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"Nobody talks about happiness"

 Peter Gumbel, lecturer in the school of journalism, Sciences Po.   Photo: Lea Crespi for the Observer

Interesting piece in today's Observer newspaper, drawing on a book published this week by British lecturer and journalist Peter Gumbel who works at Sciences Po in Paris. His book entitled On achève bien les écoliers? (Grasset) attacks the French education system for failing to build the self-esteem of French children. Nobody seems to talk about the happiness of children in schools. Whilst he agrees that the system has avoided "dumbing down" (unlike, he claims, the British system), it has been too negative towards children and makes them feel they are useless. French schoolchildren feel anxious, stressed and are frightened to speak out in class for fear of looking silly. He also mentions how poorly France trains its teachers (see my previous post) and seems to have forgotten that the basis of any good school is good teachers.

Anyway, here's the piece. Worth a look.

I guess it's hard to make a judgement on this as a virtual outsider, though his conclusions do not surprise me a bit. Pastoral support is not as well developed as in the UK, the curriculum encourages a "mug and jug" approach ("un style magistral"), extra-curricular activities are relatively limited, teachers are poorly trained and pressures on children are high. Teachers often complain that their schemes of work are "surchargés". Just as we are obsessed by our targets, league tables and grades, the French still over-value the mark out of 20 and the "moyenne". On the other hard, accountability is very limited when compared to the British system. If French teachers had to deal with our performance management system they would go on strike even before a hat was dropped.

And it's not as if standards are especially high. Despite what it says in the Observer article, international comparisons, for what they are worth, are not very flattering for the French.

Looks like the Observer and the Nouvel Obs are the only publications to latch on to this story so far. For more detail and comments see:

Are countries introspective when it comes to their education systems? We could learn so much from each other.


  1. This is so very true for colleges and lycees (maybe not for primary school). I witnessed year after year how my absolutely self-confident, articulate nine year old turns into a vegetable in his atrocious (but good) school. And the teachers were competent in their "matieres" but either old and cranky and distributing punishement instead of teaching, or young and unhappy and just unable to cope.

    And this year, his last, thankfully, the new "proviseurs" greeted them with menaces of what they cannot do. Not a single word of encouragement and welcome back after vacation. Sickening, really.

    As a historian and resercher myself I was just amused at the methodology of one half-mad teacher and her "textes a trous" that we filled in for hours without even knowing what we were reading. The punishement for not completing this completely futile exercise was 0. Those 0s destroyed my son's motivation for history.

    There are always shining exceptions (my son's German teachers) but they are so rare that one wonders how are they possible at all.

    Well, however, this system also builts character, but I wonder it is the one we want to dominate the next half a century.

  2. "Are countries introspective when it comes to their own education system?" A good question indeed... Often foreigners who have come to live and to love a country are able to have the needed insight to comment so aptly. A good illustration is Theodore Zeldin and his "The French" in particular. As a French teacher of FLE abroad I will endeavour to read Gumbel and expect to find there fluffy thoughts of mine articulated and substantiated eloquently and expertly.

  3. I'd also like to read his book, though when I checked it out on Amazon it looked horribly expensive.


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