Teachers and education officials, however, both reject that portrayal. They say the curriculum is so broad that, although it lays down the minimum number of hours for each subject - four hours a week for mathematics, four-and-a-half for French for 13- to 14-year-olds - it offers nothing more than a framework within which to operate. The teacher, they insist, is very much a lone wolf in France, with considerable freedom to choose his or her own particular emphasis and method.
'We have noticed that the more centralism there is, the freer the teachers are,' said Andre Hussenet, director of the Academie de Paris, the French capital's education authority. Some teachers, however, complain that the curriculum covers too much, while parents grumble that teachers use the heavy workload as a pretext for pushing ahead rather than answering pupils' questions or helping stragglers.
The curriculum is obligatory in all schools, state and private. A 350-page paperback version of the programme for colleges, or junior secondary schools, became a best seller when it was published in 1985.
In the section on English teaching, for example, it said children should be made aware that English 'is present in their environment: orally (radio, records, cinema) and in the written form (advertisements, technical operation instructions, loan- words, and in sport)'. The paperback lays out the curriculum for an enormous range of possible subjects, some of which, such as Japanese, are scarcely available in French schools.
Estimating that the programme provided an average 30 pages of instructions for teachers for each subject, Mr Hussenet said it was usual for teachers to get through only about 80 per cent of the curriculum, meaning that they had to decide where to concentrate their efforts.
In history, for example, teachers are obliged to tell children about the collaborationist Vichy government during the Second World War. But they are not told what to say or how much time they should devote to it.
Part of the reason that not all of the curriculum can be covered is attributed to the fact that successive education ministers have added their pet themes to the programme without taking subjects away. Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who was Minister of Education from 1984 to 1986 and the most left-wing politician to hold the office in modern France, added civics lessons to the curriculum and turned the clock back from some of the reforms brought in after the 1968 student revolt.
Although the system remained highly centralised, Mr Hussenet said, recent reforms had given individual schools more freedom. The school principals, whose role has always been to administer rather than be involved in teaching, could now decide to give more emphasis to some subjects, such as extra French in schools where children's command of the language was inadequate.
The real test of the teachers - who were generally commended for their punctuality and professional attitude by the head teachers and for their teaching competence by inspectors - came, Mr Hussenet said, with the results of the baccalaureat, the main school- leaving examination. As with all French degrees and diplomas, the baccalaureat is a state examination.
One reform introduced by Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Education Minister from 1988 to 1992, was evaluation, or assessment, of children. It was brought in four years ago for children of eight, two years into their primary school education; 11-year-olds, as they start college; and 15-year-olds, just before the option of leaving school at 16 or going to the lycee, senior secondary school.
At first criticised by teachers for adding to their work, assessment is now generally accepted as useful, according to Education Ministry documents. These show that only 17 per cent of teachers remained opposed to it in the second year of its operation. A total of 750,000 children sit down to be tested on the same day. Subject-by-subject questionnaires set out to establish the level of the pupils' knowledge.
The results are used in two ways. First, as a national guide for the Education Ministry to determine what problems the schools face. 'We can find the difficulties, but it's harder to find the remedies,' said Mr Hussenet. Second, class teachers use them for working out their own approaches both to their subjects and the needs of individual children.
But comparisons between the performance of individual schools, or even of the 28 regional education authorities in France, was forbidden, Mr Hussenet said, because the government was determined not to allow the development of school 'league tables', prompting parents to pick and choose.
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