Having been through the entire French educational system – from école maternelle to lycée – The Daughter seems resolved to finish her studies in the UK. Therein lies the reason for a recent frenetic trip to the mother country. Three of us squashed inside a Peugeot 107, no bigger than a Dinky toy, travelling almost the length of Britain not once but twice.
It’s a long, long way from Southampton to Edinburgh and back again. Having ‘done’ the open days at the Glasgow and Edinburgh schools of art and been suitably impressed by the facilities and the teaching staff (who appear to have taken a vow to redress the sins of the ‘History Man’ generation of teaching staff, the self-important toads who looked upon students as either irritants or opportunities for an inappropriate relationship), we negotiated some of the busiest arterial roads of our island. It was the clichéd ‘white-knuckle ride’. By some fortuitous stroke of timing, we somehow kept avoiding the Friday evening queues about which the road signs regularly alerted us. Only stopping every two hours to swap drivers and/or avail ourselves of the sanitary facilities, we reached my sister’s on the edge of Southampton ‘round midnight. My neck and shoulders had fused.
The contrast three days later with the journey south from Dieppe couldn’t have been more marked. On a French motorway like the A20, you simply point the car in the right direction, switch to automatic pilot and just check your mirrors from time to time to verify that there’s still no one behind you. Zounds! You can almost get away with playing solitaire on the dashboard. It’s one of the remaining pleasures of living in France.
Given the journey involved in getting to Scotland and back, we might be forgiven for trying to persuade our girl to apply for a French fac like any other sensible member of the expat community. But she is determined to go anywhere other than France for the final part(s) of her education.
That might seem rather strange. Expat parents often compare the French system favourably to the British one: pupils work hard, they learn to read and spell and develop nice neat loopy handwriting, there’s more discipline in the classroom, they seem to achieve better academic results and the final qualification still has some market value. Like many aspects of French society, there is a suspicion that rigidity and standardisation are valued more highly than creativity and individualism. But then, maybe a system that produces socio-clones rather than sociopaths is better for everyone.
When you talk to our daughter about her experiences here, however, you realise why she wants to go elsewhere for what should be the most creative period of her education. Way back in école maternelle, when she was busy absorbing a new language and practising the precise boucles required for tying her shoe laces, every afternoon after lunch she would be made to lie down and nap even though she never felt the need for an afternoon sleep because she always went to bed at a sensible hour.
From école primaire onwards, she grew accustomed to hours of devoirs, regular tests and learning long poems to recite in front of her classmates. The idea behind this last requirement, we gathered, is to develop the power of recall – presumably so you are better able to regurgitate at exam stage what you’ve stuffed in during revision. Again, you could argue that this is very practical. If it’s all right for previous generations, then it should be all right for our daughter’s generation, but as a parent you see how many precious hours of childhood are wasted in the pursuit of total recall. It can’t endear you to the process of learning and surely only suggests that there is one acceptable way of doing things and one way only.
During this time and later when she graduated to collège, her experience of the education system here was also coloured by the difficulty of being a vegetarian among carnivores. If it wasn’t difficult enough being the only foreigner in her class, she was then expected to assert her rights as the only non-meat eater. No wonder she shied away from confrontation and ate without protest the buttered pasta or the French beans that she was given.
Things have been better since she went to lycée. For one thing, she can eat lunch with her mother. Resisting the pressure to follow a bac scientifique, to which many of the undecided succumb, has opened up a whole new exciting world of history of arts, with school trips to places like Venice and Paris. She appreciates the links to local museums and galleries and the fact that she gets free admission to Brive’s art-house cinema. Nevertheless, it’s all still very academically orientated and there’s still very much a right and a wrong way of doing things.
In my day, for example, we were taught the value of an introduction, a main body and a conclusion, but it appears that even the introduction has to be broken down into distinct elements. Whenever I suggest that teachers surely are more interested in her views rather than a digest of critical thought, I’m told that I simply don’t understand the way it is. Only the other evening, she was in floods of tears because she couldn’t come to grips with the required structure of her first Philosophy essay. I’ve heard of children here who have jumped out of top-floor windows or found other ways to express their inability to cope with the pressures of the educational system. Thankfully I managed to persuade our girl that there are more important things in life than Philosophy essays.
Once, I had a long conversation with a student from Limoges University on the train to Paris. What she told me suggested that higher education here is more of the same. Courses, she said, are generally over-subscribed and the authorities try to prune numbers by means of difficult exams at the end of the first year. I know it always rains in Limoges, but she didn’t seem to be having a whole lot of fun during the one time in your life when you get treated as an adult, but don’t have to shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood.
The Daughter wants to learn, but she also wants to have a little fun. She is leaning towards Edinburgh now. Provided that she gets in and the tuition fees don’t soar to English levels, she should be happy as an art student in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I only hope that she won’t come to the same conclusion that two other daughters of expat friends came to after enduring a solitary difficult year at an English university: that British students’ principal idea of having fun is to get (as they used to say in Sheffield) ‘bladdered’.