terça-feira, 6 de outubro de 2015
Back to school in Paris — and no gold stars
Before we moved to Paris over the summer, my six-year-old son attended a London state school. A month after his rentrée in the French system, he is still adjusting.
He misses his friends and needs to adapt to class in another language. He is expected to master joined-up handwriting. There are plenty of likely extracurricular causes for his current academic anxiety. But, being a product of French education myself, I can see he is also going through the shock of the cours préparatoire
We applied for this particular private school because it offers more English lessons than in the state system and because it focuses on personal development through artistic and sports activities. In a classic French way, however, the first day of CP (which is equivalent to year one) was intimidating.
My son’s supersized cartable — the French pupil’s traditional backpack — weighed more than 5kg. It brought back memories of the heavy bags I used to carry at school. In the classroom, behind rows of desks that made any movement impractical, the children faced a large white board and were asked to sit still. The message was clear: coming in the wake of the more relaxed kindergarten, this was now serious stuff.
In London, where my son was a first-year a year ago (children of his age start classes a year earlier there) the difference between school and kindergarten is not so marked. Until the age of 10, for instance, pupils sit not at desks but cross-legged on “carpet spaces” in front of a plasma screen.
A few weeks after we arrived in France, my son received his first punishment. It was a soft one: he was kept in class at lunch time to write out, several times, a discipline rule he had infringed, and I was sent a note to sign. Every French pupil eventually learns this is no big deal. But if you are used to a London school sending you home with a daily harvest of stickers on your sweater — “star pupil”, “super effort”, or “I was brave today” — it feels like a humiliation.
In Britain the school atmosphere was casual: parents hung out in the corridors after drop-off and in the playground long after pick-up. For the Easter bonnet parade, the headteacher awarded prizes dressed up as a pink bunny. In France, by contrast, we have permission to get a few metres inside my son’s school in the morning. We were lucky to be allowed to accompany him to his classroom on the first day. But most of my friends elsewhere in Paris are not allowed inside the premises for drop-offs. On day one, they had to let their often crying five or six-year-olds find their way to class on their own.
These differences reflect contrasting ideas of what school is, says Peter Gumbel, a British journalist whose children were educated in Los Angeles and Paris, and who in 2010 wrote the first of three books on France’s education system. “French teachers tend to say it’s about transmission of knowledge,” he tells me. “Teachers in the UK or in the US will say it’s about learning and personal development.” So school is seen as a community.
Among French pupils, there is a weaker sense of belonging, partly because learning and playing are kept separate. “In France, you can get put down quickly, and not congratulated as quickly,” Mr Gumbel adds.
The system is designed ultimately to select the elite, but a growing number of children — about 1 in 4 — are struggling at school, according to a 2012 OECD study. Ironically, France has pioneered innovative forms of teaching, only to shun them. Célestin Freinet’s methods in the 1920s, which emphasised collaborative work, discussions and field trips, were embraced in many other countries but ignored in France.
Mr Gumbel’s observations resonate with my own experience in the French state system. But then, I suggest, I coped with it and did not become particularly neurotic. I even remember, on occasion, having fun.
His explanation: I did OK because my parents were educated and belonged to the well-off postwar middle class. France, he tells me, shows the strongest correlation among OECD countries between academic results and social background.
“France has the word ‘egalité’ written on every school,” he says. “But it is one of the most inegalitarian systems.”