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SCHOOL

The Paris school with no classrooms where pupils decide what to learn

Radically different from the traditional, somewhat rigid French school system, this Paris establishment has no classrooms, no lesson plans and the pupils have an equal say in how it is run. Mum-of-two Naomi Fisher explains more.

The Paris school with no classrooms where pupils decide what to learn
Democratic schools offer a radically different model from the traditional French classroom. Photo: AFP

Last winter it snowed in Paris. My daughter couldn’t wait to get to school. One of the staff members was outside with four girls, having a snowball fight. “J’arrive!’ she cried as she joined them, laughing.  

My son, on the other hand, wanted to get out of the cold as soon as possible. He settled down inside to play Minecraft.

If you think that sounds unusual, you’d be right. The school they attend, L'École Dynamique, is almost entirely unlike what most of us expect when we hear the word ‘school’.  Here, children and staff run the school together.

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The philosophy is one of democratic self-directed education, which has at its heart the principle that learning is most efficient when it is unforced and meaningful to the learner.  

There are no classrooms. There is a common room with a kitchen, a quiet room, a play room, an art room, a music room and a computer room. The children, staff and volunteers make decisions on how the school should be run during the weekly school meeting. Students and adults enforce the rules together.

The school currently has around 45 students aged between 7 and 19 and they mingle freely. Adults are there to help when needed, but they aren’t there as teachers. At any one time you might see people playing board games, working on a computer, cooking, turning cartwheels, drawing pictures or just chatting.  

It’s hard to believe that this can actually work, since it is so different to conventional approaches to education. However, there is a long tradition of democratic self-directed education in Europe and around the world.  

Naomi Fisher's children at L'Ecole Dynamique in Paris. Photo: Naomi Fisher

A famous example is Summerhill, founded in the UK in 1921 and still open today. Studies of the graduates of democratic schools have found that they can go on to live successful and meaningful lives. Many attend university or other formal education as young adults.

The French state school system isn’t known for its flexibility, and it’s perhaps this that has led to the recent increase in democratic education.  

In the past few years, over 40 democratic schools have opened in France, with many more projects in the planning stage. The schools are hors contrat, which means that parents have to pay fees, although scholarships are offered and some use a sliding scale.  

A key part of the democratic school ethos is an acceptance and respect for each child for whom they are, right now.  

Students call staff by their first names, and each person, no matter how old they are, has an equal vote at the school meeting. Children with special educational needs are included, the important factors being whether they are able to be independent within the school, and to respect the authority of the school meeting.

The school does not use shame or humiliation to control behaviour.

It’s a radical alternative, but one which is in line with the French ideals of égalité and liberté

Staff do not routinely report back on children’s progress or behaviour to their parents. This makes for a very distinctive atmosphere, since the students know they are not being judged and are responsible for their own behaviour. Each person is considered best placed to evaluate their own learning.

We moved from London, where there are currently no democratic schools, for l’École Dynamique.

We had been self-directed home educators, and I was looking for a place where my children could continue to be in control of their own education but also gain independence.

It was a nerve-racking decision. The school is Francophone, and although I had done French with the children before we moved, my daughter had refused to speak a word. I was not at all sure that the transition would go well.

On the day we arrived I could feel the difference to other schools. The adults talked with the children, rather than at them. There were no commanding ‘teacher voices’, no bells or whistles.  

Playing in the snow in Paris. Photo: Naomi Fisher

The children went into the common room which was like a big family room, with sofas and an open plan kitchen. They could bring to school anything they wanted to use during the day, including books, soft toys and electronic devices.

Over the year since we moved they have made friends and have developed a sense of themselves as people whose opinions matter. They have both become more confident in their capabilities. I see them taking responsibility for their learning as they make choices about how to spend their time.  

There is a real feeling that the school is their community, a place where they can be fully themselves.

The experience of learning French has been a positive one, even though it wasn’t always easy.

