I am so glad I am not sending La Fille to school in London. I would not mind at all living in London, but when it comes to education I do not think I could bear the stress; the middle class preoccupation of studying Ofsted lists, ranks and reports, worrying about where catchment areas begin and end and dragging La Fille to church on Sunday mornings. I can sense the competition even among the pram pushers in the local park. It makes me weary just thinking about it.
Walking past a preparatory school in central London recently I felt homesick at the sight of pupils charging about the playground in their smart uniforms. The boys were in caps and the girls had boaters. Straw boaters with ribbons! I would die to see La Fille in a ribboned boater but French schools do not do uniforms. Then I shuddered. If I lived in London I would be beating myself up about whether I should, could, would send La Fille to a private school . Would it give her a head start or just make her think that everyone's Mum has a 4 x 4? Could we even borrow enough for the swooning fees (probably not)? One friend who sent her now grown-up children to private schools says there were months when she wondered if they would have enough money to eat. Other friends moving back to the UK from abroad are congratulating themselves on having got their children into a private school charging what they consider bargain basement fees of £3,300 a term not including uniforms, lunch and extra-curricular activities. Another friend worked out that if he sent all three of his children to private schools it would cost between £75,000 and £90,000 a year. Net.
In France, I was relieved to read, only the thick go to private schools. I do not know if it is true, but it is generally acknowledged that state education is best, on the whole. There are still frustrations. We registered La Fille at our local mairie (town hall) for 'maternelle' or nursery school starting in September. School is not compulsory before the age of five but there is something like a 98 % take up for the free state-run maternelles for three-year-olds. Anyone who does not enrol their child is considered a bit weird. As an English mother I am already considered weird so I have less room for manoeuvre. As with most brushes with French administration, registering was not as simple as it sounded. We assumed La Fille would be assigned to the nursery school just around the corner. Instead, apparently we come under the catchment area of another school further away. When we challenged this we were told it was the same distance. It is, as the crow flies. But as neither we nor La Fille had grown wings the last time I checked, it is further away. If we want to change we must apply for a "derogation". This involves making an appointment to see the head of the school La Fille has been assigned but that we do not want her to attend to ask her for permission to apply to the nearer school. Great, bet the heads love that.
I have just learned that friends of friends are moving to France for the sole reason that they want their children can be educated there. Good luck to them. I am not an unconditional fan of the French education system. From what I have deduced from the experiences of my very clever and beautiful stepdaughter (La Belle Belle-Fille) it is tough and demanding but also unimaginative and formulaic (my conclusion not hers). I have the impression it is the kind of rigid learning by rote popular in the UK in the 1950s. It does not encourage original thinking or sports, arts or music, but concentrates largely on maths and science. The three main Baccalaureats - in science, economics or literature - are supposed to carry equal weight but in reality are rated in that order; a Bac Science being considered much more prestigious than a Bac Literature. I was horrified to learn that although La Belle Belle-Fille was doing a top notch Bac S and studying English as a first language (German, second) she did not need to learn how to speak it. She told me there was no point me forcing her do so over dinner because there is no oral in the Bac. I said: "Great. So when you go to London you're going to pass notes to everyone instead of opening your mouth." I was doubly horrified when she said bilingual classmates were marked down because they were considered to have an "unfair advantage" over the others. This is very French but not very logical. Surely, you are either good at a subject or not?
My first reaction was: "This would not happen in the UK. Imagine Stephen Hawking's children being marked down in science because their dad wrote 'A Short History of Time' and has a brain the size of a planet." Then I pick up the papers and learn they are doing away with oral tests in GCSE exams. I take it all back. It would happen in the UK. It is happening.