extras appear in English, but at which 97.5 per cent of the teaching is in French.

The first difference is that, whatever this school does, it does in a remarkably short working week. To keep parents on their toes, starting times vary between 8.30am and 10.40am. The day ends between 12.05pm, at one extreme, and 4.35pm at the other. If the very precise 60-minute lunch hour is omitted, that leaves 22 hours and 25 minutes in the classroom. A longer term? The 168-pupil days (the teachers have longer terms) are well short of the 190 or so to which the UK is accustomed.

It is in the homework that the big difference lies. With two adults and one child going flat out, we have this down to about 12 hours a week. But the exercises are becoming more difficult and the strain is telling. Nor was "assez bien", in my view, a fair verdict on our last week's efforts.

Difference one, to put it starkly, is that more work, pages and pages more of it, is expected of 10 and 11-year-olds here than in most UK schools.

A second difference concerns the definition of "basic", as this affects education. "Basic" is taken to include our three R's: the French language, reading and elementary arithmetic (calcul); but also and crucially includes "methods of working". The effect of this is to shut out any "content versus process" debate. Both are constantly emphasised. So, from the start of the history book (always a book; never a duplicated sheet), I learn that it was possibly Philip of Macedon's right eye that was destroyed by an arrow at the siege of wherever it was. But I am not allowed to leave it there. I am required to grapple with the evidence: a damaged skull found in a tomb; then on to deduce all manner of things from a cave full of bones found near Nice. In short, I am confronted with the issue of how we come to know what we do know about the past.

This can prove wearisome. On the left-hand page of the geography book, the heading is "on the road to knowledge", and we learn about population density. But there, on the right-hand page, under the cheering heading of "I use my skills", comes the rub. We are faced with a long series of calculations in which, for example, we have to determine how many times an awkward number of Canadians goes into an equally awkward number of square kilometres. And so the page and the associated homework goes on.

Difference two, then, concerns a broad and rigorously enforced definition of what is "basic" in French education. A third difference lies in the absence of any concept here of a desk or home base. So pupils zig-zag about the school carrying everything on their backs. This has two consequences. The first is that it reduces disorder. You do not see Sherpas larking about on the way up Everest. Nor do children trudging about with up to 14lb of gear have much energy for pushing and shoving.

A second consequence relates to those "methods of working". Getting all the right books to the right place at the right time on the right day requires organisational skills of a high order. As at the opera, a minute late and you are excluded, left loitering in the bar or the playground as the case may be.

So difference three concerns the level of, I have to say, largely avoidable discomfort up with which school children are required - and soon prepared - to put.

Difference four takes me back to the classroom and the emphasis on learning by heart. "Learn the lesson" can mean just that. Deep in the system and the culture is the notion that to know something is to be able to repeat it, or the substance of it, aloud and in front of others. Mumbling will not do.

So much for just four of many differences. But, of course, much remains the same. The French minister of education, M Bayrou, recently proposed 158 changes to the system. Everyone stayed calm, however. They knew, as we would in the UK, that the decimal point had slipped and that, anyway, most of the 15 or 16 "new" ideas were already, unbeknown to the minister, being implemented in the schools.

Some of the four or five genuinely new ideas do, however, seem very much to the point; but that is another story.

Sir Peter Newsam retired earlier this year as director of London University's Institute of Education and is now living in Paris.

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