Despatches: As the conkers fall, France has a lesson for our schools

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The Independent Online
Just as in Britain, the new school year in France has produced heated exchanges about the plans for educational reform. But the French, with a tradition of centralised, old-fashioned schooling, seem to be heading in the opposite direction to us - they want more creativity and less control. So what is going on? Do they know something we don't? Our correspondent, with a young son at school in Paris, investigates.

France is a country of immutable rhythms. The grapes are being harvested, conkers are falling, unheeded, from the trees, children are back at school and the education minister is threatening to reform the French education system.

The new school year has started with another ritual debate: are school satchels too heavy? French school-children, like bag-ladies, tend to carry all their possessions with them. The chic item this autumn, for boys and girls alike, is the wheelie-satchel, which resembles the overnight bag popularised by flight attendants.

Charlie, aged 7, has been advised by his school-friends that when you reach the heights of his new class - CE1, or the second year of primary school proper - it is no longer cool to wear your satchel on your back. If your parents refuse to provide you with wheels, you must carry your huge bag in your hand, with the correct degree of pained insouciance.

Now that he has moved up one class, the iron grip of the French education system is beginning to tighten on Charlie. School for seven- and eight- year-olds consists of the five Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic, religion and running around the playground. There is little art and no geography or history. Reading starts later in France. Charlie already reads perfectly in English. But in French he and his French classmates remain at a basic level. "Toto the snail has hay-fever." (Lucky Toto, you might say, if it saves him from being eaten in garlic).

The school day is composed mostly of copying from the blackboard, and dictation to improve the pupils' handwriting, spelling and grammar. Creative writing is unknown. Project work exists only on the religious lessons, where Charlie and his classmates are studying the life of Mother Teresa. (Diana, Princess of Wales, whose fatal car accident occurred a half mile from the school, also received an honourable mention from the teacher.)

Charlie goes to a Catholic, and therefore private school, but one under contract to the state and generously subsidised, in return for obedience to the national curriculum. The time when education ministers knew exactly what each child in France was studying at each hour of the day is long gone. But much - almost certainly too much - remains controlled from the centre.

The French attitude to the French education system is like the British attitude to the British justice system; a simultaneous belief that it is the best in world and riddled with failings. The most common criticism is that the emphasis on the basics, and the reliance on rote learning, produces minds which are literate, well-informed but lacking in initiative and creativity. A survey last week suggested that some schools were not even delivering the basics very well: it found that one in 10 young French people presenting themselves for induction for national service could not read properly.

The other criticism is that the system is over-administered, too centrally directed and too much under the chalky thumb of the teaching unions. In other words schools in France are run for the benefit of bureaucrats and teachers, not pupils.

This, in essence, is the view of Claude Allegre, the son of a teacher, a former university professor and administrator, and now the Socialist minister for education, research and technology. Even before the left won the general election in June, Mr Allegre announced that his ambition was to "get the fat off the mammoth" of the French education system. He plans to reduce the number of directorates in the vast education ministry from 19 to 10 and to transfer surplus officials to university and local school administrations. The aim is to promote local and regional decision- making and to give teachers more sense of independence and initiative.

Mr Allegre is one of most interesting members of the new government; a jovial, irascible man who, unusually for a French politician, or politicians anywhere, speaks with both humour and common sense. Though not young - he is 60 - Mr Allegre is one of the most new-Labourish of ministers in Lionel Jospin's government, and the closest personally to Jospin himself.

In the space of a couple of days, he criticised the high level of absenteeism by teachers in state schools and their habit of awarding themselves training days in term-time, even though they have the shortest teaching year in the EU. Within a week of the rentree des classes, a senior teacher at one of the snobbiest state lycees in Paris informed his pupils that he would be away for two weeks on a pottery course.

The teaching unions screamed at Mr Allegre, but the subtext of his remarks was clear. Unlike other education ministers - especially Socialist education ministers - he would not be held in the corporatist vice of the cosy relationship between the education ministry and the education profession.

Plans are being made to arrange a meeting in Paris shortly between Mr Allegre and his British counterpart, David Blunkett. One can imagine the two men getting on well, even though, in some respects, they are facing in opposite directions.

Mr Blunkett is pursuing the movement towards basic disciplines and accountability in British schools and away from the looser, and more imaginative, approaches which became common in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr Allegre's aim is to reduce the Paris-controlled, curriculum-led, predictability of French education and to allow schools, and teachers, more freedom.

Both men could be right. In theory, France and Britain could converge on an approach which preserves the best of both systems: encouraging more creativity in France and more drilling in the basic skills in Britain.

Charlie did not thrive in a British system which plunged him into creative writing projects (The Ancient Egyptians; the Blitz) before he even knew how to form his letters properly.

In France his powers of concentration and his hand-writing have been miraculously improved. But he is beginning to be unimpressed by the health problems of Toto the Snail.