French lessons for Mr Patten: In France, national testing is a matter of consensus. Why not here, asks Judith Judd

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The Independent Online
WHY can't the English be more like the French? While teachers here continue to boycott national tests for the second year running, their French counterparts are busy implementing a new national testing programme introduced five years ago.

The French take to the streets about education regularly enough: they have demonstrated about bigger subsidies to private schools, university overcrowding and conditions in the lycees. Yet national tests for nine- and 11-year-o1ds and, more recently, for 16-year-olds, has provoked little more than routine grumbling.

Government surveys show that 80 per cent of the teachers welcome the tests though some complain that codifying the results is too complicated. So how did Lionel Jospin, the French education minister, succeed where Kenneth Baker and his successors as Secretary of State for Education failed?

Both governments want to raise standards, make teachers more accountable and ensure they are getting value for money. But the philosophy inspiring the two is different. For the Major government, testing is the key to promoting parental choice and creating a market in schools. For the French it is to improve education. The English have mixed political and educational aims. The French have not.

Take performance league tables of schools. While John Patten, the current Secretary of State for Education, promises ever bigger and better ones - this year's will even include the length of the school day - French ministers are resisting pressure from parents to collect and publish test results for individual schools and regions.

As a result, the testing stakes are much lower than in England, where teachers feel league tables are designed to pick out bad teachers and schools rather than to help pupils. Were it not for league tables, Mr Patten might have secured the support of the majority of headteachers whose neutrality in the dispute has been a powerful force in the boycott's success.

From the start, the French were clear that they wanted tests to pinpoint weaknesses of the children, not teachers. Pupils sit them at the beginning of the school year so teachers can blame their predecessors. In contrast, Mr Baker and his successors were muddled about the tests' purpose. They tried to introduce tests that would both diagnose children's weaknesses and sum up their performance for league tables. The result was overblown, bureaucratic tests on which pounds 50m was spent before they realised their mistake. The French programme was more modest. For nine- and 11-year-olds there are just four 25-minute tests in maths and French. Six years after the English reforms were introduced, Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's chief adviser on testing, has begun to prune testing in schools, but seven-year- olds still have two hours 55 minutes of tests in English and maths and 11-year-olds four hours 15 minutes in English, maths and science.

Sir Ron is also cutting back the curriculum, but the long- established French equivalent remains less detailed and prescriptive. There is, for example, no 'canon' of approved authors, on which Mr Patten has insisted against English teachers' wishes, just a mention of the need to study texts from different periods.

Mr Baker tied up the English curriculum and testing in red tape, because he distrusted teachers. He justified the reforms by saying they needed to be brought up to scratch. His French counterparts have used no such arguments. Teachers there may be disgruntled, but they are not demoralised.

But the reasons for French success cannot be explained by a neat comparison of Anglo-Saxon bungling with Gallic skill. The French way of introducing national testing owes as much to history as to Mr Jospin. Ever since the Revolution, the French have clung to the notion that all schools are equal. In their centralised system, with its long-established national curriculum, schools are not seen as autonomous institutions, each with a distinctive philosophy. The British idea of a market of competing schools is as foreign to them as Yorkshire pudding.

In France, confrontation between ministers and teachers over national testing was never likely. In England, the introduction of a centralised curriculum and testing was revolutionary. For French teachers, national testing was simply more of the same. As civil servants, they identify with the state and see it as protection against parental pressure and local interference.

They are resisting ministers' efforts to give headteachers and individual schools more power, which would make it easier for parents to blame them rather than the government for shortcomings. Until recently, their English counterparts have seen themselves as individual professionals, jealously guarding their expertise and the curriculum from parents and politicians alike.

And most of them have been able to choose if and when they give children formal tests. After the disappearance of the 11-plus, such tests vanished from many primary schools. In France, schools have long been geared to weekly written tests set and marked by teachers.

French teachers accept that their main task is to give children the basic skills to pass tests. So do parents. So do politicians. There is a consensus about the essentially academic purpose of education that is absent in England, where teachers and the government argue over objectives ranging from cutting teenage pregnancies to producing more world-class cricketers.

That does not mean there is no conflict between the government and French teachers. The latter have defeated a series of attempts to reform the baccalaureat, the equivalent of A-levels, and are complaining about government efforts to introduce more continuous assessment, child-centred learning and more independence for individual teachers - the exact opposite of the British government's goals.

The confrontation over national testing that has blighted English classrooms has been avoided but, as Patricia Broadfoot of Bristol University has pointed out, the French government has yet to secure its other assessment reforms. Among teachers on both sides of the Channel, le fort esprit de conservatisme thrives.