The other French revolution

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
10 August, 2018

Last month France celebrated the storming of the Bastille, an assault that became a flashpoint for the French Revolution. As a fortress and prison, the Bastille was emblematic of the French monarchy. Its fall triggered the events that would lead to the formation of the First French Republic.

Coinciding with the Revolution’s bicentenary, in 1989 a second French revolution took place. Rather than in the streets of Paris, this one occurred in classrooms across the country. Though it involved no bloodshed, a study by the French Ministry of Education reveals it has more victims than the Revolution’s reign of terror. This time, though, the victims were not entitled aristocrats, but French school children.

Up until 1989, the French education system was self-avowedly egalitarian. Every French school child, rich or poor, was subjected to the rigours of the same national curriculum. The curriculum had its origins in the Revolution. A pamphlet by revolutionary politician Nicolas de Condorcet advocated teaching every French child “that knowledge which is common…and indispensable to all”.

Roll forward to the Revolution’s bicentenary and all this changed. In 1989 France passed new education laws – the loi Jospin. This required primary schools to stop teaching the national curriculum and instead tailor their teaching to the abilities, interests and cultures of each individual child.

In this, teaching in France began following the educational pedagogy prevalent in America and Britain - and of course in New Zealand. Instead of knowledge, the focus of education became general skills such as “critical thinking” and “lifelong learning”.

Two decades later, it became apparent that this second French revolution was a disaster. Crise de l’ecole, a report from France’s Ministry of Education, reported drastic declines in educational achievement by French ten-year-olds across all demographic groups. The French education system had declined from being among the best and most equitable school systems to being one of the worst and least.

Helpfully, the results are discussed in English in the latest book from celebrated American educationalist, Professor E. D. Hirsch, Why Knowledge Matters, Rescuing our Children From Failed Education Theories. With parents, teachers and politicians in New Zealand struggling to arrest a decade-and-a-half of decline in the levels of educational achievement among our own children, we can learn from France’s educational failure.

Perhaps it’s time for a counter-revolution.

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