Page last updated at 10:33 GMT, Saturday, 31 July 2010 11:33 UK

Drama of French education falling flat

In many countries, the next few weeks are an anxious time for teenagers and their parents as exam results are revealed. In Paris, the BBC's Hugh Schofield is waiting to hear how his son has fared, and it set him thinking about the strengths and weakness of a French education.

A generic image of two children in costume and their teacher standing on a stage
Plays are a central part of school life

Perhaps the most dispiriting experience I have had as a parent in France was attending the so-called form "play" put on when my younger son was 11.

It was based on the Nutcracker Suite, and the school told us proudly that they had paid a professional troupe to work with the children over the course of the term.

This seemed a welcome change, because all the previous end-of-year shows had been supremely lame affairs in which the children put on costume and jiggled about miming to the latest pop song.

At least now they would be learning about theatre, about passion, imagination, self-discovery.

What a joke. If any of those poor boys and girls had lurking within them the creative urge - any nascent fascination with the performing arts - then it was comprehensively annihilated by this frightful experience.

An hour-and-a-half, in which one by one at the front of the stage the children struggled to deliver the screeds of text they had learned by heart. No drama, no action, no acting. Just a joyless succession of recitations.

By the end, my blood was boiling. But I could see that most of the other parents were perfectly satisfied, and so were the so-called professionals who had put the whole thing on.

For them the job was done. The children had learned what they had to learn and regurgitated it for the public. That was all that counted.

Egalitarian education

Looking back, I see that experience now as revealing an inner truth about the French educational system. How its focus is on the absorption, and then reproduction, of a standard corpus of knowledge permitting an individual to function in society.

File photo of French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking to a school girl in France
Student success is measured solely on how well they do in exams

What it is not good at is letting that individual discover the pleasures of learning for his or herself.

Before developing that criticism, let me list the things that incline me to be happy my three children have been through the French system.

First - this may sound odd but I think it is wonderful - from the age of seven they have walked to school by themselves. The local schools have been good, the streets are safe, their neighbourhood is their own. That in itself is worth a lot.

Second, the French system does not suffer from the curse of public-private apartheid, English-style.

Yes, there are semi-private Catholic schools, but the fees are tiny compared with English private schools and their level of education is not vastly different from the state sector. What it means essentially is that there are not two types of French person.

And third, whatever my complaints, the standards are overall pretty decent.

The required corpus of knowledge can plumb depths of inane abstraction

I dare say there has been some dumbing-down over the years, but the teachers mark rigorously and the exams are tough. Coursework and multiple-choice have yet to arrive in France.

But this is where the problems begin. Because one of the consequences of the French emphasis on a standard body of learning is that children are judged purely on their success in acquiring it.

If, like many do, you find it hard to memorise the facts, then you are penalised. Your grades suffer, and you are the brunt of extremely discouraging remarks from your teachers.

A boy playing a trumpet
Opportunities for non-academic activities are limited in French schools

What makes it worse is that the required corpus of knowledge can plumb depths of inane abstraction.

Once in geography, one of my children had to learn by heart the definition of a mountain-range: "a section of terrain of steep and variegated contours".

In maths, they have to remember that a straight line is an "assemblage of all points lying between an origin and a destination", and that a point is a "position in a plane that has neither length nor breadth". True, but so what?

Linked to this prescriptive view of education is the sad fact that French schools have absolutely no extra-curricular activities.

There are no debating societies, no orchestras, no film clubs, no sports teams, no painting classes, no school newspapers, and no drama, at least none worthy of the name.

This, it seems to me, has enormous implications for society as a whole.

Youngsters who are not exposed to these activities at school are unlikely to spot their own potential. Perhaps as a result in adult life, the associated professions - politics, theatre, journalism - now seem filled by self-replacing elites, which is both undemocratic and uninteresting.

So as we wait for my son's baccalaureate results, what are our conclusions? Has it been a great experience, or a disappointment?

Well, of course, it is a bit of both. High-ish marks for the academic and social sides, but for imagination, for fun, for theatre, I am afraid it is a round null points.

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Trials of French teacher training
17 Feb 09 |  Education

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific