A kiss from Madame makes Charlie's day

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The Independent Online
We had, as a precaution, gently terrified Charlie with tales of the formality of schools in France. The children, we told him, sit and walk in geometrical precise rows, just like the orphan girls in the Madeline books. They are obliged to learn long and complicated lessons by heart. Their manners are impeccable. The teachers are strict, though kind. But mostly strict.

His new school looks precisely the part: an austere, educational factory in nicotine-coloured concrete, occupying the length of a Parisian block. Two-year-olds are fed into one end and 18-year-olds emerge from the other. Charlie, who is seven next month, seemed uncharacteristically subdued on his first morning.

Almost nothing, it turned out, was as promised by his parents. Sybille, his class teacher, greeted him like a favourite nephew. First a big hug, then a kiss on the cheek, not a peck, but a long, intimate, sloppy embrace. Charlie was amazed. This had never happened in Putney. All 22 children in his class received the same treatment. And another big kiss when they left in the evening.

He and his class-mates do sit in rows, but rather jumbled rows; they do learn some things by heart, mostly poems. They also do a great deal of singing and learning by touch and play. Their manners are not impeccable. Once released from their lessons, they are very pushy and sharp-elbowed. But they are, after all, little Parisians.

Charlie loves his new school, even though he has no more than a few words of French. His proudest moment was when the school-approved dress- maker finally sent his navy-blue school smock, which is worn at all times by primary boys and girls. It makes him look somewhere between a Tsarist peasant and a chic hairdresser.

His little sister, not quite three, who attends the pre-school or maternelle department on the ground floor, is not so convinced. She loves the interminable singing but is irritated that no one can understand her previously perfectly acceptable talking. She cannot talk French, she has decided, because she does not have French teeth.

One morning, Clare became so disillusioned that she wandered off to try and find her big brother, who at least has English teeth. After a hue and cry, she was intercepted trotting happily along the upstairs corridor. Her mother was later ticked off for having a child who had wilfully got herself perdue in this way.

We are adjusting our stereotypes to coincide with reality: the school's bewildering alternation between officiousness and inefficiency, formality and warmth is, it seems, typiquement francais. Rules and lists and forms proliferate but, unlike Germany, not all need to be obeyed all the time.

Before moving to Paris, we had changed our minds several times about what to do with the kids. An international or bi-lingual school would have been easier for them. But children who go to such schools (however well run) can have the worst of both worlds: they are torn from their familar surroundings and friends but they never truly belong to their new country.

We were recommended to try a particular French school - Catholic, therefore private, but heavily state-subsidised and following the state curriculum - which is used to taking English-speaking kids.

Friends who have already been the same educational route warn that our children will learn not just to speak French, but how to be French.

But the intense Frenchness of the French education system is beginning to be criticised in France. Although a fine system in many ways, the critics say, the emphasis on a cultural education for the whole child is a disadvantage in the modern, globally competitive world. It turns out, they say, a nation of literate and argumentative people, full of self-esteem but with little sense of enterprise, except, maybe, how to get the last seat on the bus. Better, the critics imply, that France should be churning out a new race of computer nerds, like the US, or accountants, like Britain. I wonder.

After two weeks, Charlie still adores his school. He has a few more words of French. But is he learning how to be French yet?

I was passing the time on the long walk to school the other morning by speculating on possible Franglais street names. The Rue de Remarques? The Rue de Noises? This previously gentle little boy looked at me pityingly and gave me a sharp, Gallic elbow in the ribs.

John Lichfield

John Lichfield moved to Paris for 'The Independent' last month