You must be mistaken

This year our eldest daughter entered CM1, which is equivalent to Year 5 in the UK or 4th grade in the US. Mention this to a French parent with children of similar ages and they might puff out their cheeks whilst simultaneously shaking one of their wrists (Marcel Marceau for “that’s a toughie”). Local mythologies about the difficulty of the curriculum in different year groups aside, there have been moments since the start of term when I, too, have been tempted to puff out my cheeks (I have been too British to succumb, I hasten to add).

So far, you see, CM1 has proved somewhat dispiriting. In most French primary schools, pupils are classified, sometimes on a daily basis, according to a four-tier marking scheme: their work might be deemed très bien, bien, assez bien, or à revoir. The prominence of the word bien on this scale is a major concession to the relatively novel concept of encouraging children in their endeavours. This concession is further underlined by the fact that, until the end of the previous school year—CE1—pupils can make two mistakes and still be très bien, or five and still be bien.

In CM1 no such softness is tolerated, with enseignants adopting the one-strike-and-you’re-out policy for which the French secondary system is so notorious. Given that in this country a misjudged curl on the letter “g” can constitute a mistake, pupils who may regularly have been bien in CE1 can very swiftly be demoted out of the biens altogether into a zone where everything needs looking at again.

After her first encounter with a ruthless marking scheme that took her two errors out of 15 total answers and turned them into an assez bien, our daughter expressed some mild frustration. “If that’s meant to encourage me to do better, it hasn’t,” she said, “they changed the rules. It makes me feel like a baby again”.

Our daughter was articulating what it feels like to be subjected to the enforced infantilisation of a school system that micromanages the cursive of it students. At no point is a French pupil permitted to feel that they have perfected something, because no sooner do they scramble to the top of the mountain then, oup-la, it transpires that they weren’t even on the right mountain in the first place. The system seems hell-bent on proving that it can’t be bested by anyone: if anyone succeeds, it just changes its definition of success.

It is not just at school that French people are infantilised in this way. A week or so ago I was fortunate enough to start playing in a fantastic amateur orchestra in Lyon. As is required by law (in the name of democracy the law requires many strange things of the children of the République), I sat through the AGM when it took place during the first rehearsal. I find these meetings a bit tedious so I let the budget and accounts wash over me. That was until, about halfway through, my attention was caught by one of the organisers reading out to us from a document which sounded suspiciously like the code of conduct to which our children sign up in class each year (je respecte la maîtresse…). It was written entirely in the first person and contained phrases such as “I will turn up on time to rehearsals” and “I will bring my music stand with me”.

How patronising! I looked around, hoping to catch someone’s eye and snigger. How old did these people think we were? Quatre ans ? Surely they could not think that any of us, particularly the ex-professionals in our midst, would be in any doubt about the importance of punctuality or being well-equipped? Would they be instructing us on the importance of hand-washing after visits to the toilettes next? My swivelling head met with blank looks. The French contingent was taking it seriously, or was at the very least, unmoved.

I should not have been at all surprised. You see, French citizens have been schooled in being talked down to from the moment that they came into being. French life is not set up to make you feel like an adult, even when you are one. This is a country where you can receive a dressing down in the boulangerie, for goodness sake; or where the République will decide to vary the speed limit every 500m over a distance of 10km just for the sheer pleasure of catching you out and then sending you a ten-page dossier explaining that you need to pay a fine.


It’s a gloomy realisation, but we may all just have to acclimatise ourselves to being no more than assez bien for the rest of our days.


This week I am linking up to the Mama’s Losin’ It writers’ workshop, prompted by the word “mistake”.




26 thoughts on “You must be mistaken

  1. This is so true! Only my non-French professors ever gave me a score higher than a 16 out of 20 (which, in America, anything below that is a C…) even when everything was done correctly. (Luckily I had enough non-French teachers to still get a high-ish total).

    Also, as an American, I am used to relative freedom in the workplace. I can (respectfully of course) say pretty much whatever I want to my boss or coworkers (even, “I don’t think this is the best idea, maybe this is a better one”), and I will be listened to, even if my advice or idea is not heeded (in fact, if don’t do this in America, good luck getting a promotion!). There is a work hierarchy in the States, but a lax one. Here, if you have a problem with a coworker, you can’t say anything directly to them. No, you talk to you boss and it is their job to talk to the coworker on your behalf. Good luck talking to the boss above your boss, or your human resource manager…once again, that’s your immediate boss’s job.

    Sigh. It’s frustrating.

    1. Good point on the hierarchy. My kid was bullied (I was told by other parents whose kids had been upset by just how bad it had gotten). I spoke to the teacher, who said it was my kid’s fault for being shy and not speaking up. The teacher said his policy was that the kids should resolve problems on their own. That sounds nice, except that it’s a license for the bully to get away with anything.
      I went to the principal. This just made matters worse. While the principal didn’t agree with the teacher’s laissez-faire attitude, the teacher retaliated against my kid (suddenly every little thing, even the curl on a g, was wrong), and actually yelled at me for going over his head.
      It was pure hell.

      1. Oh my goodness: that sounds awful! We have been very lucky in the schools and teachers we have encountered and butt up against the system only, but I can see how this could happen. Everyone beats on everyone else all the way down the hierarchy and the poor person at the bottom gets hit on most.