My daughter resolutely spoke English until several months in, when she started speaking French.   

Both children tell me that they’d like to learn other languages and think that they will be capable of doing so. My daughter has told me her third language will be American, as she thinks it’ll be easier than French.

Their school peers are a diverse and energetic group, some of whom have had difficult experiences at an École Classique, others of whose parents wanted a different approach to education from the start.  

When thinking about my children’s education, finding an environment in which they would thrive was always my bottom line.  

For I see that when they are happy and stimulated, they learn, and when they are empowered to take responsibility for their learning, they can flourish.

Naomi Fisher is a UK-trained clinical psychologist who works with children, adolescents and adults.  She is a freelance writer specialising in psychology, mental health and alternative education.

 

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EDUCATION

School closures rise in France as government relaxes rules for parents

The number of school and class closures in France has increased, the education minister reported on Wednesday, but the government has relaxed the rules for parents sending children back to class.

School closures rise in France as government relaxes rules for parents
Children over 11 in France have to wear masks during the school day. Photo: AFP

A total of 81 establishments and 2,100 individual classes have closed after discovering Covid-19 cases on their premises.

The number was a rise on the figures last week when 28 schools and 524 individual classes were closed.

“We have around 1,200 new Covid cases among pupils compared with last week,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told the LCI channel on Wednesday.

“We shut down a class as soon as there are three cases,” he said.

Blanquer noted that the closures represent just a small fraction of the 60,000 schools across France, calling the beginning of the new school year “the best possible given the health crisis.”

 

French officials have warned nonetheless that new restrictions might be required to stem a worrying increase in coronavirus cases since August.

IN NUMBERS: How fast are France's Covid-19 rates increasing?

No more official sick notes

Despite the surge in cases registered in schools, children with Covid-19 symptoms will no longer need to provide a doctor's sick note (une attestation) to return to class, Blanquer told BFMTV on Tuesday evening.

Instead, parents will need to fill in what in French is called an attestation sur l'honneur, a written document signed by the parent, stating either that the child tested negative for the virus, or a doctor has ruled out that the child has Covid-19.

READ ALSO: The vocabulary you need to fill in French forms (including the coronavirus 'attestation')

This followed a series of complaints from medical establishments across the country that they were overwhelmed with demands for sick notes and that parents were sending children with very light symptoms such as runny noses to get checked up.

According to the new rules, children who are identified as contact cases must get tested for the virus seven days after their last contact with the confirmed case. If the result comes back negative, the child can go back to class provided that a parent has provided a signed written attestation saying that the test came back negative. No proof for the test result will be required. 

A child with Covid-19 symptoms can also return to class if this attestation indicates that a doctor has ruled out the virus as cause for the symptoms, without providing any proof for the medical appointment.

The new health protocol will be updated and published on the education ministry's website shortly.

READ ALSO: The French school vocab parents need

 
'Chomage partiel'

Parents affected by the school closures can access to the partial unemployment scheme bolstered by the government at the beginning of the lockdown in March to help businesses foot their employees' salaries to prevent mass layoffs.

Those concerned will “benefit from income reimbursement from the first day of their stoppage of work, and at the latest until the end of the period of isolation,” the health ministry said in a statement.

Only one parent per household will be eligible for the help scheme, and only if they can document that their child's school or nursery closed down due to Covid-19, or that their child has been identified as a contact-case.

Higher education 

Late Tuesday, the University of Montpellier in southern France said it had suspended classes at its medical school after some 60 students tested positive after a party.

The University of Rennes in western France also suspended classes for second- and third-year medical students this week after 83 tested positive.

The government has placed 82 of the country's 101 departments on red alert, and officials in Bordeaux and Marseille this week tightened restrictions on public gatherings and retirement home visits after seeing a surge in new Covid-19 cases. 

READ ALSO: Why are Bordeaux and Marseille facing tougher Covid-19 restrictions but not Paris

 
 
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