English children have lesson for the French

Widespread gloom about English school standards may be misplaced as research suggests that English pupils may be better equipped than French students to cope with a rapidly changing world. Yet the Government is trying to encourage teaching methods used in France. Judith Judd, Education Editor, looks at the evidence.
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The Independent Online
While French children outstrip the English in skills such as adding and subtracting, English pupils are much more willing to take risks, try things out and think for themselves.

The findings come as both countries are changing their approach to raising educational standards with the British government introducing stronger central control over the curriculum and teaching methods, and the French giving teachers more freedom.

Researchers from Bristol University and Canterbury Christchurch College argue that ministers promoting the importance of more whole-class, chalk- and-talk teaching, should realise that current teaching methods in maths are producing pupils who can tackle unfamiliar problems with confidence and imagination.

They tested 400 English and French 11-year-olds using each country's national tests in language and maths. Children completed both countries' tests. Overall, English children did slightly better in the language tests. In maths, the French did better on questions involving basic arithmetic, but the English were stronger on problem-solving, analysis, probability and symmetry.

A paper prepared for the British Educational Research Association by Patricia Broadfoot with Marilyn Osborn, Claire Panel, Keith Sharpe and Brigitte Ward, argues: "French children are noticeably more reluctant to take risks."

But there are potentially significant differences in terms of how pupils are being equipped to cope with the demands of tomorrow's world. In one maths test, the children were asked to investigate statements about odd and even numbers, using calculators, and their responses were marked by placing them on one of six "levels". While 44 per cent of English children achieved above Level 3 only 26 per cent of French children did so.

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, notes the relationship between the results and teaching methods in the two countries. While the French are taught that there is one right answer and that the teacher is there to tell them how to discover it, English pupils are expected to generate their own solutions. The challenge facing France and England, researchers say, is how to get the best of both worlds.