Kids kick heels (and each other) as school fizzles out


THE FRENCH school year is already spluttering to a close. It begins at a ferocious pace in the first week of September, like a marathon runner starting too fast, and gradually runs out of steam.

By May and June, the schools' weeks disintegrate into dozens of bank holidays, "ponts" (extended bank holidays) and study (ie rest) days for the teachers.

Our two oldest kids - eight and four - will soon have completed their second year in the French education system. Both have been very happy; both now speak French with reproachfully good accents. We find the school system impressive but maddening; highly structured but chaotic; intense but desultory: in fact, a paradigm of France itself.

Most of all we despair of the the lack of creative ambition (something increasingly criticised by French parents and even by the French education minister).

There are reports that Britain is planning to go over to something closer to the French pattern of shorter, more concentrated school terms (five "periods" of roughly six week each).

There are many things which we could usefully learn from the French system but this is not one of them. French kids go to school for less days than those of any industrial country; 30 weeks out of the 52.

When they are at school, they have crushingly long days (even the tiny ones) from 8.30am to 4.30pm, with two-hour lunch-breaks.

These are a holdover from the time when maman was supposed to cook a four-course meal for the whole family at midday. In fact a majority of kids now stay for school lunch, which, like school lunches anywhere, are scoffed in five minutes.

The children then spend 1 hour and 55 minutes kicking their heels (and each other) in the playground. Yesterday, since I hadn't seen Charlie (aged 8) for a while - the World Cup is being played in France, in case you had not noticed - I took him out to lunch in a cafe near the school. We had a disreputable time playing pinball and betting on one of the fiendishly complex French versions of the National Lottery.

We also discussed the arrangements for the forthcoming school "spectacle" (show) in which I am to be a security guard (to keep out "undesirable elements") and Charlie has been cast in the role of "a leaf". In fact, it turned out, every 7- to 8-year-old in the school had been cast as a forest of leaves, except, he explained, "the prettiest girls", who had been cast as "flowers".

The complex-free reinforcement of gender roles, and the grading of children according to their looks, is rather "typiquement francais". So is the "spectacle" itself: a hugely ambitious, and yet unambitious, event. Every child in the school has a part but the parts consist of miming en masse to pop songs.

t IN OTHER countries, it is usual for doctors and dentists to have receptionists; in America, they have platoons of them, the better to show off their wealth and importance. In France they scarcely exist; the cost of employing people is so forbidding that doctors act as their own receptionists, with bizarre consequences.

At my wife's surgery visits with the children are invariably interrupted by phone calls from other patients.

On one occasion, the doctor took a phone call and (all the time studying our baby's medical records on his computer screen) silently filled in the other patient's prescription, placed it in an envelope, wrote the address and licked and attached the stamp.

On another visit, Margaret twiddled her thumbs while the doctor persuaded a male caller that, no, he had not caught a minor venereal disease from his wife.

On a recent trip to the pediatrician, the phone rang while the doctor was busy clearing the baby's chest. Without a trace of embarrassment, he ordered my wife to pick up the phone and stand beside him holding the receiver to his ear.

Conversely, French hospitals, funded directly by the state, are lavishly staffed, with, for instance, different kinds of nurses for different functions, colour-coded by uniform. I have an unoriginal theory that France suffers not so much from unemployment, but a mixture of over-employment and under- employment.

The scale of the public work-force (four out 10 workers in France are paid by the state) piles up the taxes and social charges on private employers. As a consequence, entire categories of useful jobs are wiped out.

WHAT DO Eric Cantona and Ronald Reagan have in common?

They will soon both have co-starred in a movie with a monkey.

In his latest cinematic venture, a French film called Mookie, the former Manchester United deity plays a professional boxer with a chimp for a pet.

Cantona's (human) sparring-partner in the fight scenes protested to the director that the soccer-turned-film-star was really punching him. "But he hit me first," explained Eric.

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