The Local School: Tradition And Rigour
Angie Power moved to France from the UK over twenty years ago to settle in a small provincial town. Her experience as a secondary school teacher in both the English and French state school systems, in bringing up her own children abroad, and in tracing their lives at local schools and watching them develop their bilingualism has provided her with some valuable lessons to pass on to other parents.
I have had a number of telephone calls from the UK over the past few years: friends of friends hesitating about buying property and moving to France. The first wave of arrivals was retired couples worried about finding reliable masons and plumbers, but this happens less frequently nowadays. The questions now tend to come from younger families and the vital query is basically the same: ‘What will the local school be like?’ The answer is always a difficult one since although the organisation and management of schools in general is the same throughout France, they are not identical – let alone in small villages where schools have to cope with declining numbers of pupils. I can only hope that I have given these families a few useful pointers as to what to expect.
One thing will be certain, everyone will speak French and the main anxiety for parents moving to France with children of school age is the language barrier. The younger the child, the more easily will they cope with the language. Older children may well benefit from some tuition in the UK before leaving for France. Headteachers may well be able to provide special needs assistance in some cases.
It is possible nevertheless, that the headteacher will feel that in order to ease your child into their new language, he or she might be better off with a younger age group. From primary school onwards, there are often children in classes who are older than the others. This is explained by the practice – which I have mentioned before – of le redoublement: when a pupil does not go up a year with his or her peers but redoes the same year again. It is certainly not seen as a punishment and the pupil is not considered ‘a failure’ in being held back a year.
Although this is done only by agreement between all concerned, it is surprising how many parents are keen on redoublement.
- Doing the same year again allows children to regain confidence since they may strengthen themselves in their weak subjects and therefore feel more able to pursue the career path of their choice.
- It also enables pupils to become more organised in their approach to school work and homework.
- Since the year is not necessarily taught by the same teachers, it allows a child in difficulty to ‘start over’.
Le redoublement is not a miracle solution however and there is no assurance that results will be better than those of the previous year. In fact, there may also be some false security in the first term when the pupil’s marks improve dramatically and this is because the autumn term is often one of revision. It takes some effort to maintain the same progress in the following terms.
A LONG SCHOOL DAY
The organisation of the school day is not the same as in the UK. In France, a day at primary school may seem longer – and more tiring – for young children, with three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. From 08.30–11.30, then 13.30–16.30. Having your children at home for lunch at first rather than leaving them at the school canteen would provide the opportunity to talk over any problems.
The school day is even longer for secondary school pupils – often from eight in the morning until six in the evening. For those living in villages and having to take the school bus, pick up and drop off times make school days even longer and more tiring – especially in those first months when a whole day in French is quite a feat.
Unlike in times past, most schools are closed on Saturday. Primary schools tend to be closed all day Wednesdays as well, but for working parents, the local centre de loisirs staffed by qualified child carers occupy the children with a wide range of activities.
Secondary schools are closed on Wednesday afternoons which gives parents the opportunity to organise activities that are not on the school curriculum (like religious education) or which only play a limited part (like art and crafts, music and sport).
LEARNING TO WRITE
My children had a very rigorous, traditional primary school education and learning to write is an example of this. French children are taught joined-up writing from the outset. On the first day at primary school, teachers begin with the letter ‘a’, and the children copy it out time and time again on their slates or white boards until every stroke and shape is correct. Day two will be the letter ‘b’ and so on, until day 26 and the letter ‘z’. French children write on squared paper that resembles maths paper: the curves and stems of every letter start and finish at precise points in the square.
Rigorous, repetitious but successful rote learning is often a feature of French arithmetic teaching. By the time children are eight, they usually know all the multiplication tables. My son answered ten questions every morning in class to the beat of a metronome. ‘Five times eight’, tick; ‘nine times nine’, tick; ‘six times nine’, tick, and so on; the children writing the answers down on the tick. Initially, I was horrified at the stress he was being put under but he seemed to take it in his stride. As he got better, he actually looked forward to the lessons. By the end of the year, it was ‘five times eight plus nine times seven’, tick; ‘three times six plus nine times nine’, tick. Traditional mental arithmetic has always been regarded as important and – apart from being shown how they function – there was never any question of calculators being used at my sons’ primary school. Even at secondary school, teachers insist on mental arithmetic whenever it is quicker than with a calculator.
LEARNING BY HEART
Parents are encouraged to play an active role in their children’s education. Every child has a cahier de textes – a homework book for parents to see and sign. Although there is officially no written homework at primary level, there is a lot of learning by heart – poems, verbs, historical facts, La Marseillaise.
