The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Some English impressions of French Education

by E. S. Packer.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 325-338

A lecture given to the Reading Branch of the P.N.E.U.

I should like to say that the outset that I feel how utterly impossible it is for one whose knowledge and experience are as limited as mine to do justice to the vast subject of French Education. I hope, then, that you will take the facts thrown together in this paper for what they are--mere scattered impressions gained chiefly by personal observation, without any pretension to completeness.

The first characteristic of French Education that strikes a stranger is its "perfect systematisation." From the primary school to the university, every step of education is controlled by the State, there is none of the variety of English schools, no overlapping of systems controlled by distinct bodies, everything follows one plan. The system was established by the first Napoleon, and though it has, of course, been modified from time to time, it still "bears the stamp of his commanding mind." Throughout, his object was to make citizens and soldiers, and so we find that the individual is merged for the benefit of the State.

French Education is divided into three branches--primary, secondary, and academic. With the last of these we shall have nothing to do, it deals with the preparation of men for the various professions; we will turn our attention to the primary and secondary schools.

To begin with we must understand that the secondary schools do not in any sense continue the work of the primary; the two are quite distinct, and it is curious to note that in Republican France the difference between the primary and the secondary pupil is purely social and is based on the fact that the one pays for his education, the other does not. Despite the Liberty-Fraternity-Equality motto so freely sprinkled over France, children of all classes do not yet sit in the same school (as in America). Possibly such a motto is more convenient on church walls than in actual practice; but surely its disregard must lead to a grave loss of the children's democratic morals. And the gulf between the child of the primary school and that of the secondary exists all through life, for the object of the secondary education is the attainment of the Baccalaureat (a degree not quite equal to our B.A.) and the holding of this makes it practically impossible to enter commercial life.

The public primary schools, which correspond to our old Board schools, are free, and the education is purely secular. Education is compulsory, but parents are allowed to choose the means. Roman Catholic religious bodies have in this seen their opportunity and until recently many private primary schools have flourished where monks and nuns trained the children to be Catholics, as well as, or perhaps rather than, citizens. The present French Government takes the latter view, and by the recent Catholic Associations Act is endeavouring to close all Catholic schools and has already succeeded in many cases. It is doubtful whether the power of the Socialistic party will survive the forthcoming elections; a change of government will probably mean the restoration of the religious schools.

Every child is obliged to attend school between the ages of six and thirteen. Parents are expected to inform the mayor that they propose sending their child to such and such a school, whether public or private. If they choose to have a governess or tutor at home, the unlucky child will at the end of the year be examined by a committee of experts! If the poor little examinee fails to shine, (and small wonder if he does under such awe-inspiring conditions), his parents are ordered to send him to a school. This method, however, is now but seldom used.

The public primary school is generally much smaller than the English Board school. For infants there is what is called the Ecole Maternelle containing about three classes. The school for the older children is divided into three cours, the elementary for children from seven to nine, the intermediate for those from nine to eleven, and the superior for children over eleven. But this last course is usually missing in rural schools, as children at eleven are allowed to enter an examination for the "Certificate of Primary Studies" which exempts from further school attendance, and in the country this examination "has become for pupils whether they pass or fail the signal for departure en masse."

Come with me into a French infant school. We pass through a gravelled playground planted with trees. It is summer-time and one class has brought a form and a chair for the teacher out under the trees. The form is deserted and the excited little ones, the girls clad in coloured check pinafores, the boys in dark smocks, are clustering round their teacher, for she is telling them a "conte de fees" and fairy tales are as welcome in France as at home. The door by which we enter takes us into a large lofty room, the biggest in the school. A low seat projecting from the wall all round the room gives seats for the children yet leaves the middle space empty. This is not a class-room but a recreation room, where, however, reading or singing classes are sometimes held. The walls at once arrest our attention; on the whitewashed background the mistress has painted bold frescoes illustrating La Fontaine's Fables in most realistic fashion. These often form subjects for story lessons, and in the dinner hour we may see one young man of five or six relating to a younger brother one of the much-loved fables.

