We quite often get asked about French schools and how schools in France compare with those elsewhere. Although I’ve written a general guide elsewhere on the site (see French schools) a few recent conversations with teachers have given us new food for thought. This has included teachers with experience of schools in both the UK and in France.
Now, we’ve been out of the UK for a few years so have no personal experience of how it has changed during that time. But we talk to a lot of people who stay here, often teachers, so have a reasonable understanding of what has been going on.
The main thing that has changed in the UK of course is cash. The government have spent very large amounts of money, on teachers’ pay, school buildings and school equipment. Unfortunately I understand they have failed to implement performance related pay properly, so now all teachers get well paid instead of poorly paid. The challenge was (and is still) to pay good teachers well, and reduce the number of poor teachers. Teachers tell me this has not been a rip-roaring success and that more or less all teachers simply get the ‘high performance bonus’ as a matter of course.
UK teachers are still not a happy bunch, despite the money that has been thrown at them. Not, I hasten to add, through any fault of their own – the teachers we have spoken to all gave the impresion of being intelligent, caring people doing their best in the face of bureaucracy, and increasing classroom disruption due to lack of parental discipline.
Schools in the UK are very well equipped compared with French schools.Teachers don’t need to write on blackboards (or whiteboards) any more – a brilliant idea, because it means that notes don’t need to be re-written for each class, since they can be recalled on the computer and projected onto a screen. Hence saving lots of time. This innovation has apparently not reached France.
The other innovation in the UK is headteachers handling their own school budgets. In France the headteacher has no particular responsibilities over and above those of a ‘normal’ teacher. In France, teaching appointments are allocated centrally, and the school has little or no say in who is appointed.
So education in the French classroom would appear to be quite backward compared to the UK. But there is a little more to it than that. In the UK it seems that it is now essentially impossible to fail to get qualifications. By a series of manouverings and re-adjustments a pupil having difficulties in one subject will be transferred to another course or subject, anything necessary to ensure that the pass rates are maintained and improved each year.
But qualifications are only worth having if they mean something. I frequently get emails offering me a degree certificate online, for a small payment. Not all qualifications are worth having however.
The view as related to me is that despite al the whizzy equipment, the level and quality of schoolwork in the UK is significantly lower than in France, and lacks substance. So perhaps as one might have guessed the French approach – blackboards, well-behaved children, and focus on giving children a solid educational foundation, would seem to work better than having lots of snazzy gadgets.
A good test you can perform if you like – I believe that all children in the UK are now taught a second language from a young age, typically French. If you have a child that has been learning French for a year or two ask them to translate a couple of sentences – nothing complicated, perhaps, ‘Hello, my name is John. I am 12 years old and live in England’. From children I have met, few can manage, even after a year or even two of instruction.
I guarantee that if you ask a French child in the same position to do the same but translating into English 90% will be able to, and a lot more besides.
Now, I’m not trying to be too down on the UK education system – it needed investment and has got it. But I get the impression that the French ‘old-fashioned’ system still wins hands-down. And to answer the question I actually usually get asked – no, I would not be at all concerned about having children pass through the French education system (as ours do), and yes I do think they will be better educated than children in the UK (at least pre-university where the story might be different).
It has been suggested that the French system fails children at the extremes of the spectrum – the gifted and those who learn more slowly than the average. Unfortunately I can’t comment on that idea, although the rigid adherence to a ‘national timetable’ for all children makes it quite possible.
One last, and fascinating, comment. It was suggested to me that in the UK the teachers will tell parents what they want to hear, but in France they will tell them what they need to hear. How true is that I wonder?