They Shoot School Kids, Don’t They?

"A must read for parents"
- Le Nouvel Observateur

"The book that has provoked a storm in France"
- The Observer

71 % of French school children suffer regularly from irritability.
63 % complain about bouts of nervousness.
One in four has tummy aches or headaches once a week, or more frequently.
40 % have difficulty sleeping.

Why is France the only country in the world that discourages children because of what they cannot do, rather than encouraging them to do what they can?

Ever since I arrived in Paris since 2002, I’ve been fascinated by the national debate about what’s gone wrong with French education. As an English journalist writing for the American media, I have a professional interest in this debate, but also a personal one: my two daughters go to school here and I teach on a part-time basis at Sciences Po.

I wrote this essay because I believe that France is missing a key element of what’s wrong with the school system, an element that is immediately apparent to any foreigner who comes into contact with it: the harshness of the classroom culture. It’s a culture you can sum up in three words: “t’es nul.” (“You’re worthless”). You hear these words all the time in France. You used to hear them a lot in other European countries, too, but in places like England and Germany, the old humiliating approach to education has long since been replaced by a more nurturing, positive one that seeks to encourage rather than to put down.

Why does France persist with this culture of negativity? Could it be that the French themselves don’t realize just how counterproductive their teaching methods can be, and how out of sync with the rest of the world?

I don’t expect everyone to agree with my conclusions. But in pointing out what is self-evident to a foreigner, I hope to make an original contribution to the ongoing national debate.

You can read an excerpt of my book here.