Children’s education: a comparison of England and France {day twenty-one}

{day twenty-one} UK-France comparison of children's education

There are quite a few books popularising the idea that French parents have great ideas about education that lead to better-behaved children than the rest of the world. The way that French parents educate their children may have a different emphasis to other countries and some of the suggestions, whilst common-sense to a French person, might be revolutionary elsewhere, but there is no magic wand for creating well-behaved children. The broad brush that is painted in books like ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’ might sell books, but it’s a load of old bollocks I have had thoughts about this ludicrous idea before (and they’re my two most popular posts on the blog, so read on and have a laugh).

French and English Education

Whilst it would be fair to assume that educational standards are broadly similar across the world (at least if we were to compare first-world countries), this does not mean that children’s schooling experience is the same. Despite the fact that most children finish high school with a range of abilities and knowledge that enables them to attend university anywhere in the world, they will most certainly have had a very different day-to-day to each other and may not have been taught in the same way at all.

1. In England, school days run from Monday to Friday. In France, they also run Monday to Friday but only in the morning on Wednesday; in some places, Wednesdays will be off and there will be lessons on Saturday morning instead.

2. An English primary school day starts around 8.50 am and finishes at 3.15 pm or thereabouts. French school days run from 8.30-9am until 4 or 5 pm, with a 2 hour lunch break in the middle (usually 12-2pm).

3. A year or so ago, I experienced a nice bit of culture shock whilst trying to organise Little Girl’s pre-school place, a problem that would never have happened in France.

4. Homeschooling exists in England (although not in the same way that it does in the US) and it is not at all common in France. Whilst it’s technically and legally possible to homeschool in France, hardly anyone does it and there are rules that must be followed to the letter. The French government is very strict about accountability due to their (quite rightly in my opinion) concerns about cults and possible brain-washing, and what constitutes good education. Homeschooled children must be able to compete with their peers every step of the way. This article says that there are 500 homeschooling families registered in France.

A typical French classroom (image from Wikipedia)

5. France is really crap at caring for SEN pupils. The best thing you can do for your child with SEN is to get a diagnostic from your doctor as soon as possible and see if your child can attend a special school. This is because there is ZERO provision for SEN children in ‘normal’ schools in France. There is so little provision, so little training for teachers and so little understanding by the educational providers that even children suffering with something as common as dyslexia, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, may be spoken about (or spoken to) by their teacher as ‘stupid’ and offered no support whatsoever. Instead, as is common in France, they may be made to re-do their year if they have failed significantly in one or more areas of study. French schooling has a ‘one size fits all’ approach and it is a parent’s responsibility to battle with the authorities to get the best for their child.

On the other hand, in England, the government encourages, as much as possible, SEN pupils to be integrated into the ‘normal’ schools. This is because they want non-SEN children to learn to accept differences in each other without discrimination and to help special-needs children to adapt to their circumstances. In many cases, this works very well. SEN pupils may be assigned one-to-one support with trained support workers. Obviously, if the learning difficulties are too intense or disruptive, children may be referred to special schools but this is not the first point of call.

6. There are no uniforms in France. In England, where they wear uniforms in primary and secondary school, there is a strong argument that it reduces bullying and helps children to give them a sense of ‘belonging’ to the school they attend. I don’t believe this for a moment. I tend to think that people who want to bully others will find something to pick on, and if not clothes, it will be something else. My sister was bullied for being small, and I was bullied for being top of the class (and skinny and awkward and shy).

How Children are Taught

In France: The norm is still to learn by rote, with desks facing the front from 6 years old, and being expected to be still for hours; the emphasis is on writing skills with pencil and pen including joined-up writing, learning multiplication tables by heart, with daily ‘dictées’ (dictations) to enforce spelling ability. French grammar is taught from 6 years old onwards all the way to high school.

In England: the emphasis is on creativity and learning in practical ways using different approaches. Throughout most of primary schools, desks are organised in clusters of round tables. Whilst some work obviously requires sitting down at a desk, listening and being still, it is interspersed with group activities where walking around and talking is permitted. This culture of engaging creatively is also clear in the number of outings organised by the school and regular dress-up days (unheard of in France as far as I know), Christmas plays and other creative displays, as well as the large number of after-school and in-school clubs that exist.

It is not more evident that in the way that children learn to write. A friend of mine who moved from France to the UK a year ago told me this story: her eldest, who is 7 or 8, learnt to read and write in France. When she started school in England last year, she struggled initially to adjust to the new style of learning. She was asked to write a story that she had invented herself and found using her own imagination to create her own story really difficult to do initially. In France she had always been told what to write.

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