France Scores An F in Education

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French lessons Originally 
designed to level out class differences, France's education 
system instead perpetuates them

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All Work and No Play
What's gone wrong? It's a question the French themselves are agonizing over. Typically, much of the debate is theoretical, and there's no sign of a national consensus emerging. France is broadly divided into two camps: traditionalists who blame the troubles on a drop in standards and want to reinforce academic discipline, and reformers who believe that the standard setters and teachers themselves must take children's needs more clearly into account. Neither side has much love for the huge national bureaucracy that maintains oversight over schools, a monolith employing more than 1 million people, of which 200,000 are not teachers, and micromanages to an astonishing degree what's taught — and how — in every classroom in the country. For example, all French 13-year-olds this month are learning how to multiply and divide relative numbers, like (-7) x (-25) divided by (+5), and to identify, in grammar, circumstantial participles functioning as temporal clauses. (Don't ask.)

There have been numerous attempts to slim down and streamline this apparatus, but none has been able to bring about more than cosmetic change. The biggest recent showdown came in the late 1990s, when then Education Minister Claude Allègre, a socialist, branded the educational establishment "a mammoth" and vowed to cut it back. After mass street protests against his plans brought the country to a halt, Allègre got the chop. Since then his successors have been far more cautious in their reform efforts. President Nicolas Sarkozy has stayed clear of substantive educational reform since being elected in 2007.

One issue that's rarely addressed in the national debate about education is a factor that is immediately apparent to any foreigner coming into contact with the French school system: the unforgiving classroom culture that continues to hold sway in most schools. The emphasis is so heavily placed on the transmission of knowledge that basic pedagogical notions like motivating students to perform well are given short shrift.

The marking system is by tradition skewed so that it's all but impossible to get top marks, 19 or 20 out of 20, especially for a liberal-arts subject. (12 is a "good" mark for a philosophy paper.) And traditional practices that are on the wane elsewhere still hold strong in France. One is grade repetition: according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), requiring students to repeat a year is a rarity in Asia, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and it's no longer all that widespread in the U.S. or Britain. Numerous studies from around the world demonstrate that grade repetition doesn't usually help students perform better and often has the opposite effect, demoralizing and stigmatizing them as failures. Overall, the OECD estimates that about 13% of students in its 30 member countries repeat a class. In France, more than 38% of students repeat a grade, three times that average, the OECD says, and some French studies put the number even higher.

The impact of this forbidding classroom culture is manifested in international surveys of how schoolchildren feel and behave. Compared with their peers elsewhere, French adolescents tend to have relatively low self-confidence and are particularly nervous about making mistakes. One study, by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, tested the reading abilities of 10-year-olds from 45 countries and then asked the children how well they thought they read. The French kids performed reasonably well in the test, reading about as fluently as most of their peers in Europe. But when asked to judge their own ability, they put themselves near the bottom of the pile, only just above children from Indonesia and South Africa, where illiteracy remains widespread.

International education experts throw up their hands at all this. Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD's educational division, says France still uses "19th century industrial methods" in the classroom, by which he means teachers are reduced to factory-line workers who must carry out orders rather than be trusted to use their intelligence and training. Hans Henrik Knoop, a Danish psychologist at the University of Aarhus who specializes in education, concurs. He says French teaching methods are "an extreme example" of lingering 19th century practices and calls them "pedagogically catastrophic."

What's sorely missing is any sense of fun. Unlike in the U.S., school in France provides almost no nonacademic activities to compensate for brainy classroom work. Sports, music and art are afterthoughts, with little or no time devoted to them in the national curriculum; if you want to play soccer or the violin, the thinking goes, you can do that on your own time. But without sports teams or school orchestras, there's little that binds adolescents to their schools. That's clear from the way schools are depicted in popular culture. In France, there's nothing remotely comparable to upbeat movies like High School Musical. One of the few successful recent films about school in France, Skirt Day, stars Isabelle Adjani as a stressed-out teacher who finds a pistol in a student's backpack and uses it to take her unruly class hostage. Only through armed intimidation can she get the class's attention for her lesson on Molière.

Hard Lesson to Learn
Given the poor and worsening results of the education system, pressure is inevitably building for change. It's coming from above, from policymakers and other authorities, including the Cour des Comptes. So far, it hasn't been a top priority for Sarkozy, who is all too aware of the dangers of attacking the conservative school establishment; over the past 15 years, reform attempt after reform attempt has failed, after provoking the ire of teacher unions and pupils alike. Still, Luc Chatel, the current Minister of Education — the 29th in 52 years — has been cautiously trying to peel back the layers of bureaucracy and, in a series of pilot projects, give schools a touch more autonomy to manage their affairs. It's too early to say what the results will be. So far, the political backlash has been contained.

But criticism also comes from below, from teachers and parents. One of the nation's top colleges, Paris' Sciences Po, is in the vanguard of change: a few years ago, it changed its entry procedures to allow in bright kids from troubled inner-city schools who don't have great grades at school but are judged as having great potential. That policy, spearheaded by Sciences Po's director Richard Descoings, remains highly controversial. And, as Paul Robert discovered to his cost a year ago, further down in the trenches of the school system, the battles can be just as rude.

The director of a middle school near Nîmes, Robert tried to bring about a cultural revolution there, including refusing to force students to repeat grades. It backfired: he set off a full-blown teacher revolt and was quickly shifted to another establishment. France is a nation with a storied tradition of thinkers about education, he reflects bitterly, but one that "hasn't succeeded in irrigating the country" when it comes to changing current practices.

He's right: philosophy can be dazzling, but even in France it isn't nearly enough to guarantee good schooling — and that should give educational reformers in the rest of the world pause for thought.

Gumbel's book on French schools, On Achève Bien les Ecoliers, published by Grasset, is out now

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