To this recreation hall the children come and sing, recite, and play kindergarten games. But it is class time just now; there are two class-rooms; in each are the dual desks now generally used in England, but in some schools the children sit at low tables each provided with a small chair. Round the room are pictures for illustrating object lessons, but it is noticeable that most of these are painted by the teacher; (as a rule, there is less apparatus in French schools than in English).

One class is having a writing lesson. The teacher has shown on the board the formation of various letters and now several tiny children come out and copy these, also on the board. All through their school-life, French children are made to use the blackboard freely and so can write on it clearly and well. In another class we hear a recapitulation of a previous object lesson on basket-making. The teacher asks, "Who can tell me how baskets are made?" And first one and then another of the mites will give quite a graphic account of the various processes. The power of expression is wonderfully developed in these five-year-olds. Where the right word is not known, the teacher or a class-mate supplies it. This is the beginning of that teaching of composition for which French schools should be famous, teaching which English schools would do right well to copy and which attains the proud result of making French prose "the most beautiful in the world, the envy and despair of foreigners." We will say more about it when talking of the upper schools.

In one corner of our infant school is a class without teacher. The children are drawing, and all seem intent on their work. They are not silent however, in fact both the writing and the drawing classes are most merry, and the entrance of the head mistress and English strangers does not overawe them in the least. Those who are drawing compare their achievements, some are even singing quietly to themselves. "Dreadful discipline" is it? Not at all. The mistress claps her hands and there is actually instant silence, the children stopping in whatever they are doing. This mistress believes that little children should be allowed to talk, sing and move about (without undue noise) during nearly the whole of school time, but imposes silence only occasionally by way of discipline. Of course this would be impossible with large classes, but in a small school it is excellent. The children are alive and gay, not mere machines.

In the teaching of arithmetic, as of writing, we see the children use the blackboard frequently. We ask what needlework is done? None. The official regulations prohibit its teaching at infant schools. I fancy most English teachers would heartily approve this wise regulation; surely a similar rule is necessary in our own schools to prevent increase of the shortsightedness now so common.

In the babies' room we find a bed where tired mites may sleep in peace, and many toys such as large dolls which dress and undress, dinner services, etc. By means of games with these, the children are taught many useful domestic lessons.

But it is now lunch time. We expect to see most of the children scamper home, but no! A few are called for by their mothers, but the majority go into the playground, where for a few minutes they amuse themselves with skipping ropes, etc., provided by the authorities. Presently the servant, who is an indispensable adjunct of a French infant school, tells them that lunch is ready; and then we enter a room we have not seen before; a room set with low tables and benches. From a big stove in one corner the teachers serve out hot meat soup to all the children, who pay according to the means of their parents, 1 1/2d., 1d., or 1/2d. The very poorest pay nothing. This system of dinners is found in most of the French primary schools and is of great benefit to the children whose mothers go out to work. Such children in England have often nothing to eat but dry bread brought from home in the morning.

Before we leave this school it is but fair to say that it is more or less of a "model," and that rural schools are often very badly equipped, and sometimes follow very antiquated methods.

I should like to give you a peep into another infant school, this time in a poor district. It is Saturday (which is a school day in France, however). The mistress is not in the classroom, she is giving her infants their weekly bath. In a separate building is a hot shower-bath and here the head mistress baths each child in turn and self-sacrificing work it is. Other teachers carefully dry and dress the children; if any of their garments are too old and ragged for wear, new ones are supplied from a store which the teachers have made. Precautions are taken to prevent these articles visiting the oddly named "mont de piete," that is, the pawnshop. After their ablutions each child is given a little cup of hot milk or tea "to prevent cold," for so great is the prejudice against baths that the teachers have to be most careful lest any child should take the least cold. Indeed this particular mistress told me that when she first started the baths she dare not tell the mothers in plain French what she was going to do, but asked their consent to "hygienic treatment" for their children.

