Why are French school pupils so afraid of answering in class?

French primary school pupils are more reluctant than their European counterparts to stick their hands up in class to answer questions, a new study revealed. So what's the problem?

Why are French school pupils so afraid of answering in class?
Photo: AFP

France's National Assessment Council of schools (Conseil National d'Evaluation du Système Scolaire – Cnesco) released a new report this week that raised a few concerns about the French education system.

For a start the study revealed that pupils are struggling to write French and making far more grammatical errors than pupils did 20 years ago.

Cnesco also noted that “French pupils are among the most likely to not answer questions”, especially if the teacher is looking for a long answer.

The report referred to 9-year-olds, or those in Class CM1 (4th grade, year 5).

The report said the response level of 9-year-olds was less than the European average and when it came to long answers the gap was wider.

Some 15 percent of pupils would not give answers in France compared to the European average of nine percent.

While it might be hard to get an idea of the problem just from this stats, Paris-based French Education expert and author Peter Gumbel told The Local there is an explanation for the reluctance to respond.

“French kids don’t like to give answers if they’re not sure they’ll be right,” said Gumbel, who wrote a best-selling critique of the French school system in 2010, called “They Shoot School Kids, Don't They”.

“The risk is that they will be penalized for a wrong written answer: in other words, have marks deducted or, worse still, be mocked or humiliated in front of the class if they give an oral answer that is incorrect.

“Putting down children is unfortunately still quite deeply rooted in French teaching culture.

“It goes against everything we know today about effective educational practices, because it destroys kids’ self-confidence.”

Gumbel notes that the new government is trying to change the mentality but deeply ingrained French classroom culture means bringing about meaningful change will be difficult.

“Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer understands this, and is trying to shake things up. But he has a century or more of noxious classroom traditions against him,” said Gumbel.

The author who lectures at Sciences-Po university also wrote a strongly-worded critique of France's schools for The Local in 2016 titled “Ten ways France can fix its failing school system”

One of the problems of French schools that he identified was teachers being “horrible to the kids”.

“For foreigners, one of the most striking aspects of the French school system is its sheer nastiness,” wrote Gumbel.

“Nursery schools are where you learn to sit down and shut up.  Being creative is frowned upon.

“Making mistakes is unforgivable. The notion of positive reinforcement—that children will do better if they are encouraged—is long-established elsewhere but seems largely unknown here. Of course there are exceptions: some teachers are nurturing and very good.

“But the pitiless nature of French schools is baked into the system.”



Schools to close as French teachers strike over Covid rules

Around three-quarters of French teachers plan to go on strike onThursday to protest the government's shifting rules on Covid testing for students, forcing the closure of half the country's primary schools, a union said Tuesday.

Schools to close as French teachers strike over Covid rules
Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP

The strike led by the Snuipp-FSU union, the largest among primary school teachers, comes after the latest of several changes on testing and isolation requirements for potential Covid cases announced by Prime Minister Jean Castex late Monday.

After seeing long lines of parents outside pharmacies and labs in recent days to test children in classes where a case was detected, Castex said home tests could now be used to determine if a student could return to school.

But teachers say class disruptions have become unmanageable with the spread of the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant.

“Students cannot learn properly because attendance varies wildly, and a hybrid of in-house and distance learning is impossible to put in place,” the Snuipp-FSU said, adding that absent teachers are not being replaced.

It is also demanding the government provide facemasks for staff, including the more protective FFP2 masks, and CO2 monitors to check if classrooms are sufficiently ventilated.

“Not only does the current protocol not protect students, staff or their families, it has completely disorganised schools,” the union said, claiming that classes have effectively been turned into “daycare centres.”

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has said the government is doing everything possible to avoid outright school closures that could cause havoc for parents and jeopardise learning for thousands, especially those in low-income families.

“I know there is a lot of fatigue, of anxiety… but you don’t go on strike against a virus,” Blanquer told BFM television on Tuesday.

As of Monday some 10,000 classes had been shut nationwide because of Covid cases, representing around two percent of all primary school classes, Blanquer said.