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…

4 thoughts on “Get with the programme

  1. The French school system is something that can be argued over for ever really, there are so many negatives and it couldn’t be further from the liberal “progressive” education I had, but we live here and have to deal with it, so I try and focus on the positives…(hmmm, are there any?) I count my lucky stars that my 2 kids are bright easy boys with no unusual or different needs and as they only know the French system, they’re happy with school. But I also made sure when we moved to where we are now the we lived in the catchment area of a high school with international section doing the OIB as this makes a huge difference. My son has British/Canadian/US and Irish teachers and extra-curricular activities, it’s helped a lot with motivation.

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