French send off children to learn the write stuff

By John Lichfield in Paris

Charlie, aged 10, has written a book. To be precise, he is the co-author of a book, with 60 of his French schoolmates. It is doubtful whether anyone will ever read the book, which is the gripping, 60-page story of a modern boy who stumbles back in time to live with the master builders of medieval cathedrals. Harry Potter need not tremble. Steven Spielberg has yet to bid for the rights to Hardi Compagnon (Brave Companion).

No matter. Charlie and his friends had enormous fun in the space of two weeks free of parents and siblings, writing the book and illustrating and publishing it in classically French soft covers. A copy of the book now resides, alongside those of Sartre and Maupassant, in the Bibliothÿque Nationale.

Uprooting entire school classes and sending children away from home for one or two weeks - classes decouvértes or "classes of discovery" - is one of the better peculiarities of the French education system. Some schools have classe de neiges or ski classes combined with lessons. My son's Parisian school sends away two groups of children aged nine and ten to the island of Belle Ile off Brittany each spring for classes d'ecriture or creative writing classes.

The pupils have their ordinary lessons in the morning and, with the help of a children's author in residence, invent, write and publish a book in the afternoons. How much of the book is actually "written" by the children is open to question. The final draft is, suspiciously, well-turned and grammatically precise. None the less, the ideas, characters and many of the words are the children's own.

This firework display of creativity is all the more striking because it is almost the only creative work that Charlie and his classmates ever do. In his previous English school, at the age of five or six, he was expected (absurdly) to write little essays in which he had to "imagine that you are dandelion" or "pretend that you are a child living through the London Blitz" or maybe it was "imagine that you are a dandelion living during the Blitz". All of this before he could spell or even form his letters reliably.

In three years in his French school, Charlie's hand-writing has blossomed; his technical knowledge of French has soared. But his creative writing has been restricted to an occasional sentence or poem.

There are many things in favour of the discipline and the clarity of the French education system; but it also tends to be, at once, over-laden with facts and yet strangely abstract; over-intellectualised and yet distrustful of individual children's minds. Thus the French state curriculum treats the French language like an expensive aeroplane. Trainees are not allowed to take out the language for a spin until they have proved that they understand the controls and even the theory of flight.

Although the curriculum has been "lightened", pupils aged nine or ten spend hours on the regulations and sub-regulations of French grammar and - far less justifiably - the theory of grammar. French is a more complex language than English. There is, I suppose, no alternative to slogging through the different endings of the "future simple indicative of verbs of the third group" until they are lodged in your skull.

But the curriculum also demands that those aged nine or ten should understand, or at least rote learn, the mechanisms of the language and how to deconstruct sentences and put them back together again. Charlie and his classmates spend many hours learning the "functional decoupling of circumstantial complements". ("Warning," his grammar book says, helpfully, "there may be several circumstantial complements in one sentence.")

In effect this seems to be a very complex form of "parsing", or breaking down sentences: a practice already regarded as old fashioned when I was at school in the middle of the last century (and a practice that should surely be outlawed under the European Convention on Human Rights).

The two weeks in Belle Ile were intended to give the children a sense of how their imaginations and the painfully acquired rules could work together. It was, however, typical that they were not allowed to actually write anything individually themselves. It wasn't so much a first solo flight with the language as a trip in a jumbo jet in which they were allowed to sit on the pilot's lap.

Charlie got a lot out of the trip all the same. He seemed much more grown up when he came back. Outside classes of this kind are part of the maturing process. They also teach social skills and self-reliance. They are a more sensible substitute for boarding school: a two-week inoculation of independence rather than the whole six or seven-year disease.

The children were taught how to eat quietly in restaurants. They were taught to look after their clothes. In sum, they are taught how to be French. The adult helpers descended periodically on the children's rooms and, if they were untidy, subjected them to a series of graded "tornadoes": if one locker was untidy it was emptied on to the floor (a brown tornado). If all the lockers were untidy, they were all emptied on to the floor (a black tornado); if they were hopelessly untidy, all the clothes were thrown out of the window...

Such classes are a great rite of passage in France. The other parents, waiting on the railway station platform for their children to return, swapped misty-eyed reminiscences of their own "classes of discovery".

Unfortunately, it seems that classes away from home are becoming less common. Younger generations of French teachers are less willing to take on the responsibility. I asked Charlie what he thought he had discovered in his classes of discovery. After serious consideration, he said the most important thing was learning "to put up my with my friends for two weeks". I suspect that may serve him better in life than the functional decoupling of circumstantial complements.

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