Aux barricades, toddlers of France!

NOTEBOOK; The Gallic education system may be rigid, but it serves most children well
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The Independent Online
THE MOVIE of the moment in France is about unemployment, suicide and nursery schools.

ca Commence Aujourd'hui ("It starts today") is the story of the sainted head of an ecole maternelle (nursery school) struggling to rescue tiny souls from the indifference of parents paralysed by despair, drink and drugs. The movie was filmed in a real school in a northern French town: a town which has been deadened spiritually, we are told, by the collapse of its heavy industry. (The town is not named, but it is Valenciennes on the Belgian border.)

There are moving scenes of children being taken for nature walks over slag-heaps. There are heart-rending scenes of children being kicked out of the school canteen because their impoverished parents have failed to pay for their lunches.

The film, made by Bertrand Tavernier, once Stanley Kubrick's press officer, has received unanimous critical acclaim. It is also doing rather well at the box-office. I think it is a poor film - as crass in its own way as any second-rate Hollywood thriller - but more of that later.

The other day a five-year-old boy called Andre was "arrested" by his nursery-school headmistress and taken to the gendarmerie in a small village in the French Ardennes. His crime was to have presented himself, Oliver Twist-like, at the school canteen without a paid-up official lunch card. It appeared that Mr Tavernier's film had come to life: the heartless Bumbles of French officialdom were oppressing the children of the poor. However, all was not quite what it seemed in the village of Nouvion-sur-Meuse; more of that later too.

Nursery education - the maternelle - is not compulsory but it is virtually universal in France, taking children from rising three to six. It is regarded as one of the jewels in the crown of the French education system and, in some ways, rightly so.

The other week, I went on a day trip with my five-year-old daughter's nursery class. She badgered me into going but I was, in any case, curious to see how her class worked from the inside. She, and we, have been very happy with the school, but we sometimes find the French approach to nursery education at once regimented and unfocused. Reading and writing are not attempted in any serious way until six and seven. There is a lot of singing and art and an enormous amount of work on logic and visual comprehension.

Beyond that, there is a substantial effort to teach the children how to be French children: such as how to sit still for long periods. There is a laudable concentration on manners and small rules. Certainly, Clare has thrived in school. She went in as a two-year-old English-Irish girl convinced that she would never be able to speak French because "I don't have French teeth". She now talks in French in her sleep and holds herself in a very composed French way. (She is, however, incapable of sitting still in restaurants as French children do. It must be in the genes).

The day out had been arranged by the mother of a shy little girl in Clare's class; an invitation to their weekend home in the outer suburbs of Paris to "pick daffodils". The bus drew up before the wrought iron gates of a chateau . The "weekend house" had 20 bedrooms, its own underground discotheque, its own theatre and swimming pool. The private woodland behind had constellations of wild daffodils, which stretched into the spring sunshine for ever. Thirty children and 10 adults spent an hour trying to pick them all. When we finished, there seemed to be as many as when we started.

Clare's timid schoolfriend's father, it turned out, was on his second family and was some sort of large business and political wheel. There was a picture in his study of him receiving the Legion d'Honneur from President Chirac. In other words, it was an extraordinary day, a magical day - but it was perhaps not the best day for learning much about nursery education in France (except that Clare's teacher, a sometimes dour-seeming woman, has the gift: she comes alive in the presence of small children, who at once adore and obey her).

When I saw Tavernier's movie a few days later, it seemed impossible to make the junction between the socially challenged school on the screen and our day with the daffodils (even though the children had the same repertoire of songs). I went to the film expecting to be moved but came out disappointed and even angry. Was this because I felt guilty that my own children had such a comparatively gilded life?

Maybe, a little. But the movie was one-dimensional, overstated. I know Valenciennes quite well. It is actually a town which is bouncing back strongly from the collapse of its coal and steel industries in the 1980s. No sense of this appears in the film.

More annoyingly, and oddly for a French film, the movie lacks emotional depth and intellectual subtlety. The director instructs you how to think and feel: a generation of children is being betrayed by the "abdication" of economically and socially depressed parents and the bureaucratic narrowness of the system. Their only hope is the heroic devotion of their teachers.

Tavernier is a very political sort of director. The film is, I suspect, his contribution to the struggle of French teachers - and teaching unions - against the education minister, Claude Allegre. Mr Allegre - my favourite French politician - is trying without much success to decentralise and de-bureaucratise the French education system, which is partly run by the unions themselves, often in their own interests rather than those of the pupils. The unions are fighting back by portraying themselves, and their members, as the embattled defenders of a republican and educational ideal (like the headmaster in the movie).

Such men doubtless exist. So does the real nursery head who took little Andre to the police station because he had no canteen card. The issue was not poverty. Andre's parents were reasonably well-off. They were protesting about a change in the rules that meant that they could no longer pay for school meals one at a time; they had to pay for them all in advance. The headmistress identified with the rule and the system, not the hungry child. She was supported by the school district and teaching unions.

I have no easy conclusion, save to suggest that individuals - whether Clare's teacher or Tavernier's headmaster - redeem systems more often than systems redeem individuals. If that had been the message of Tavernier's film, it might have deserved its acclaim.