Respect, rote learning and ragout rôti: the reality of French education

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Over the course of the past few months, I have made the most of being potentially one of the last British students eligible for Erasmus funding to study abroad in Paris. In the Ecole Normale Supérieure, no less, France's grandiloquently named answer to Oxbridge. Over the years, this venerable establishment — elitist haven of degenerate debauchery, for our Mail readers — has churned out such bastions of supervision essay fodder as Sartre, Foucault and Césaire, and it is not alone in France. That said, praise is much duller than criticism, so I would hate to be too liberal with the ready-salted crisps.

To continue along such gastronomic lines, I heard last week that in more bourgeois French nurseries, kids are served three course meals every day. Nobody is allowed to proceed until the last person has finished eating, and, this being France, tough luck if your child happens to take religious or ethical objections to the meat industry. Yep, despite the fact that most of these kids probably cannot utter a coherent sentence, or even defecate with any reasonable degree of accuracy, they are still taught how to respect a good coq-au-vin.

This is all very silly, but there remains something quaint and perhaps admirable about treating kids as if they were adults. Sure, encouraging social interaction at mealtimes is no panacea to the world's problems, but if manners maketh man, as my mother never ceases to remind me, then it might be a good place to start. Tradition is often seen as a dirty word, but those who look down from their high horse often forget that without it, we would never go to formal hall nor give and receive presents.

In any case, and for better or for worse, tradition in French schools does not stop with toddlers tucking into tartare de boeuf. Philosophy, not PSHE, takes centre stage as classes tend towards the academic rather than the creative, and banter between teacher and pupil remains a pretty alien concept. Whilst in the UK rote learning has pretty much joined syphilis and female disenfranchisement in the pile of things relegated to the nineteenth century, it is still very much de rigueur across the channel.

Just last week, I was set the laborious task of committing to memory an entire speech of Racine's Phèdre. Sorry, Miss?! You mean you don't care about all the referential ambiguities that pervade the oeuvre? If Cambridge sometimes pulls too far in the direction of eloquent bullshit, at least we don't have to act as polished automatons, reciting our half-baked trash in a nice tone of voice. That said, I never fail to be impressed whenever old people conjure up a line of poetry to explain any given situation. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

I am, of course, slightly exaggerating. Nor am I alone. "Sit down and shut up!" screams The Telegraph, that fervent champion of liberal values. At least in this so-called authoritarian regime, quality of education is not determined by socioeconomic background. In practice, private schools do not exist, and as the government can choose where teachers work, you do not necessarily end up with the situation whereby the most inspiring educators flock to where they are least needed.

Obviously, it does not always work like this in practice, and such an obsession with égalité can sometimes get in the way of personal liberté — take for example the thorny issue of the national burka ban in schools. On the basis of personal experience, however, these two founding principles of the French state — let's leave fraternité to one side, a mere nineteenth-century afterthought — work together pretty harmoniously at the level of tertiary education.

University is free in both sense of the term, with no tuition fees combining with a laissez-faire approach as to which modules students can take. Encouraged by this system, I have developed an unexpected interest for Greek pottery, and know never to darken the door of the EU law faculty ever again. There are no supervision essays, so you can actually enjoy what you study, and I am yet to pull anything even resembling an all-nighter.

So, how do we get graded? This is by far the best bit. Some modules require a minor essay at the end of term, but a choice few can be validated by what's known as assiduité — literally turn up every week and make sure you write your name down. Sorted. 

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