At secondary school the amount of detail that my children have had to learn in an evening has seemed endless to me – all the counties and rivers of France, a time-line of all the kings, emperors and leaders of France with their dates, lists of grammar rules, chemical compounds – and all tested on the following day.
A NATIONAL PROGRAMME
As previously stated, France follows a standard and detailed national curriculum. To judge by the number of school textbooks on sale in the supermarkets, coaching seems to be routine. There are books to practise dictation, improve arithmetic and perfect handwriting. Parents do not feel overcome by the vastness of education; rather, they feel part of it. If you move to the other side of France and your child changes school mid-year, the new school will be following exactly the same programme.
My children are used to speaking in public because they have always done a lot of recitation at school. After learning a poem at home, they recite it to the class the next day. They learn a paragraph on the Gauls or the solar system and again recite it to the whole class. I used to shrink at the idea of my son standing at the front on his teacher’s platform with the children facing him in rows. Then French mothers explained that they believed recitation improves a child’s memory. I certainly now think it can give a child confidence.
Dictation plays an important part of the school week from elementary school onwards. At first children are sent home with a paragraph that they know will be dictated to them the following day. French mothers explained to me how they would prepare their children by studying the spellings and punctuation, writing the paragraph out at home over and over again – in the hope that the next day they would be able to write it out perfectly. Given that every mistake made by the pupil is penalised by half a mark – even forgetting a comma – these autodictées are dreaded by most. For older children in secondary schools, the pupils do not see the paragraphs that are dictated in lesson beforehand and the texts are often by famous writers like Victor Hugo or Jean de la Fontaine from the last century so that the whole exercise is often expressed in a French style that is no longer a current one!
Learning a foreign language – usually English – begins at primary school. The emphasis is on oral work and basic vocabulary – members of the family, parts of the body, days of the week – and includes memorised forms of how to introduce yourself and give your personal details. The aim is not formally to teach a foreign language but to accustom the children to hearing and saying unfamiliar words and sounds. By the time they start their secondary education at eleven, when formal foreign language lessons begin, they are used to participating orally. Generally, all children study two foreign languages at secondary school and have the option of doing ancient languages too.
TESTS – AND OFTEN
French teachers – at all levels – believe in tests. My sons have small tests once a week and more detailed ones – contrôles – about every two months. A mother knows by heart what her children’s average marks are and where they come in relation to the rest of the class.
QUALITY RATHER THAN JUST EFFORT
In my experience, parents and children from a very early age realise that a teacher’s mark reflects the quality of the work; that although a teacher may comment on the effort a child has made, the mark given reflects what the work is really worth. If a piece of work is wrong or illegible, a child’s mark will reflect this: there are no marks for ‘just trying’. This seems an insensitive approach to learning, but children toughen up to it.
The idea that students either know their stuff or don’t is illustrated by the fact that exam performance – not continual assessment – is paramount for anyone wishing to pass the general baccalauréat.
ALL SUBJECTS ARE IMPORTANT
This is true too of all subjects, not just ‘academic’ ones. My son never had a painting pinned up in his classroom for a whole of a school year at primary school because, no matter however hard he tried or however much progress he made personally, his paintings were simply not good enough. The teacher would not pin up a painting with paint dribbling down it and, frankly, that is what he produced! He considered this reasonable enough since there were things he could do that others in the class were less able at doing. There is no ‘dumbing down’ in sport either: if a child cannot master the techniques required for playing volleyball, for example, the mark will reflect the weakness.
OUT OF 20
Throughout school life, teachers mark out of 20. Two out of 20 may seem very demoralising but that is what a child may get if he or she has not produced what is required. Teachers rarely give 20 out of 20 because they consider it impossible to get everything correct – as one teacher explained to me, ‘20 out of 20 is for God!’
On a child’s term’s report, each subject will be out of 20 and you will know what the highest and lowest marks in the class were.
Then, there will be an average mark, made up of all the subject marks and again, you will see what average mark the child who was top of the class achieved and similarly at the bottom of the class.
The overall score in the baccalauréat, which is taken at the end of secondary school, is not a letter or percentage but a mark out of 20.
THE SPIRIT OF COMPETITION
An interesting point here for newly-arrived families is that not only does the British education system pride itself upon character building (and so effort is important) but that an individual child’s progress is seen in relation to his or her own ability.
In France, a child’s position in relation to the class is important: on the school report, the maximum and minimum marks are there for you to judge in relation to your child. Entrance to elite educational institutions in France (and to government posts) is not based on whether candidates passed the entrance exam but whether they achieved one of the top marks in the exam.