Boots in a bog of jargon

Education in France
January 24, 1997

All western industrial countries have seen challenges to their educational systems in recent decades as a result of demographic and technological developments, and many have responded by making major changes. It is helpful for those involved in such matters in one country to know and profit by achievements and errors elsewhere, as was common in the genuine European climate of Victorian times, though resisted in our own pseudo-European age. For Britain, France has always been the main reference point where schools are concerned, though less so in higher education. One's interest is thus aroused by this book's title and increased by Anne Corbett's fascinating introduction that makes full use of her unique British experience as student, teacher and parent in France during the relevant period.

Nevertheless the book will be a disappointment to anyone who expects an account of what was done in France in the years in question and how it relates to France's inherited system of state and "private'' education, and to the goals set out for the future by those in charge. What we get is an obstacle race through the thick of sociological jargon in the course of which much useful information may be gleaned but at the price of constant vigilance. The reason is that the editors have fought shy of writing a general account and have instead presented the reader with 26 chapters on specific topics, all but Corbett's reprinted from journals or previous works and grouped under unhelpful headings.

One difficulty is that most of the articles were written before the end of the Mitterrand presidency and leave one with the question of what has happened since then in the area under discussion. For instance, the one chapter that purports to make a comparison between Britain and France in respect of educational innovation was published as early as 1987 and that by an American author whose grasp of the British scene leaves much to be desired; what an obstacle "political science'' is to understanding politics. Or again there is a very good account of the problem raised by the exclusion from school of Muslim girls wearing religious head-dress - the foulard, not well rendered as "scarf''. But it appeared in 1990 - what happened thereafter?

The other difficulty is that since the articles were written without the idea of their forming a general overview, they deal largely with the controversies of the moment - and, in the case of some of the French contributions, more with questioning the theories of adversaries than with illuminating the scene in the classroom.

It is a pity such a volume should fall so far short of expectations since there is a very interesting underlying thesis. During the period in question the two systems, French and British, were moving in opposite directions - the once highly centralised French system seeking a diffusion outwards of educational responsibilities, the British with a more variegated pattern seeing to raise standards by giving greater powers to the centre - the national curriculum and so on. Both systems have seen ambitious targets espoused by governments and parliaments unwilling or unable to meet the demands for resources that fulfilling their targets would require - the British decision to put a third of young people through "university'' is as counterproductive as is likely to be the French decision that 80 per cent of secondary school pupils should obtain the baccalaureate. In both cases a kind of educational underclass is likely to emerge. In France, the unwillingness to allow for differences in the pupils' situation in the light of a tradition of universal and uniform treatment shows up in the chaos of the inner-city schools powerfully set out by M. Lemoine in his 1992 paper, which will find many echoes on this side of the channel.

The changes in France involving a new quadripartite organisation of the school system - nursery schooling (almost universal), primary schools, "colleges'' (lower secondary) and lycees (upper secondary) - have been accompanied by a good deal of rhetoric, the enunciation of principles so broad as to be unanswerable as well as inapplicable. P. Bourdieu shows himself a master of this art. It has also involved tackling new phenomena - the foulard affair brought France for the first time up against a section of the population determined not to be "made into Frenchmen'', the historic justification for universal education. The British concessions to ethnic minorities are looked at with apprehension.

There is also the old rivalry between the instituteur and the cure - the French compromise by which "private", that is mainly Catholic, schools are subsidised by the state, had never been acceptable to those who believe that "secularism'' is itself the only national religion. The attempt to merge the two systems was one of the most glaring failures of the early Mitterrand years. It is interesting to learn that the preference of parents for "private'' education rests less on religion - France has also seen a falling off in Church membership - but more on the belief that such schools maintain more discipline and have higher teaching commitments - enter Tony Blair. What else survives the reforms is syst me D - the capacity for the socially well placed to find ways round the professed egalitarianism to see that their own offspring profit by the famous Parisian lycees or later the grandes ecoles. Two chapters at least should be read by everyone. J. Costa Lascoux makes a case for the success of the teaching of civics in French schools in modifying the behaviour of the young. A. Finkelkraut, in an essay published in an earlier collection but still very apposite, "A pair of boots is a good as Shakespeare'', does the best demolition job I have seen on "multiculturalism'' and the claim that exposure to commercial entertainment is the equivalent of studying the classics of our civilisation.

Lord Beloff is emeritus professor of government and public administration, University of Oxford.

Education in France: Continuity and Change in the Mitterrand Years 1981-1995

Editor - Anne Corbett and Bob Moon
ISBN - 0 415 11238 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00
Pages - 408

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