French schools' 'climate of fear'

Peter Gumbel has written a new book denouncing French schools as cheerless places that 'break' children's confidence

25 October 2010

Peter Gumbel, Europe editor of Fortune magazine and a lecturer at Sciences Po’s graduate school of journalism, has written a new book denouncing French schools as cheerless places that ‘break’ children’s confidence, with predictable consequences. He talks to Oliver Rowland

PETER Gumbel’s book attacking French schooling has been called the “shock book of the rentrée” by Le Nouvel Observateur. It has made waves both in France and in the UK, where The Daily Telegraph headed a story: “Sit Down and Shut Up: That’s the French Way.”

It is causing quite a stir

The reaction has been dramatic. The book has been flying off the shelves and I’ve been getting a lot of feedback, including from teachers, who have mainly been supportive. I am not blaming them. There is a variety of big issues with the system. I have also had quite a few parents saying “Thank God someone has laid this problem out.” The issue was out there, but no one had really nailed it before.

Some teachers approved, even though you say many do not help children and make them feel worthless?

The findings I give about what kids say about teachers come from international comparative studies, which show French kids are often very negative about the teaching. Teachers hardly have any training apart from in subject matter, so they are up to speed on that but have no idea what to do when they set foot in a classroom and are not familiar with the latest methods. They have no instruction about how to handle classes, so many fall back on the sort of things they experienced as children, though there are some very good ones who try to be more uplifting and encouraging. Like anywhere, there are some great teachers and some lousy ones. However there are certain torture instruments in the French education system, used to put the pupils down. One is the marking system, which almost never congratulates anyone for doing well but always marks them down for the slightest error. It is used as a blunt instrument to bang the kids over the head with.

Secondly, the approach to dealing with pupils who are struggling is to ignore them. Teachers are assessed not on how well their class does, but on whether they make it to the end of the programme set by bureaucrats in Paris by the end of the year, even if they leave three quarters of the children behind. Finally, if kids struggle, they just hold them back a year. At least three times as many pupils are involved than the average for other European countries and statistics show that more than half redo a year. We know from international and French studies that this is counterproductive. It stigmatises the children and removes them from their peers.

How long have you been here?

Eight years, the second time. I was a Wall Street Journal correspondent here in the 1990s and liked it so much that, after being sent to America when I had children, I decided to settle in Paris. One reason was that, at the time, I thought French education was marvellous.

Was it your children’s experiences that made you change your mind?

I must be careful here: they are at a good school with mostly very nice teachers. But at the beginning there is a culture shock coming from Los Angeles, where school is an uplifting and nurturing experience, to Paris and discovering school is not a fun place in France. There is deliberately no fun: school is about the transmission of knowledge. I’ve been asking people if they had fun at school and they look at you as though you were mad. In England, people may say their school years were the best of their life; I have never heard anyone say that in France. People have said I have blown open this taboo about happiness at school.

You say French children live in fear of getting bad marks even if they are quite able

There’s one very revealing study I quote of kids from 45 countries who were tested on reading. The French children read reasonably well, but when they were asked to evaluate their own ability, they placed themselves 42nd out of 45. It shows they have the ability, but not the self-confidence. They’ve had it beaten out of them because the marking and teaching is all about what you got wrong.

What is wrong with the marking system?

It is never clear what the marks mean. If you get a 12, from one teacher that could be good and from another bad. Secondly, in anything that is not strictly about right or wrong, where the teacher has an element of judgment, nobody ever gives a 20. Even 19 or 18 are taboo. It’s as if a British teacher was to think you must never give an A. The idea is you can always do better and there is a reluctance to tell even the brightest kids “that was great, well done”. On the other hand, it is easy to get zero and even minus grades, for example in certain dictation exercises where a mark is deducted for each error. The system is geared towards telling kids fundamentally they are not good.

You also say pupils are afraid to express opinions and take risks

There is a national maths test, the Kangaroo Contest, which is meant to be fun, but it works like this: if you get the answer right you get a point, if you put nothing you get zero, and if you get it wrong you get -1. So there is an incentive, if you are not sure, not to answer. Kids are not allowed to try. They are punished for getting anything wrong and this conditions them to keep their mouths shut. I see this in my teaching at Sciences Po: these are very bright kids who have worked very hard to get there, and to get them to open their mouths is a major undertaking. They’ve had it beaten out of them every time they open their mouths and it might be slightly wrong.

I understand there is often an idea that there is one right way to do everything, for example in maths for working out methods

Yes, if Einstein had been French, he would have been failed for not using the method the teacher used, but a quicker one. You have this authority figure, the teacher, who fills the children’s empty heads with the ultimate wisdom they’ve been handed down. Creativity, innovation, exploration, curiosity and fun are a no-no.

The UK is sometimes criticised for the opposite reasons: a lot of self-expression, but not enough facts

One great strength of the French system is that there is a national curriculum that sets high standards. There is a core curriculum of maths, a foreign language, science, French, history and geography and philosophy that all kids do. Compared to the UK, where you can do pretty much anything at A-level and can give up anything difficult early, that is an advantage. The problem is that they’ve not figured out how to teach so enough pupils get to that standard. There is selection by failure. You lose a large number of kids along the way and there is no incentive for teachers to help them along.
Another plus about France is there is not this ridiculous disparity between rich people spending huge amounts for private schools and everyone else putting up with bad state-run ones. It's more egalitarian and the state system can be excellent. However, it chronically falls down in that too many children leave school having had the confidence knocked out of them.

