Can French education system pull a rabbit out of the hat?; PARIS DAYS

For Charlie, social acceptance in Paris was having a rabbit as a house-guest. Black, the rabbit in question, belongs to Charlie's class of seven-year-olds. Like some floppy-eared King Lear, he spends his weekends with a different child in turn. It is the greatest of honours to receive him .

Our children will shortly have spent three months, or one whole term, in their French school. In all this time, Charlie had never been awarded the custody of Black (whose name is Black, not Noir).

Last Friday evening Charlie's teacher announced that, after a few ups and downs, largely because of language problems, he was starting to "do very well" at school, especially with his writing. She presented his mother with the reward: a black rabbit in a dropping-strewn cage, which she had to carry, averting her nose, one mile back to the flat. At every third step, the cage door lurched open but, fortunately, Black had the good sense not to risk escape through the Parisian traffic.

Doing well with his writing does not mean that Charlie is shaping up as the new Baudelaire (yet). His French, though building steadily like a second skin behind his English, is still rudimentary. Those words that he does know, he pronounces beautifully, with the guttural roll that no adult, native Anglophone can ever quite capture. But he still puts the words together without verbs, like a toddler learning language for the first time.

Clare, his three year old sister, is more resistant to French, although she no longer insists that she will never speak the language because she is not equipped with French teeth. Instead, she demands, "Why don't they speak normal?" Even she is absorbing French unconsciously. She delights in pronouncing her name in the way that her teacher pronounces it, not Clare but "Clarrreachh".

In England, Charlie was taught to form his letters in pencil with careful spaces in between. The fact that he is now "writing well" means that he has finally come to grips with French joined-up copper plate and leaky fountain pens. French children learn to read and write later than British children but skip the baby-writing stage completely. Charlie's class spends an inordinate amount of time (whole mornings it seems) doing "dictee" - copying the teacher's handwriting from the blackboard or an exercise book. They are never asked to compose anything from their memory or imagination.

At his school in London, Charlie was always being given difficult, and often very interesting, creative writing tasks. But he was never sufficiently drilled - so it seemed to us - in the mechanical business of letter-formation. We were told that this would come naturally. From the age of five, he wrestled, in huge, uneven letters, with projects such as the Spanish Armada, the Second World War and the history of theatre.

The transition from pupil to eleve was, therefore, awkward. For weeks Charlie's efforts at joined-up writing looked as if Black had walked across the page with ink on his paws. His teacher put forbearing remarks like "courage" and "continue" at the end of his work.

Finally, it seemed, both she and he got bored simultaneously and agreed that he would now make an enormous effort to write as neatly as the other pupils. After that, his exercise book came home with elegant, small writing, full of whirls and curls that a fastidious British 12 year old would have been proud of. Madame's remarks were "Bravo" and "Splendide".

All of which points, in its own small way, to disparities in the French and British approaches to education. "French children don't seem to learn very much," remarked Charlie on one occasion. For children of his age, the curriculum comes down to the five r's, reading, writing, arithmetic, art and (in Catholic schools like his), religion.

French primary schools, though not as regimented as they once were, still exist in the era of drilling and rote-learning beloved of the of anti- modernists in the education debate in Britain. It would be wrong to say that individuality is discouraged. It is a warm and happy school. But conformism is definitely encouraged. Even at the older levels, right up to the baccalaureat, the emphasis in French schools is on absorbing facts and pre-packaged concepts. Little creativity, or imagination, or independent thinking, is demanded. This old-fashioned approach, which is sometimes portrayed in Britain as belonging to a golden age, is now criticised by some in France as a trap and a betrayal.

In the most recent global league tables French education - especially in maths - comes out pretty well. But French children lag in science and especially computer science. Although formally excellent, the critics say, French schools fail to generate young people with the adaptability, creativity and flexibility of mind to cope with the demands of the modern world.

Some critics blame the school system for the high levels of youth unemployment in France (which probably has far more to do with the high social costs of employing anyone at all).

We are reserving judgement. On the whole, we believe Charlie has benefited from the French approach. We feared he was losing his way in his British school. It encouraged his imagination, which needed little encouragement, but neglected some of his basic skills, which did.

The French concentration on fundamentals has made him more physically adept, and more focused, in the space of three months. On the other hand, we fear that, as he gets older, once he has conquered his copper-plate and his French, he may get bored. Some middle way between British creativity and French rigidity must be possible: is there not a Eurocrat in Brussels with spare time to harmonise the two approaches?

In the meantime, Charlie's teacher says that he is now conforming so well that he can have Black for the weekend whenever he wants to. Fine: but guess which member of the household ended up cleaning out the cosseted and much-beloved creature's cage?

John Lichfield

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