I have just survived the most trying month of the year in France. September is not all balmy evenings and rosé wine...
I have just survived the most trying month of the year in France. September is not all balmy evenings and rosé wine. It is also the month of the rentrée as they call it here. It took me a while to understand the significance of this event. I thought at first it just meant you got rid of your children, but no, it brings with it a host of unpleasant tasks.
First there is the paperwork. There are countless forms to fill in. They want to know everything from my children’s most recent tetanus injection to their school insurance policy number. The forms go on for several pages. And then just when you think it’s safe to put your biro away, another one pops up. I have three children. In order to avoid doing anything but paperwork until the Christmas holidays I now fill in one form for Olivia, photocopy it twice, tipex out the original name and date of birth and add the details of the others. Simple. But it has taken me five years to come up with this cunning trick.
At the beginning of term I often wish I could photocopy myself. This is when we parents have to give up an entire day to sit through lectures on what our little darlings will be learning. Up and down the country parents are being subjected to the same ritual. Education in France, as you would expect, is centralised. So not only will our children all be learning the same thing at the same time, we will be told about that they’ll be learning simultaneously too.
I start off with my middle daughter Bea’s class. Her classroom looks like something out of a French film from the 1950s. All the furniture is wooden. The desks and chairs are miniature. Above the blackboard is a quote in black ink written in that lovely old-fashioned handwriting the French all have. This, by the way, is because they are taught to write in exactly the same manner. You start a letter at a certain point, and it finished at a certain point, there is no other option.
“Every human being has the right to differences and respect. To respect others is also to respect one self,” it reads.
Bea’s teacher, Mme Erhard, teaches a class of 12 children aged seven and 10 aged nine. The nine-year-olds act as “godparents” to the younger children. Bea’s “godparent” is a boy called William whose responsibility it is to read with her for five minutes every day, check her work, correct her homework and treat any injuries she might have accumulated during the day. Bea doesn’t think much of him “because he’s a boy”. I find it a rather charming system which teaches children responsibility and how to use a plaster.
I sit down at Bea’s desk. She sits next to her best friend Manon. So in theory my best friend Mary (Manon’s mother) should be next to me. But she has had the foresight to chuck a sicky. Half an hour into the lesson I can see why. Mme Erhard is lovely, but I don’t really need to know the exact details of what Bea is going to be learning in her maths sessions during the coming scholastic year. I put my handbag on the desk and hope she won’t notice if I paint my nails behind it. After another half an hour I’m wondering how I can manoeuvre my feet onto the desk without her noticing so I paint my toe-nails too.
I am only released after one hour and forty minutes because the class detailing my eldest daughter Olivia’s curriculum is about to start. Wearily I drag myself along to that. This is given by the new director of the school, a man I immediately like as the first thing he does is start banning things.
This is one of the reasons I am thrilled (despite finding the rentrée such a challenge) that our children are being educated here. There is still a discipline in French schools that I think is lacking in English ones, unless of course you can afford to pay about £25,000 a year. The school fees thing is a major factor. If you have more than one child and don’t live anywhere near a decent comprehensive (so that’s 99.9% of you) then forget whatever house prices might be doing, it’s worth moving here just to give your children an excellent and free education.
“No strappy tops, no tops that show your stomach, no flip-flops and no snacks apart from fruit,” the new director announces. I stop gazing at my newly painted nails. Is that just for the mothers I wonder?
Then he tells us about the letter he got from Nicolas Sarkozy at the beginning of term. He didn’t get one personally; rather he was one of 850,000 teachers who received the 5,000-word missive. In it Sarko outlines his vision for a “renaissance” in the education system.
“For many years,” Sarko writes, “education took no account of the child’s personality.” I would argue that this is still the case and that if you educate your children in France, this is one of the things you’re up against. In an age where the rest of the world relies on the Internet for knowledge, France is still using the old-fashioned method of learning by rote.
I have nothing against it. I find it enchanting that my children have to learn poetry that they then recite in class, but just don’t ask them what the poems mean or what they think about them. A friend of mine lives in Paris with her teenage sons. One of them recently offered an opinion on a text in class. “Who cares what you think?” was the teacher’s response.
I read Sarkozy’s letter. Although I applaud much of that he says, like instilling the right values in our children and learning languages through literature and poetry, it is more like a philosophical treatise than a mission statement. Right at the end he mentions “radical reform” but I can’t see any. His main message seems to be the same one above the blackboard in Bea’s classroom. “I want our children to learn politeness, open-mindedness and tolerance,” he writes.
Sarkozy is right to address the question of education in France. The primary school scene is all very idyllic, but as children get older, you need to be sure you’re close to a decent lycée if you want your child to succeed. That remote farmhouse in the Auvergne is all very well, but for your children’s sake you might be better off in Paris’s Latin Quarter, within easy reach of the Lycée Henri-IV.
I drag myself from Olivia’s class to my final appointment. I sit for an hour and listen to what Leo, aged four, will be learning over the coming months. Leo is very happy at school. Like most boys, he is in love with his teacher. And like all future French citizens he is well up on his knowledge of human rights. “I can’t marry my teacher,” he told me the other day. “She doesn’t have the right to have a husband. She’s a maîtresse.”