You say things went wrong from the 1950s when European countries generalised secondary education

France went from about five per cent taking the Bac’ in 1950 to 70 per cent in 1985 and didn’t change methods. Even for the five per cent, I would argue the tough methods don’t necessarily bring out the best, but it certainly doesn’t work for 70 per cent. If you look at OECD studies comparing France to other countries, you see there is an unusually small elite who get good qualifications and more people than usual who do badly. Also, for those in the middle there is no incentive to excel, because no one will say “well done” even if you do do well, so they just muddle through. That’s why French education is stuck in a rut.

In particular children with special needs are not well catered for, you say

Yes, I have a section in the book on attention deficiency, but I could have talked about other problems, such as dyslexia. French schools have not figured out how to personalise and individualise teaching for anybody, let alone for children with special needs. So they suffer the most and can have a horrific time at school.

There are many famous creative French people: how so, if originality and confidence is knocked out of people at school?

At the top end, there is the elite, which can be brilliant; for example, France has a renowned maths elite. However if you look at art or sport or music, it’s nearly all extra-curricular. There’s only a tiny bit at school and it makes no difference. If you are bad at maths and French and great at painting, you will fail. It’s all academic and top-heavy. It's about brainpower. Of course though there are creative people who are either part of the elite or have managed to get over a messed up schooling and get on with their lives, but a lot of people don’t.

There have been some educational reforms recently. Are they are making a difference?

There have been 29 education ministers in the past 52 years and there is no continuity. A minister comes in and reverses the policy of his predecessor, then moves on, and it is not seen as an important job. In the past 15 years, there has been stagnation and the number of kids leaving with no diploma has hovered at about 16 per cent. The scores on international surveys of 15-year-olds have been going down and children leaving primary school are having bigger and bigger trouble with basic reading, writing and arithmetic. The problem with recent reforms is they have been mainly aimed at saving money and making cuts, rather than making education work. Sarkozy has pussyfooted around and done nothing remotely radical. The heart of the problem is better teacher training and making a huge effort to change this nefarious culture and getting rid of these blunt torture instruments. We need to come to a national consensus about what school should be, what it is for.

If you could have put your children through British or French state education, which would you choose?

I think neither is great. If you send them to a French one, you must massively compensate for the lack of support and fun; in England, you have to compensate for what they are not getting in terms of the educational breadth and what is not being put into their heads.

The ideal would be a combination of French academic rigour and transmission of knowledge with a British positive attitude and the idea that the whole personality needs bringing out, that the child is not just a brain on legs.

They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They? (in French On Achève Bien Les Ecoliers) is published by Grasset at €8.55 (at present only in French, though an English version is planned).

THE RESPONSE: ‘No, our classes can be interactive and friendly’

“SCHOOL in France does need reform, but it is not the catastrophe that Mr Gumbel presents,” said Guillaume Delmas, national secretary of leading secondary school union Snes.

He said Gumbel raised some valid points, but risked falling into caricature. The French system has core strengths, Mr Delmas added. Key is the fact that secondary school teachers (apart from temporary staff) always have a batchelor’s degree in their subject and under new reforms will need a master’s. In many European schools, teachers teach several subjects and do not have such expertise.

He said the range of Bac’ types created in recent years makes the system very democratic. “The technological ones, which have a high success rate, allow for many young people who do not want to focus on traditional academic studies to get a recognised diploma and to go on to do higher studies such as BTSs, which are short and make them very employable.

“Another aspect of French schooling to which we are very attached is the way it helps to reduce social divides.

“One way this is done is the ZEPs [zones d'éducation prioritaire] where there is a high proportion of students in difficulty and from disadvantaged backgrounds. These get more money, so there are smaller classes and more innovative teaching methods.”

He said international tests comparing children’s levels, such as some quoted in Gumbel’s book, often test ability by a simple box-ticking approach. “Contrary to Mr Gumbel’s view that French children are not asked to express opinions, our system stresses critical analysis and comprehension, the classic example being the traditional French dissertation. I’m not saying that this is always very exciting and we should do it constantly, but it tests children’s ability to use their knowledge in their understanding of the world.”

Mr Delmas added: “There is real ambition in terms of the content of the curriculum in France, which goes beyond the mere transmission of a common core. As for children enjoying school, I personally would say it is important they feel their experience is meaningful and they feel recognised and valued.

“I feel this may vary depending on the school and the age of the teacher. There may be some that are quite elitist and traditional in their approach; however, I have had my whole career in ZEP schools and, if you asked my pupils, I don’t feel there is a solemn silence in my classrooms where my voice resonates in this cathedral of knowledge where little monks absorb my words.

“It is interactive, they express themselves as much as I do and relationships are built. I also feel that it is important to develop school spirit, so the pupils feel a part of the life of the school.”

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