Many town schools in poor districts have these baths and one cannot but admire the teachers who do so much for their children. Many of these teachers voluntarily give up part of their Thursday holiday to take their scholars, both infants and older children, into the country. A good deal of botany and natural history is acquired in most delightful fashion, and to many of the children the ramble in the open country and the simple gouter of bread and fruit eaten in the woods are the greatest treat of their lives. Yet in spite of the seeming advantage to the children, one is inclined to think that in France too much is done by the teachers; the parents become irresponsible, leaving to others duties which are properly theirs, and this cannot but have evil results in the future.

But we must hasten to speak of the primary school for elder scholars. In large schools, each of the three courses, elementary, intermediate, and superior, will be divided into sections; in small schools there will be only one class for each, and as we have noticed before, the superior course may be absent. The appearance of the schools I visited compared unfavourably with that of the English Board Schools--the white-washed walls have few pictures to relieve their bareness, the desks were old and uncomfortable. Prominent on the wall was the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and also the notice of the law forbidding teachers to use corporal punishment. The prohibition itself is doubtless a wise one, but is it wise to parade the helplessness of the teacher before the children? Authority is most imposing when it has reserve power of unknown extent. Unhappily, there seem to be some children for whom corporal punishment is the only means of salvation, and these are just the children who would glory in disobeying a teacher whose power was so evidently limited.

School gardens are very common in France, many schools have museums, some have gymnasiums and a few have manual workshops fitted up. Manual training is compulsory throughout France, but it is generally given in the ordinary classrooms, and, indeed, in rural schools is often neglected entirely.

The teaching in the French primary school is, with certain important exceptions, very similar to that given in the English elementary school.

In arithmetic the metric system is of course the one in vogue; in many schools the work is much less mechanical than it often is with us. Children of seven and eight successfully tackle problems which show they are at home with the principles involved.

In most elementary schools the teaching of geography is almost entirely confined to that of France (which is studied very thoroughly) and the French Colonies. Of other parts of the world, only general facts seem to be known. Probably the average French child knows less of England than the English child of France.

The French study of history is superior to ours; even in the primary school, children not only study the history of their own country, but also gain general notions of the history of Egypt, the Israelites, Greece, Rome, medieval and modern Europe. This gives them an idea of the development of the world's civilisation as a whole, which English Board School children entirely lack, and should certainly be a help towards that making of citizens which is one of the fundamental aims of French education.

In the primary schools, as in all others, the teaching of composition takes the first place. As one French teacher expressed it, "the composition francaise is the result of all the learning and study of the pupil and is the most personal work he does, since it requires his individual thought. Hence, throughout the child's school life the first importance is given to composition." The orderly and logical sequence of ideas is secured by means of plans drawn up before the commencement of the essay proper. The child is made to seek suitable "transitions" from one part of his subject to the other, and to search for the right word to express his meaning and not be content with the first that occurs. After correcting the essays, the teacher goes through each in class, and generally assists the children to draw up a model plan. Many teachers keep a separate register for composition and record therein the special faults of each child's work. Children are trained to appreciate literary style by the study of the great French writers in a lesson known as Lecture Expliquée. We have, as a rule, no similar lesson in our schools. A passage of a dramatist or a prose writer is prepared beforehand and then read in class. Different children explain difficult passages, and draw attention to peculiarities of language while the teacher helps the pupils to discover wherein the beauty or strength of the style consists.

Two other subjects of instruction we must note. In all public schools, the place of religious teaching is taken by that of morale or ethics. Acting on the philosopher's belief that no man can be virtuous without knowledge of what virtue is, the State orders instruction to be given on such subjects as duty, justice, courage, etc. Certainly it seems right that if religion itself is not taught, the children should at least learn the morality which is common to all religions. At the same time, it appears doubtful whether morality given in doses out of a text-book does much practical good, especially when administered by a teacher who is heartily disliked. Goodness must be inculcated by example, not "taught" as a classroom subject.

