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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Revolt stirs in France's schools against 'elitist' education system

The French government is experimenting with introducing more cultural activities in schools and has reformed the grading system in primaries. Photograph: Alamy

Classrooms experiment with catering for diverse needs of pupils in move away from marks-based system

It's hard to believe, when lessons are under way, that there are 700 children at Lou Redounet high school in Uzés, southern France. The corridors are silent; not a single pupil is out of place.

But behind the classroom doors a series of revolutionary experiments is under way. Children falling behind in maths, French and English are being taken aside for extra tutoring. In a few classes the tough marking system that dominates French schools has been quietly dropped. Teachers are encouraged to treat every pupil as an individual. By British standards these changes seem uncontroversial, but in France they are deemed so radical that they have already cost one headteacher his job.

In one class, 11-year-olds are asked to come up with verbs to describe what they have just read in The Odyssey. Twenty-nine hands shoot up in the air vying for the teachers' attention, every pupil in the room clamouring to take part in the debate.

Abdul Berthelot, an English teacher who is working on the experiments, says: "We have changed the marks to focus more on skills and knowledge, and not just knowledge. There is less pressure. It means the children are confident and enjoy the class. You won't see this level of engagement in many other classes. It ends the psychological dependency these children have on marks.

"This is a little revolution. Our system is elitist. Marking is everything. It used to be that at the end of each year the kids were ranked in each subject. That doesn't happen any more but we still have that spirit."

Paul Robert, the headteacher, describes the experiments as "tiny and shy" in the face of fierce opposition to change from the education authorities and some staff. He was forced out of his last job after a backlash. There, his ambition had been to reduce grade repetition – children being held back a year – by giving them individualised lessons.

Robert says the system conspires against change; because teachers are employed by the state rather than the school, they are more concerned with inspectors' opinions than those of headteachers. Meanwhile, the unions resist reform and the government provides no consistent strategy. He describes the French education system as a "huge prehistoric animal unable to walk due to its own weight".

There are several things that typify the French education system. First, it is intensely academic, driven by a grading system that marks out of 20 and rules with an iron fist. Children repeat years if they fall behind and have among the longest school days in Europe. Second, most teachers consider themselves to be academic instructors rather than educators in the wider sense. From an early age lessons look more like university lectures than nurturing learning environments. Thirdly, it is incredibly uniform. Enter a grade-one science class in any part of the country, and you will see a very similar lesson. Variation is fiercely frowned upon.

But many now believe this system is no longer working. France is rapidly falling behind in international league tables. The last major international study, by the OECD last year, found the performance of the lowest-achieving students in France had declined steeply, while the performance of the highest-achieving students remained the same. Boys in particular are seeing their grades fall.

For the British government, which in England is championing a more traditional curriculum with a French-style baccalaureate, it's worth asking why.

Eunice Mangado-Lunetta, director of Afev, the Association of the Student Foundation for the City, which works with children in the poorest areas, providing mentors to support them through school, says the problem is that an academically based, uniform system is struggling to cater for a diverse population, leaving those from the most troubled areas behind. "Our system is historically very elitist. Now we need a system that caters for all children – especially the children in more disadvantaged areas."

The organisation holds an annual event, journée du refus de l'échec scolaire – the day of refusal of school failure – when they publish the results of a survey that shows the damaging effects of the system.

"Kids from an early age of school are convinced they are not going to succeed. They think highly of their teachers, but they think it's their fault that they fail. They feel guilt and failure," she says. "We tend to confuse effort and suffering. We think harsh school is normal but we think that it's OK to be harsh."

France's decline in the international rankings has focused minds. A book by the Paris-based British academic Peter Gumbel published last year titled On achève bien les écoliers? (They shoot schoolchildren, don't they?) sharpened attention further. In it he argued that the education system was systematically undermining children's confidence.

"By every international comparison kids here have a low level of self-confidence and lack of self-esteem and fear of failure and no fun at school," he says. "Even people who have done well have a nasty butterfly feeling in their stomach when they think of school."

A disconnect between the traditional academic education system and the diverse needs of the pupils it caters for is increasingly recognised. The grading system has been reformed in primary schools to make it more diagnostic than a simple mark out of 20, although many teachers have continued the old system anyway. The government is experimenting with introducing more arts and cultural activities in schools. There are moves to give headteachers more freedom over the curriculum.

Luc Chatel, the education minister, has also acknowledged that the long schools days are outdated, saying schools "are still revolving around late 19th century lifestyles which are no longer relevant".

But in France, as in England, education is tightly bound to political ideologies that can hamper change. The right argues the answer is more academic rigour, while the left says the system needs to be changed to cater for young people's needs and skills. This is counter-interpreted as a move to "dumb down". Some headteachers argue this leaves no room for policy-making based on evidence. Others say the problem of trying to change the education system runs to the heart of French culture.

Sitting in the wood-panelled offices of the director of one of France's most elite universities might be the last place you might expect to have every stereotype about the snobbery of the French openly aired and confirmed. But Richard Descoings, the softly spoken director of Sciences Po, the institute for political studies in Paris, says: "In France it's like if you don't belong to a certain part of the population you are considered not as clever or hard-working. This is not true. It is unjust."

Obituaries in Le Monde habitually include the deceased's success in university entrance exams as a mark of their status. "It's crazy, your ability at 18 is not a mark of your life's work," he says. "It's not that we have a bad system; it's a system that is dated. Historically dated and sociologically marked."

Descoings' institution has adapted the admissions system to actively recruit and give extra grants to pupils from poorer homes. He thinks the single thing that could make a difference is improving teacher training. 'We need to tell them that their job is not only to teach but to educate; In France we don't make a difference between teaching and learning. We use the same verb "apprendre". They need to become educators in the widest possible sense."

Back in Uzés, Robert is trying to tackle this problem on the ground. "I try to encourage teachers to take a wider role. The foundation of the teacher is exclusively academic. But children's needs have radically changed. So we have an evolution of pupils' needs and the job of teacher has not changed," he says.

Patrick Gonthier, secretary general of the Unsa education union, admits some teachers are resistant to change, but says this is partly because education has become so politicised that changes are rarely effective or sustained.

He cites a particular example. Last year the government scrapped teacher training colleges, themselves an experiment by a previous government, meaning that in September teachers started work with no training, only an academic background and a mentor to oversee them. Because many new teachers are sent first to the most difficult schools, this is entrenching problems with a new generation of untrained teachers, he says.

Some 70,000 teaching posts have also vanished under the government's policy of not replacing one out of two civil servants in an effort to cut costs. French teachers have adopted a British term for the stress they are experiencing: "burn-out".

Gonthier says the crisis is mounting and that France must acknowledge its republican, one-size-fits-all system is no longer appropriate for all children. "French education is not failing, but it is approaching failure. It is very difficult for the French to accept that the republican system is inefficient to compensate for the difficulty of people's background. We live on the ideal that the public system is here to open the opportunities for you. It's not living up to that ideal."

Article from The Guardian


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