European Times: Paris

Flute hunt leads parents on a merry dance
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The Independent Online

Does anyone out there have a plastic flute? (Must be a soprano Yamaha) Or a roll of wire 0.5mm thick? Or a large, hard-backed, 192-page (no more, no less) exercise book? For parents in France, September is the cruellest month. The summer is over and you come back to a school examination, set by sadistic teachers and suffered, not by the children, but by you, the parents.

The exam papers are interminable and complex lists of fourniture scolaires, (school equipment), devised by teachers searching through the small-print of defunct stationery manufacturers' catalogues. The lists seem to be longer, more abstruse and more expensive every year.

My seven-year-old daughter requires 75 items to start the second year of primary school in Paris tomorrow, not including text books or gym equipment. The list ranges from an empty shoe box to 10 paper plates to sticky tape to paper hankies and extends to 18 exercise books of six specifications. What is an 11-year-old boy going to do with a large roll of 0.5mm gauge wire? Why does a three-year-old girl need a hard-back exercise book the size and thickness of a Dickensian clerk's ledger? And what on earth do French children do with all that UHU (no other glue will do)?

Some French parents are, finally, revolting. Michael Sangram, president of the federation of Parisian parents' associations, accuses schools of shoving more and more demands for standard equipment on to parents. The latest fad among French parents this rentreé (start of classes) is insurance to protect children against bullying and extortion rackets by their fellow pupils. If Jean-Albert's new leather jacket is requisitioned by his schoolmates, the insurance company will pay for another. Mr Sangram says the biggest and most widespread extortion racket is operated by the schools, against the parents, not the children. Many of the items on the school lists, he says, would be better bought in bulk by education authorities through taxes.

Poorer French parents are given a "school" bonus of £160 per child in their family allowance. This is meant to pay for clothing and transport as well as school equipment. In reality, it barely covers the costs of the textbooks, exercise books and other paraphernalia, even in primary school. After five years in France, we have reached the conclusion that the lists of fournitures scolaires are a device allowing French teachers to exercise control over parents. Last year, two weeks after school began, we had a telephone call in the evening from a teacher complaining that our daughter still lacked two of the right kind of exercise books.

We said we had purchased all the school equipment in parcels assembled by the school to avoid the September scramble. There had been several mistakes. The lists were so complicated, and the tastes of individual teachers so different, that even the school could not get its own requirements right. Now the shops had sold out of the more obscure items.

None of this, we were curtly informed, was an excuse. Our daughter was ill-equipped; that was our problem.

This year, on the advice of a neighbour, we handed over the lists in mid-July to our corner stationer's shop. He promised to have everything ready for the rentreé. Four visits later, there are several items missing. Two of them, he insists, do not exist in any French stationer's catalogue.

That leaves the plastic flute. After trying seven shops, I discover Paris has been stripped bare of plastic flutes. Charles will start secondary school tomorrow without a flute. He will be the butt of his friends' scorn. We have failed as parents.

But we are not the only ones. The woman in Monoprix said they had dozens of requests from anxious parents. There were no longer any plastic, soprano Yamaha flutes to be found.