Another subject the teaching of which interests the foreigner is that of civic instruction. In the elementary course, the children become familiar with the meaning of such terms as law, citizen, army, soldier. In the middle course, this instruction is extended to ideas of civil right and liberty, communal and civil obligations, etc. In the top course, the teacher gives full discussions on the various political institutions of France. Certainly the effect of this teaching is to make French children very patriotic--ultra-patriotic one might almost say, as in some cases love of the home country degenerates into bigoted dislike of the foreigner.

Recently French people have awakened to the fact that intemperance is working fearful havoc amongst them, and in many schools lessons are given on the evils of alcoholism. In some schools a weekly lesson on this subject is compulsory.

In the primary school the daily teaching hours are six instead of the English five or five-and-a-half; and the one holiday of any length is the mid-summer vacation, only a few days being given at the New Year and at Easter. Generally speaking, French scholars work much harder than their English compeers.

As has been previously mentioned, any child over eleven who passes the examination for the "Certificat d'Etudes" is exempt from further school attendance. This examination is equivalent to that of Standard V. in an English school.

Before leaving the primary school, I will quote the summary of its scholars' acquirements given by an educational expert ([Thomas Henry] Teegan):--"The young scholar who passes from the elementary primary school at the age of thirteen, having spent two years at least in the superior cours, has been taught to speak with grammatical correctness, to write and read the French language with ease and fluency, and to recite from memory many fine selections from the poets. He has read in the school some of the best scenes from the great French dramatists; he has acquired general ideas of the history of antiquity--Egypt, the Israelites, Greece, Rome--of the Middle Ages of Modern Europe, and a deeper knowledge of the history of France, with special reference to its modern history, of the French Colonies, and of the main features of the physical and political history of Europe. He has also acquired a knowledge of arithmetic in its most useful forms, including the metric system, interest and discount; he has got elementary notions of geometry; freehand, model, and geometric drawing; a very elementary course of physical and natural science, agriculture, music and civic instruction, this last embracing the main features of the French constitution, such as the constitutional functions of the President of the Republic, of the Senate, of the Chamber of Deputies, of the Central and Departmental Administration, of the Army, etc. This course of instruction does not pretend to depth, but rather to be of general utility." [Elementary Education in France]

"The aim of the French teacher is not to try to exhaust any subject, but to teach his pupils just those things that everyone must know."

And now a few facts about the Ecole Primaire Supérieure, which roughly corresponds to our Higher Grade School. In some small places there is no true higher primary school, but only a "complementary course" added to the ordinary school. But the real higher primary school is held in a separate building and its teachers hold special diplomas and are more highly paid than primary teachers.

The course at these schools extends over three or four years, pupils may not enter under twelve years of age, and must hold the certificate of primary studies. A noteworthy fact is that not only are books and instruction free, but in the case of poor scholars, maintenance bursaries are given to permit of their remaining at school. Thus any child, however poor, who has ability to pass the yearly examinations is entitled to this extended education.

In the higher primary school proper, the course of instruction is a continuation of the elementary work, with increasing attention paid to literature and composition and also to science. Pupils work for the "Brevet Elementaire," a certificate which is sought after both in private and public schools as the token of a fair elementary education. Many of these scholars proceed to the Ecole Normale for training as elementary teachers. But other higher primary schools are now doing excellent work; "professional schools" they are called, and in these, the training is technical. The girls study cookery, millinery, dressmaking, laundry work; the boys carpentry or commercial subjects. These schools are intended for children about to take up various trades and the teaching seems to give them an excellent start in their life work.

And now it is high time to turn to the secondary schools, of which only brief mention must be made; we recollect that the fundamental difference between them and the primary schools is that in the former, education is paid for, in the latter it is free.