    2. Dawn, you are quite right! I wanted to write about workplaces but decided that there was no space. But yes. Moving from an English-speaking workplace to a French environment is a shock to the system: complete autonomy to being someone’s acolyte. At least it is not just me…

      1. Nope, it’s not just you, and it’s completely frustrating! Also, its funny how French people who haven’t lived/travelled outside of France don’t question or even really notice this…

  2. It makes me feel sad for the kids who probably grow up thinking they’re never good enough, when really all learning styles don’t fit into the same neat little box. ;-(

    1. Yes, I feel sad about it, too. Of course a great deal depends on the way that the teacher interprets their role. Some of them work around the system more than others, and, despite the shock change in policy in CM1, our kids have always been fortunate to meet with good teachers. Thank you for stopping by.

  3. My Australian born, native-English-speaking daughter regularly received 16 out of 20 for her English work in collège and a friend’s son received a single word summation on a piece of his work. ‘Catastrophe’ did very little to boost his confidence! I am a language teacher myself with many years of experience behind me including in the school hierarchy. Nonetheless, I was not awarded the same professional courtesy that I would have applied when I went to a parent-teacher interview with my daughter’s Italian teacher. Even though there was another teacher in the room, she did not hold back yelling her disagreement at me. But, as I have said on many different blogs before, there are always ways to deal with these strange practices. With the exception of the encounter that I’ve just described, the response to me from the French teaching staff reflected the way I approached each meeting. If I was polite, friendly and had suggestions to offer, they were usually answered in kind. For my children, I had to show that I supported them and fortunately they had had different educational experiences in Australia before France, so things could be ‘relativised’.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You are quite right that your own approach can disarm and diffuse. In our case, our contact with people has always been positive. The marking scheme, and the systemic approach, are other matters…

    1. Yes, in the UK kids have too many national tests, too. In France testing is a daily thing and in many schools kids are ranked in order of achievement… Thank you for stopping by.

  4. I came to France from England and I put 3 kids through French public sector schools. I don’t really recognise what you are writing here as being a generalised truth and although I have met some rigidity on behalf of staff, you paint a very black picture. You seem certainly to have adopted that well-loved French habit: complaining about everything in a loud and ineffective sort of way. I am currently staying with French friends who moved to Birmingham from Lyon in July, they have 3 children, of whom 2 did not have a place in a state school until 1 week before the Autumn half-term. All three kids now have a place… in 3 different schools (!) between Selly Oak and central Birmingham, which means that the wife is so busy acting as a taxi, she is unable to find work.
    When I was a kid and I was wingeing too much, my Mum used to say “Quit moaning” Maybe you should try it, I’m sure that it would fit you very well!
    Alexander Watson

    1. Thanks Alexander. It is certainly true that I pick up on the negative aspects, although I try to do so with humour, and not too loudly. If I failed on this occasion, it is good to know. As for being ineffectual, well, as the propose is to provoke people to think, I’ve clearly succeeded with you.
      Two points need clearing up. I debated putting in a disclaimer pointing out that we are very happy with the kids’ school, and the one they attended previously. It is the nationalised system for marking which I think could be more constructive. I did not include the disclaimer because it seemed clumsy and unnecessary for such an obvious distinction. I may well reconsider following your comment.
      Secondly, yes, our eldest also fell victim to the shortage of state school places in the UK before we left. I feel very much for you in your situation. And yes, in your shoes we also found it frustrating when people moaned about schools having been given a place. I’m not sure, though, that a blank acceptance of the schooling system in any country is the answer. Just because there is a shortage of school places, doesn’t mean that the system within schools should be beyond reproach. They are two separate issues.
      I wish you all the best with getting a school space closer to home, and with missing France, and thank you for stopping by.

  5. Visiting from Mama Kat’s – I am having a hard enough time dealing with the backwards US education system – having two special needs children, my daughter is 3 1/2 and should be enrolled in the special needs preschool – but her health issues do not classify her as developmentally delayed – even though she is not yet toilet-trained due to her health issues – which then hamper any hope of attending a typical preschool…

    I suppose I just don’t understand accepting the “you-are-less-than” mindset…

    1. Hello Emily. That sounds really tricky, and dealing with kids with special needs in mainstream school is not something that France yet does very well, although it does have excellent provision outside the mainstream. Thank you for dropping by,

  6. How frustrating! Here in the states, my experience has been the opposite, it seems we lower the standards so much to get these kids to “succeed”. Believe me that method has a whole lot of things wrong with it too!

    1. Hi Kat. You’re quite right that lowering standards to get everyone through is no solution. I don’t mind the high standards so much as the negative way of measuring progress against them. It would be ok to say “this is what perfection looks like, and you are 60% of the way there”. It’s the “you are nowhere near good enough” even when you’ve made loads of progress that I take issue with. Interesting! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Your daughter’s right – and how astute of her – that when the rules change, it does make you feel that way and as if you should have known. Hardly motivating is it. Sigh. And assez bien. Sigh. Thanks for sharing with #PoCoLo – whatever happened to aiming high?

  8. This was an interesting read, always neat to learn about how other countries handle education. I am in Canada, and specifically in BC where our province has recently overhauled our curriculum and report card structure so lots of changes have/are coming. They are moving to doing less actual tests and simply assessing children’s performance in class with some formal assessments in certain grades, that are still not necessarily test based. They are moving from a model of children simply knowing information to them learning what to do with that information and have developed core competencies that children need to graduate.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tara. It’s a debate that is ongoing in the UK, too. I think that, there, they are very good at doing understanding rather than knowing, although all that good work is all too easily de-railed by frequent testing. Who knows what is best?

  9. Oh boy, it all sounds rather bleak. It’s tough enough to get children to be engaged at school but to constantly tell them they’re not good enough? It is very sad.
    Thanks for linking to #pocolo

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