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June 03, 2011

The educational establishment in France has made all the same mistakes as it has in England, and it too lacks courage - argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Education: they do this much better in France. Or do they?

National stereotypes die harder than reality, behind which they often lag by decades. In France a furled umbrella and a bowler hat still mean Englishnesss, though I haven't seen a bowler worn for years. In England, a beret still means Frenchness, though baseball caps are thousands of times more often seen there (alas) than berets.

When it comes to education, in fact, they order things much the same in France as they do in England - which is to say badly. What is curious is that, though neither country looks across the Channel to see what the other is doing, they both do the same, and for the same absurd reasons. The Zeitgeist is thus like a miasma as conceived in old medical theory, that spreads across countries in meteorological fashion, bringing irreparable devastation with it.

One of our stereotypes about France is that its educational system is good; but, reading a book just published about it - Le pacte immoral: comment ils sacrifient l’éduation de nos enfants, by a journalist called Sophie Coignard - I could easily have believed that I was reading about England.

The similarities, both in causes and effects, were startling. I will just take a few of them at random.

In France, as in England, recent governments have made education a supposed priority. They have done this for the same ostensible reasons: standards have been falling despite vast state expenditures, such that about 20 per cent, perhaps more, of French children leave school unable to read, write or reckon with facility. Reforms are introduced one after the other and abandoned in favour of yet other reforms before they have time to fail. Every such reform has its accompanying rhetoric, promising to raise standards, promote equality and prepare children for the outside world. None ever works, except in the sense of providing bureaucratic employment.

Illiteracy has been actively promoted by the use of whole-word teaching methods, so idiotic that that they could be have been dreamt up only by a leisured professoriat in search of occupation. Spelling and grammar have been deemed oppressive to the lower orders, whose natural creativity is stunted by them. The result has been a general decline in accomplishment, even in the higher reaches of the system: entrants to the Grandes écoles now commonly make spelling errors that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

When the minister tries to reform teaching methods, he is greeted as an ignorant buffoon who knows nothing of pedagogy. The arguments raised against his attempts are various and contradictory:
i) studies show that children who learn for themselves to decipher words – as if they were Chompollion - do best;
ii) the method is not used anyway, it has long been superseded;
iii) the method is used in conjunction with phonetic methods, the combination being better that the use of a single method;
iv) it is wrong for teachers to spoon feed children, they should be facilitators of learning how to learn.

The bureaucracy subverts any feeble attempts by the political masters to rectify matters, as do the teachers' unions, who deny ferociously that there is anything wrong in case it should lead to a requirement for change. For them, only more resources (dread word) will solve the problem, if any has to be admitted. Meanwhile, the political elites, spouting egalitarianism like the fountain in Lake Geneva, avoid the whole problem for their own children by making arrangements for them to go to the best schools: le patron ne mange pas ici. Hiding behind the sanctity of private life, the elites do not allow anyone to pry into their own arrangements.

Procedural outcomes are always to be preferred to real ones. Do not, therefore, set a level which children must reach in order to obtain a certificate; decree, rather, what percentage of children must obtain a certificate. Hey presto, without any effort at all (give or take a circular or two), the target will be reached, and standards, as measured by the percentage of children obtaining the certificate, will rise. In this bureaucratic world, the price of eternal success is eternal failure: but the people succeeding will always be different from the people failing. A nomenklatura is created and perpetuated.

Refinements are, of course, needed. For example, it is necessary to infiltrate the school inspectorate with people thoroughly indoctrinated with the new pedagogical theories and, to make doubly sure that there is no rebellion in, or bean-spilling by, the ranks, to give them a whole lot of irrelevant things to inspect and measure, not anything essential or refractory to spin-doctoring. Thus fire drill is more important than mental arithmetic, and sensitivity to the alleged (and easily inflamed) sensibilities of minority groups more important than spelling.

The author gives concrete examples of how feeble attempts to save money – inevitable after so many years of wasting it - take place behind a smokescreen of ideological justification. Thus in France it was decided to stop the practice of making children repeat a year if they failed to reach the standard required for the following year. The official justification given for stopping this practice was that no child had to repeat a year in Finland, and Finland has the highest standard of education in the world. The effrontery of this reasoning scarcely needs elaboration; and it has all too-predictable practical results.

The author - who could have been writing about England, give or take a detail - concludes:

Unfortunately, the rescue of national education requires something else, a commodity much rarer than money: courage. The courage to transmit a sense of effort to children, to give teachers a sense of vocation...
She says also that the system should be both exigent as to standards and transparent as to results: to which we can only say, Amen to that. But the problem is that, with the current personnel and bureaucratic structure, there is no way of attaining these desirable ends. The probity, of the kind that makes the Finnish system work, has gone, and once it has gone, it has gone for good. You cannot make eggs out of an omelette.

Something else is needed, not perhaps in Finland or in Sweden, but in England and in France. Without it, we are doomed to decadence.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. Most recently, he is the author of Mr Clarke's Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil, also available as a Kindle download from and from

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If this were a courageous article it would have used the term IQ.

Posted by: Anonymous at June 3, 2011 07:39 PM
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