French schools are brilliant at instilling respect and discipline – but individuality is not on the curriculum
Liberté, égalité and similarité
I have just survived the most trying month of the year in France. September is not all balmy evenings and rosé wine, you know. It is also the month of what is known here as the rentrée – the time when life resumes after the long summer holidays. It took me a while to understand the significance of this event. I naively thought 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. Going on for several pages, they want to know everything from my children’s most recent tetanus injection to their school insurance-policy number. Then, just when you think it’s safe to put away your pen, another form pops up.
I have three children, so to avoid doing nothing but paperwork until the Christmas holidays, I now fill in one form for Olivia, my eight-year-old, photocopy it twice and Tipp-Ex out the name and date of birth, adding instead the details of her little brother and sister. It has taken me five years to come up with this cunning trick.
At the beginning of term, I wish I could photocopy myself, too. This is when we parents have to give up an entire day to sit through lectures on what our little darlings will learn during the year. Up and down the country, parents are subjected to the same ritual. Education in France, as you would expect, is centralised. So the children all learn the same thing at the same time; and their parents are told what they’ll be learning at the same time, too.
I start with my middle child, Bea. Her classroom looks like something out of a 1950s French film. 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 all taught to write in exactly the same manner. You start a letter at a certain point and finish it at a certain point. There is no other option.
“Every human being has the right to differences and respect,” the quote reads. “To respect others is also to respect oneself.” It doesn’t say who it is by, but, given the national obsession with liberté, égalité, fraternité, one can safely assume it was a Frenchman.
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 named William, who has the responsibility of reading with her for five minutes every day, checking her work, correcting her homework and treating any injuries accumulated during the day. Bea doesn’t think much of him, “because he’s a boy”. I find it a rather charming system that teaches children responsibility and how to use a plaster.
I sit 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 throw a sickie. Half an hour in, I can see why: Mme Erhard is lovely, but I don’t need to know the details of every maths lesson Bea will be attending over the year.
I put my handbag on the desk and hope she won’t notice if I paint my nails behind it. After another half-hour, I’m wondering how I can manoeuvre my feet onto the desk without her noticing, so I can paint my toenails, too.
I am only released after one hour and 40 minutes because the class detailing Olivia’s curriculum is about to start. Wearily, I drag myself along. It is given by the new director of the school, a man I immediately like, as the first thing he does is to start banning things.
This is one of the reasons that, despite finding the rentrée such a challenge, I am delighted our children are being educated here. There is a discipline in French schools that is lacking in English ones – unless, of course, you can afford to pay £25,000 a year.
“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 received from Nicolas Sarkozy. Not that the president wrote to him personally; rather, he was one of 850,000 teachers sent the 5,000-word missive, in which Sarko outlined his vision for a “renaissance” in the education system.
“For many years,” the president 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. Furthermore, in an age when the rest of the world increasingly relies on the internet for knowledge, France still uses the old-fashioned method of learning by rote.
I have nothing against this. I find it enchanting that my children have to learn poetry to recite in class. 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 curt response.
I read Sarkozy’s letter. Although I applaud much of what he says, such as 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 one above the blackboard in Bea’s classroom.
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 near 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 the Latin Quarter of Paris, within reach of the Lycée Henri-IV – the Eton of France (except that it’s free), with alumni including André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre and Guy de Maupassant.
I drag myself from Olivia’s class to my final appointment. I sit for an hour and listen to what four-year-old Leo will be learning over the coming months. Leo is 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.”
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019