The public schools are of two kinds, the Lycées and the Communal Colleges. Of these, the Lycées rank first though the difference is not great. These are the French high schools. All French parents ambitious for their children strive to send them to the Lycée, for between the pupil of the primary school and that of the Lycée is a "deep and impassable gulf" and the social status of the child is largely determined by his parents' choice of school.

There is no time to make special mention of private schools, and indeed their work is on much the same lines as that of the public schools, the same examinations being entered for in both cases.

In girls' Lycées there is the ordinary literary education with a moderate proportion of science and art. The examinations worked for are the Certificat d'Etudes and the "Brevets" elementary and superior. The Brevet Supérieur is probably about equivalent to matriculation.

In the boys' Lycées the object of all is to get the Bachelor degree, and therefore the education is chiefly classical, though to meet present-day needs, a "modern" course has also been established substituting science, modern languages and the study of ancient literature by means of translations, for the usual classics. In the Lycées as in all other French schools the study of literature and style is foremost in importance.

The system of teachers in Lycées is curious. There are two kinds, the professeurs who only visit the school to give their lectures and never mingle with the pupils out of class, and the tutors who go over the lectures of the professeurs with the pupils and give supplementary explanations, see that the homework is done, and finally superintend the pupils at all times from morn till night, in class and out. The professeurs are usually men with high University qualifications and specialists in their subjects. This dual system of teachers and ushers is, I think, to be condemned from the moral point of view, as the influence of the professeur on his scholars is thereby lost, and the usher to whom the moral supervision of the pupil is left can by no means have the authority which he would exercise were he also teacher.

But the chief thing I would ask you to notice is that both private and public secondary schools are organized as boarding schools, and the life of the pupils is consequently far more restricted than is that of the primary school children.

Day pupils are of course admitted (sedulously conducted to and from school by relatives or servants), but the majority of pupils are internes--and what loss of freedom does that word convey! Boys and girls are subjected to supervision of the most vigorous and personal kind during every one of the twenty-four hours. The children are allowed no freedom of initiative; the life of rule and regulation is, as a critic has said, "one of the most intense monasticism," and utterly fails to train the children in the self-reliance so necessary in after life. M. Maneuvrier, a French expert, tells us that French secondary schools cannot form citizens and that they kill all initiative, energy, and will. Released at the end of school days, after eight or ten years of prison-like life, the pupil is incapable of self-government and frequently abuses his newly-gained liberty.

The system of espionage so vividly described in Charlotte Bronte's Villette still holds sway in the majority of schools; indeed the whole description of Madame Bec's establishment gives a better idea of French boarding schools than anything could, short of actual residence.

Connected with the general restraint of boarding school life is the lack of all adequate physical exercise. The hours of study are much longer, and possibly a greater store of knowledge is gained, but at what cost! Until recently there were no organised games; in the courtyard the pupils never played, never shouted, rarely sang. They walked round and round the dismal treeless court and crouched in corners when it was wet. Compare this with the joyous healthy life of the English public school. It is [Jean-Marie] Guyau, a Frenchman, who says--"What do they (these schools) turn out for the community? A ridiculous little mandarin who has no muscles, who cannot leap a gate; who cannot give his elbows play or fire a gun or ride; who is afraid of everything." But I am glad to say that in the boys' schools, at least, this state of affairs is rapidly coming to an end. Physical education is making steady advance. Gymnasiums are erected and used, cricket and even football are being taken up with enthusiasm. The effect of this change on the boys' physique already begins to show itself. For the girls, physical education is still a thing of the future. The daily recreation generally takes the form of walking round the court or sitting under the trees; croquet is the most exciting game indulged in. The girls never go out except to visit their friends on Sunday and for the weekly promenade of Thursday afternoon. Oh, that promenade! Imagine after being shut up the whole week without the chance of even moderate exercise, to be compelled to walk even in the intense heat for two-and-a-half hours at a stretch. No wonder the girls hate walking and invent every excuse to avoid it. But slowly, both the notions which made it improper for even a grown-up girl of the better class to go out alone, and those which condemn physical exercise as unnecessary or unladylike, are passing away, and we may hope that before long French girls will enjoy the free healthy life of their English sisters.

