Where bad grades `paralyse' pupils

French government seeks to end `discouraging' marking system

French schools often receive foreign admiration for their efficient teaching of elegant cursive script to young children, their disciplined classes and their desks arranged in rows.

But in recent years, critics have claimed that the traditionalist system discourages all but the highest performers and dramatically lowers children's self-esteem. And at the heart of this dispiriting culture, France's education minister declared last week, is the marking system used in senior schools.

A major debate, backed by leading educationalists, has been launched to explore more ego-boosting alternatives. The traditional French system of marking out of 20 - where 10 is a pass, anything less is a fail and minus marks are possible if a student makes too many mistakes - should be replaced by a "kind" system that does not "paralyse" pupils, said the education minister, Benot Hamon.

Ahead of the game, one school has already replaced its mark scheme with a system that uses colours instead of numbers. Mr Hamon has suggested that positive comments in green pen could help pupils to feel better about their work.

The proposals are the latest in a series of education reforms taking place in France, amid concerns that the country is falling behind the world's elite nations and is in desperate need of modernisation.

The government was forced to deny this week that another change - introducing compulsory gender-equality lessons to schools - was being axed. But the ABCD of Equality scheme has been significantly watered down since it was announced last year, after vocal protests from Catholic, Muslim and right-wing groups.

Mr Hamon said in an interview with newspaper Le Parisien last week that although teachers should continue to mark students' work, it was time for change. "Today, our system of assessment underlines the gaps in knowledge and the failures of pupils, which can be very discouraging for some," he said. "Marks must be used wisely. They are useful, but when they paralyse pupils we must substitute them for other forms of assessment."

Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment showed that French children left the highest proportion of questions blank of any country, the minister stressed. Other international comparisons have suggested that French children are likely to underestimate their own abilities.

"In the future, assessment must be more demanding and must say more. It must be kind and stimulate, rather than discourage," Mr Hamon said.

The plans to reform marking have been welcomed by teachers, including the SE-Unsa union. "Our system of assessment is out of breath," a spokesman said. "This old-fashioned vestige of republican elitism bears an ideological vision of school which does not correspond with either the needs or expectations of our society."

Critics of the proposals said the minister was basing his decisions on "clichs" of the French classroom. Modern-day schools were not discouraging places and feedback was already rich and complex, said Ali Devine, a history teacher in a suburban lyce (secondary school) and an outspoken blogger.

However, journalist Peter Gumbel, who criticises the culture of French education in his 2010 book They Shoot School Kids, Don't They? called the current mark scheme "one of the pedagogical torture instruments in the French system".

It was very difficult to get 20 out of 20 and very easy to get bad marks, he told TES. "You get into this cycle of discouragement and demoralisation - for dictations you can get minus 10 if you make enough mistakes.

"It doesn't encourage excellence, it overly penalises failure and it leads to a reluctance of pupils to participate because they are scared of getting slapped down."

Mr Gumbel welcomed the review, but was sceptical about whether it would result in real change, given the failure of other attempts to reform the vast French school system.

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