“It’s a culture you can sum up as T’es nul”

British lecturer Peter Gumbel attacks French education culture

A British academic has provoked a storm by claiming that the French education system robs its pupils of their self-esteemPeter G
Peter Gumbel began to reconsider his rosy view of French education when his own children started school in Paris.
A British teacher at one of the leading universities in Paris has produced an extraordinary indictment of France’s admired schools, saying they humiliate pupils and could learn much from other countries, including Britain.

In a book to be published this week, Peter Gumbel, a lecturer at the Institute of Political Science – known as Sciences Po – attacks a classroom culture that brands students “worthless” and that he says is counterproductive and contrary to France’s republican ideals. On achève bien les écoliers? (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They?) has already provoked a storm.

“Why is France the only country in the world that discourages children because of what they cannot do, rather than encouraging them to do what they can?” Gumbel writes. “I believe France is missing a key element of what’s wrong with the school system, an element that is immediately apparent to any foreigner who comes into contact with it: the harshness of the classroom culture.

“It’s a culture you can sum up as T’es nul (You’re worthless). You hear these words all the time in France.”

Gumbel says studies by World Health Organisation groups and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Europe reveal that, in France, more than six out of 10 schoolchildren complain of being anxious, four in 10 have difficulty sleeping, and more than two in 10 have a stomach or headache at least once a week. “These studies show that, while French children score quite highly in European studies on their ability and performance, when asked they rate themselves below countries with low levels of literacy,” he said. “So even when they have the ability, their self-esteem has been knocked out of them.”

Gumbel’s book praises British schools, which may surprise UK parents accustomed to having them compared unfavourably with those across the channel. He told the Observer: “Although the French with their national curriculum have maintained standards and avoided being dumbed down, their system focuses on the transmission of knowledge and doesn’t even remotely address the child or their wellbeing.

“There is more to school than getting good marks, and in Britain schools are not just a about your brain but about sport and arts and finding lots of different ways of excelling. The British system may focus less on results, but it nurtures self-esteem, personality and character, which is something totally missing from the French system and this is tragic.”

Gumbel’s attack has touched a nerve in France. On radio talk shows, his views have had overwhelming support from parents; his book was also given a six-page review in the respected news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

Philippe Meirieu, a professor in education science, admitted: “Our way of testing and evaluating [pupils] discourages creativity and the personal involvement of the pupils. This is the cause of the relative passivity they show and that Peter Gumbel deplores. If pupils hardly ask questions in class it’s because they don’t really feel bothered about what they’re being told or fear being stigmatised by their classmates.”

Patrick Gonthier, secretary- general of France’s second-biggest teaching union, Unsa Education, said: “Our teaching staff could take this as an attack, but they are not being blamed. It’s the whole French school system that is stubborn to change and remains profoundly elitist and dedicated to the grading and the selection of the best. For this to change and other teaching methods to be introduced into classes there has to be a strong consensus among professors, parents and politicians to challenge this elitism and focus on the success of everyone at school, and we are far from having that.”

Gumbel, 52, who also works as a journalist, has lived in Paris since 2002 and was prompted to criticise French schools, colleges and universities after putting his two daughters, now aged 10 and 13, into the education system.

“There are 16,000 new teachers entering French schools this term who are undoubtedly very clever but haven’t the slightest idea about how to teach, and that is scandalous,” he said. “The key to good schools, as other countries have discovered, is having good teachers.”

‘Nobody talks about happiness’

I used to think that French education was the best in the world, writes Peter Gumbel. Perhaps a little old-fashioned, but unlike the British or the Americans the French had resisted the temptation to dumb down their curriculum. That meant children left school at 18 with an admirably comprehensive knowledge of history, geography, maths, science and the liberal arts. And you didn’t need to spend a fortune on private schools, because the state system provided the best education in the country.

Then we moved to Paris and sent our two daughters to school.

The teachers seemed good on the whole, and the programme was as rigorous as anticipated, but something was amiss. There were obvious symptoms: tummy aches and other signs of stress, an unhealthy phobia about making mistakes and flashes of self-doubt. “I’m hopeless at maths,” my eldest daughter declared one day. “No, you’re not, you just need to work at it harder,” was my reply. “No, daddy, you don’t understand anything. I’m hopeless.”

It was only when I started teaching at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris that I figured out the problem. Better known as Sciences Po, it’s part of the “grandes écoles” network that has traditionally trained France’s political and business elite. To get in you need to have done fabulously well at school. The big surprise for me was not how bright these students were – and most are very, very bright – but how low their self-confidence was. Getting them to participate in classroom discussions was like pulling teeth. Exam time was trauma time: every year, several burst into tears during the oral.

That’s when I started wondering whether my experiences were simply anecdotal or part of a bigger, system-wide pattern. It didn’t take long to find a wealth of international comparative studies, conducted by the OECD and other respected institutions.

They show conclusively that French children overall are more anxious and intimidated in school than their peers in Europe or other developed countries. They’re so terrified by the idea of making mistakes and being lambasted for them, that they’d rather keep their mouths shut than put their hands up.

The French education system has focused so narrowly on the transmission of knowledge that it has ignored that other key function of school: to build character and personality. There’s almost no art, sport or music. Teamwork is an alien notion, as are such basic pedagogical concepts as positive reinforcement, and teachers receive only scant or no training in effective classroom techniques.

The French are right to uphold standards, particularly when compared with Britain, but in the classrooms they go about it the wrong way. As one reviewer of my book told me: “You’ve broken a taboo. Nobody ever talks about happiness at school here.”

On achève bien les écoliers (“They Shoot Schoolkids, Don’t They?”), by Peter Gumbel, will be published this week in French by Grasset.


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