Before I close I should like just to touch on one or two other points. First, as to examinations. There is not the multiplicity of examinations on different lines which perplex English teachers and pupils alike. Broadly speaking, there are only the three, the Certificat d'Etude, the Brevet Simple, and the Brevet Supérieur (which are entered for by pupils of both primary and secondary schools); and then the University examinations. Every examination, from the Certificat d'Etudes to that for the professorship of a Lycée, consists of two parts, one viva-voce and the other written. The method of examination is curious. The oral comes first. Parents and friends are admitted to hear how the pupils acquit themselves. Only the candidates who have survived the ordeal of the "viva" are allowed to enter for the written examination. The papers are short and are marked as soon as written by a staff of examiners on the spot. A list of those who have passed in the first day's papers is read at 6 p.m. Again the failures retire from the contest, and the successful remainder alone take the second day's papers. This sifting process continues throughout the examination and it obviates the disagreeable waiting for results so tedious to English examinees and also saves much marking of papers. Possibly the oral examination is responsible for the excessive memory work characteristic of all French schools. To study means there to learn by heart, and even pages of science are often repeated word for word. Of course, this frequently leads to unintelligent work.

Then as to the training of teachers. In France there is no pupil-teacher system. Primary teachers are educated for three years in the Ecole Normale, having previously passed the Brevet Elementaire examination, and taking the Brevet Supérieur on leaving. Many fail in the latter examination, so a number of French teachers have only the first Brevet. (I must mention, however, that no one can in France open even a private school without a State Diploma certifying his or her qualifications.) To return to the Normal School (the equivalent of our training college). Admission is absolutely free, but students bind themselves to teach for the long period of eleven years. The free education results in primary teachers being of a rather lower class than in England, and some few would seem hardly suitable to have the training of children.

All that has been said of the prison-like life of the Lycée applies equally to the Ecole Normale and has even graver results, for those young teachers are often cast at nineteen years of age into a rural school where they know no one, live alone and must depend entirely on themselves. The cloistered life of the Ecole Normale has been the worst possible preparation for a life which requires no little discretion and self-reliance.

One more point; our pupil-teacher system certainly has its faults, but at least it gives students a chance of overcoming some of the most flagrant faults in teaching before they spoil many children. In France, students go straight from school to the Ecole Normale, where they gain the miserably inadequate experience of the practising school, and are then turned out as teachers, often with a whole village school to direct. No wonder the results are sometimes disastrous!

Some teachers for the secondary schools are trained in an Ecole Normale Supérieure, but many of the professeurs are men of high University distinction without special training in teaching. It is noticeable that all posts, even up to the Directorate of an Ecole Normale, are awarded by competitive examination. This is no doubt admirable where lower posts are concerned; but surely in the principal of a college, other qualities are necessary than those which shine in examinations.

And now to sum up. We have seen that French education has some grave faults--the boarding school system is artificial and but a poor preparation for life, the lack of proper games and exercise has a disastrous effect on the French physique, the cut and dried curricula fixed immutably by the State tend to repress the individuality of the pupils; yet in spite of these defects France can teach England some important lessons. The higher primary education and the training for the teaching profession are open to all with sufficient ability to pass the requisite examinations (not only to those who head the lists); elementary school children are taught the duties and privileges of citizens so that in after life they may take an intelligent part in national affairs; lastly the French believe that the best way to honour their mother tongue is to speak it well and study its literature, and have thus become as a nation the most elegant stylists in the world.

Typed by Wrenn, Sept. 2023; Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023