Get with the programme

Recently I was fortunate enough to be party to an explanation of the additional support that is now provided to children with “additional needs” at my daughters’ school. The work done by a few dedicated individuals in this area was impressive and it enables, amongst other things, dyslexic children to be given texts that are adapted to the specific difficulties that they encounter.

Whilst I am full of admiration for the people concerned, I was surprised to discover that such adaptability did not come as standard. There are many schools in France where no provision whatsoever is made for children with additional needs. If your child is dyslexic and struggles to read a text they have been given in one of those schools, well, bof, I suppose.

On reflection I don’t know why I should have found this so surprising. The French education system is nothing if not cadré, and at its heart is a profound mistrust of different treatment of any sort.

Take new arrivals from abroad, for example. We have friends who recently arrived in Lyon from Australia. Having decided to send their daughter to a local school, the family learned with some anxiety that she would not simply be welcomed into the bosom of the nearest collège but would have to take an aptitude test first. The test subsequently determined that this bright girl would not be integrated into her correct school year (the cinquième, or second year of secondary school) because she had not covered all the aspects of the (idiosyncratic) French curriculum up to that point, and was therefore deemed incapable.

Worse still, the fact that this child had only limited French meant that she would not be sent to the local school, but instead to a school further away, where all the non-French misfits from the area would be lumped together into a single class. No assessment appeared to have been made of her ability to pick up the curriculum in the cinquième. Mais non, this decision rested entirely on her defective bank of knowledge of an arbitrarily-determined set of facts. Her lack of French curriculum was a killer defect.

The process used to place this poor child in school was similar in nature to the process currently used within the European Union to determine whether pommes meet the precisely-defined shape, size and colour criteria that enable them to be officially classified as pommes, as opposed to, well, non-pommes. In this case the child was deemed to be a non-pomme, and consequently she was put in a non-pomme box. It didn’t matter how tasty, how organic or how appetising the non-pomme was, the system had no option but to reject it.

I give the example of a rejected ex-pat, but in its essence the system is no different for French children. Each year, the Government requires that they cover a certain, highly-specified programme at school. In CP (the class for six- and seven-year-olds), for example, the Government determines that children learn to read. Woe betide them if they already know how to read: their parents will be rebuked in the firmest of terms; and it is entirely possible that they will have to sit through an utterly tedious year of learning how to do something that they have already mastered. It is, of course, hors question that they might be given a more advanced book to read quietly at the back. The rules say that they will learn to read in a certain way and learn to read in that way they will. (The heavily disguised ability groups – lions, tigers and elephants – of English primary classrooms would doubtless give the French Government palpitations.)

What happens, then, if your child, for whatever reason, does not meet the requirements set out by the programme by the end of the school year? C’est simple, your child must redouble. They will be taken out of their age-group and plonked with children a year younger than them to re-do all the things they have just spent an entire year of their short lives doing. Why change what you are saying when you can simply say it again, more loudly? That’ll learn ‘em… The opposite is also true. If you have unwisely taught your child to read before the allotted time, they might find themselves jammed in a higher class, in amongst children who could be nearly two full years older than them. I’m not sure which fate does more damage to a child’s emotional and social development in the long term.

Setting aside my Anglo-Saxon puzzlement, it is worth noting that the French education system is in fact nothing more than a logical manifestation of the second of the three values of the French Republic (liberté, égalité et fraternité, in case anyone should have forgotten).

Given that one cannot hope to ensure the égalité of children on their first day of school (the pesky parents ensure, irritatingly, that children arrive in all shapes and sizes), the school system has no choice but to generate égalité by whatever means it can. Having discovered that, to its immense chagrin, even with a rigid curriculum fiercely drummed in, it cannot ever achieve absolute égalité amongst its pupils, it settles for uniformity instead. School-leavers may go on to have a variety of different life-outcomes but mon Dieu, the least that the school can do is to ensure that they embark upon their journeys towards those outcomes with precisely the same amount of knowledge on precisely the same subjects crammed into their heads.


Which, for my conformist daughters at least, rather begs the question: if égalité is so important, why on earth do they not all have the same pretty school uniform to wear? Ah, my dears, but that is where liberté comes in…

Have you seen better days?

Our cellar is becoming very French. Perhaps you think that by this I am referring to the dusty bottles of wine ageing deliciously in one corner: this is, after all, what I would have assumed in a former life. Sadly, though, the corner that I am thinking of is occupied by a mass of ugly plastic boxes, all labelled severally with marker pen. It is our second hand corner, and it is expanding at an exponential rate.


