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Last update on January 07, 2020

She might shoot you! An expat writes on education in France, and French schools in France, being tough, challenging, and oddly respectful.

French education, as with many things in France, is somewhat of an enigma. In many ways it is far more rigid than the educational system in other parts of the world, and in others it’s more lax. But many in France think that their educational system emphasises academic performance at all cost, sticking to rigid national curricula even  at the expense of children’s health.

They shoot school kids in France, don’t they?

In his new book On achève bien les écoliers (They Shoot Schoolkids, Don’t They?) published by Grasset, Peter Gumbel, a British lecturer at the Institute of Political Science in a leading Paris university, states that the French educational system emphasises academic performance above all else, including the health of children.

According to Grumbel, studies by WHO (World Health Organisation) in France show more than 60 percent of schoolchildren suffer anxiety, 40 percent suffer long term insomnia, and more than 20 percent suffer from a head or stomach ache at least once a week.

In the book, which is cooking up a real storm in France, Grumbel lays the cause of the symptoms firmly at the door of an educational system that labels children based upon what they can’t do rather than what they can.

Rigidity can benefit some

I can’t say my experience of the French educational system entirely supports Grumbel’s ideas. One English child I know who, although highly intelligent, suffers from psychological issues really bloomed when he transferred to the French system. He found reassurance through the rigid structure.

Comparison with British schools

British Schools are viewed much more favourably by Professor Grumbel who revealed in an interview with the Observer newspaper.

“There is more to school than getting good marks, and in Britain schools are not just a about your brain but about sport and arts and finding lots of different ways of excelling. The British system may focus less on results, but it nurtures self-esteem, personality and character, which is something totally missing from the French system and this is tragic.”

As a children’s writer I visit many schools around Britain, and here I have to agree with Grumbel: There is a distinct move away from national curricula towards individual schools actually educating children based up the expertise of their teachers.

Creative English

There is certainly a lot of creativity around in English schools. Recently I did a workshop with youngsters in Lancashire and some of their ideas for stories were breathtaking, from gruesome murders to visitors from space living in deep holes in the garden. I’m sure French children are just as creative when given half the chance.

Fierce or not so fierce maitress’s

The relationship between children and teachers is very different in France to that in the UK, and altogether more endearing.

Where we used to live near Brioux sur Boutonne, close to the Deux Sevres/Charente border, we had a neighbour who was a teacher or maitress at a local secondary school. To us adults she appeared very fierce. In truth she scared me a lot.

But all the local children treated her as if she was their second mother! If they met her in the street instead of crossing the road to avoid her, like I would have done, they would walk up to her and given a kiss or two or three. My brother is a teacher and I can’t imagine him kissing any of his pupils. He would probably be in jail if he did.

Fluent in English

But in one really obvious way the French system does work, learning the English language. If you ever spend much time in France it will be quite apparent that everyone under 30 really does speak very good English, and many teenagers are fluent.

In a country renowned for its preservation of its mother tongue or langue maternelle at all costs, just how is this so? Are the French just better linguists than the Brits? Do they have a natural aptitude for languages? I don’t think so.

In French schools the English language is taught far differently than foreign languages in British ones. I remember endless hours of learning French verbs, but I didn’t really pick them up until I moved to France and spoke French every day. In French schools, in an English lesson only English is spoken. This provides a complete immersion in the language and allows you to learn it better.

Winners and losers

As I tour British schools I can see children that would really benefit from the solid rigidity of the French system, and I know French children who would really enjoy a creative writing session and create their own little masterpieces.

As in life, there are always winners and losers. But I can safely say I never kissed my teacher. On my first ever day at school I bit the teacher’s hand! But she says she’s forgiven me.