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Restoring French Class

It's a clammy Indian summer again, but the signs of autumn are here. The leaves are turning, the garden yells at me and darkness sets in earlier in the evening and clings on later in the morning as I write. In an hour the kids have to be brought to school. What a great moment in a busy day that is.

Shoes on, bags slung, breakfast belched, hair combed, teeth brushed, eyes owl-like, then down the stairs in a clatter, through the courtyard, across the road into a flow of parents, round to the old school house nestling unnoticed in central Paris, and kisses before the boys and girls disappear through the old "Ecole des Filles" entrance.

That is an old wooden sign, of course, harking back to a day when girls were girls, and the French teachers were masters like no other at turning cohorts of mômes into talent. They are not so sure of themselves now though. Could this be the autumn of l'Education nationale?

Primary school children seem to be under far more pressure to perform here than I remember, and more than in Ireland, I am told. Competi-tion rather than learning seems to be the culture. Parents stress out, kept at bay by an iron curtain of teachers who know best. One of my kids when he was just four lay awake at night because his teacher had screamed at him for being unable to draw a cat! Another, having done a bit of homework this summer (at last!), was accused of cheating by the maître be-cause she knew the answer to a question. Development must follow the rhythm of the class, not of the child, we are told. Such dirigisme may suit building bridges, but education?

If teachers were leading France to the top of the pile, I'd understand. In fact, the French do lead international tables on education, but for the wrong reasons. They lead the field when it comes to repeating a year at school, for instance: a whopping 38% of kids aged 15 have already repeated, says an OECD report, compared with 14% in Ireland, which is about average. The report says that though teachers see repeating as a good way of getting children to improve, repeat students are no more likely to do well than non-repeating classmates.

The revelation made a splash here. The trouble is, this is just primary school. Secondary schools are the real pressure cookers, but yield very average graduation rates (far behind Ireland, which is sixth among OECD countries!). And once-great universities are overcrowded and antiquated, with unimpressive academia and high drop-out rates. Even the renowned "superior" engineering schools flop on international league tables.

Education is bound to be a presidential election issue in 2007. Why so many drop-outs? Why is youth unemployment and delinquency so high and why do our young graduates leave France to snatch good jobs abroad, as 20,000 have done in Dublin, for example?

The story is not all bad. I have great memories of graduate studies at the Sorbonne; I found the intellectual freedom inspiring, and as a foreigner was embraced by the French. As an expat, I am also happy that our kids go to a French school, rather than to some weird bilingual hybrid.

Also, there are hopeful signs. Seven of the top ten management schools in Europe are French, says the Financial Times (11 Septem-ber). And a recent report showed that a third of all mathematicians on Wall Street - so-called Quants - are French. Surely, a country that produces the Airbus 380 and launches satellites must be doing something right. Nor is education just about jobs: my kids learned more about art and opera in elementary school than I have in 40 years.

But in general, French education is in the doldrums, as is public confidence. I am not sure whether any of the presidential candidates offer hope, with arguments about choice of school being a red herring. What France really needs is to relaunch its identity and let its great mix of people rule. French schools no doubt brim with talent, with Zidanes in every classroom, as well as Doyles and Dubois. The teachers of the 60s must lift their dirigiste dead-hand and follow the kids for a change. And they should update that sign on the school door too.

RJ Doyle; originally published in Irish Eyes, No 97 autumn 2004

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