Perhaps you think it a little odd that I equate this nation of chic dressers and well-appointed, yet spartan homes with all things second hand. After all, whereas any UK high street will boast at least four charity shops, in France I have not seen a single one (presumably there was no space left once they had built the boulangerie, the patisserie, the fromagerie, the boucherie, the three coiffeurs and the pharmacie…). However, although it may be a little short on emporia trying to sell you someone else’s chipped china, and although vintage might not quite be the look that the willowy army of Breton-striped females may be aiming for, take my word for it, France is the world-leader in hand-me-downs.

The French obsession with the pre-loved is imperceptible to the newcomer. When we first arrived, for example, I was frankly intimidated by the children I encountered outside my daughters’ school. They turned up in beautifully-ironed, perfectly-fitting skinny jeans each morning, replete with tiny blue loafers for boys and knee-high boots for girls. At the end of the day my own children would appear, their discordantly colourful and mis-matched combinations of ill-fitting clothes looking wildly dishevelled, as if they had just completed some sort of assault course whilst trying to eat a yoghurt upside down. The little French children, on the other hand, would emerge precisely as they had gone in: immaculately. It was baffling and we eventually concluded that such a sophisticated looking could only be produced with a liberal, perhaps weekly, application of one’s credit card in Petit Bateau.

We began to realise our naivety two months into our stay, when a bourse aux vêtements (second-hand clothing sale) was advertised at the school. Still firmly attached to my Anglo-Saxon notions of “doing my bit”, I duly trundled down into the cellar where I rummaged through a box languishing unwanted in the depths, which yielded a heap of unpromising looking cast-offs. Mission accomplished, or so I thought, I rang the number listed on the advert to say that I had some clothes to donate. In return I was provided with a kit, which I promptly deposited somewhere in the kitchen whilst I got on with making my way through our stocks of dusty red wine.

Upon finally opening my kit the night before my donation was due I was dismayed to discover an elaborate system of documentation within. Each item, it seemed, had to be individually numbered, described and priced on a list. The information on the list then had to be replicated on a series of labels, of which there was one for each item. These labels then had to be attached to individual items using the plastic tags that were also provided, and the whole caboodle tidied away into a sac marqué avec votre nom.

The process of labelling, duplicating, attaching, folding and stowing took me a good three hours, throughout which I muttered and sometimes shouted obscenities about the absurdity of the French attachment to paperwork and the ridiculous over-complication of simple acts of benevolence.

Somewhere in amongst the many forms that I had filled out I had ticked a box that indicated that all my unsold items should be given to charity. Certaine ? I was asked when I handed this in. Well, obviously! I thought darkly to myself. Why on earth would I go to all that effort to divest myself of our unwanted hand-me-downs only to see them returned to me? After all, was that not what charity was for?

In fact, the bourse turned out to be a wholly shaming experience. When I turned up to peruse the fringues on offer, I discovered our several scruffy items lurking disgracefully unwanted in amongst row upon well-ordered row of those beautiful garments that I had remarked upon so enviously at the school gate. I picked some of these tasteful items up, disbelieving, but could find not a crease or a mark upon them: no sign at all, in fact, that these were second-hand clothes, except for the giveaway homemade labels. It was like being in a particularly sophisticated clothes shop, except that the customers were more frenzied than normal.

More astonishing still was the fact that, after the sale had finally finished (three entire days later), I was handed an envelope containing some small change. Qu’est-ce que c’est? I asked in bewilderment. Tes sous, came the response. I nodded politely and walked off. It was only when I again perused the paperwork in the comfort of my own home that I realised that, unlike the jumble sales I was used to in the UK, where the entirety of the meagre takings went to the organising institution, in this clothes sale, most of the proceeds went to the vendors, with the school taking just a small percentage of each transaction. In my case, I had made the princely sum of 8€ (some charity must have had a bonanza with my unsold items), but I later found out that some people with presumably cleaner, better-heeled children had taken home envelopes containing upwards of 100€ each.

No wonder people wanted their unsold items back. This was no sad collection of car boot unwanteds, but a veritable clothes emporium; an enterprise that was profitable for the customer, who spent less, the vendor, who earned more, and the school, which was able to purchase some new gym mats.

And thus I was shamed into conversion and our cellar was transformed. Gone are the mounds of stained, misshapen rags tossed impatiently into empty boxes awaiting transport to the tip or to the clothes bank. In their place is a bank of neatly-ranged plastic boxes, labelled by age, containing modest piles of clean, pressed, neatly folded items ready for sale. Now all I have to do to become fully French is to teach my children not to tip their lunch over their heads so that I, too, can begin to make my millions from their cast-offs.


Useful vocabulary for the dedicated second-hander:

Brocante – bric-a-brac: can be used to describe a shop, or a sort of car-boot affair

Vide grenier – literally, empty attic: basically a car-boot sale

Puces – flea market, but also used to describe large-scale retailers of antique furniture

Bourse aux vêtements – a second-hand clothing sale

Fringues – clothes, threads