One of the more gently provocative 2014 comment pieces from the Times Educational Supplement (‘TES’) is Gillian Harvey’s intriguing Flying the flag for teachers’ prestige (11th April 2014). Harvey – a teacher who has lived in France for many years and who has taught in both the English and French school systems – outlines an apparently cogent thesis as to why teachers in France, a country which shares so much history with and neighbours England, are almost revered; this state of affairs is in stark contrast to the treatment of their counterparts across the channel.
Harvey posits that ‘the key to the French ethos is the status that teachers are afforded here and the respect that the profession deserves’, and cites many examples of how this manifests itself in practice, from the generally high regard that parents give to a teacher’s concerns regarding their offspring’s behaviour to the home-made gifts typically lavished on French educators at the end of term. If Westminster was to give teachers autonomy and take their input seriously, Harvey opines, then attitudes towards both teachers and the teaching profession could change for the better in England, too.
Ms Harvey’s viewpoint is an important one and deserves to be read carefully by those in government, but to our mind it lacks a little explanatory power; there are in fact at least three much more profound reasons why educators in France are viewed so favourably, and understanding these is imperative if one is to even attempt to copy what is arguably the French educational system’s most desirable feature:
- Statism. As employees of the state, French teachers are automatically accorded a kind of respect which their English cousins lost decades ago. In France, the state is traditionally strong and the object of almost uncritical respect; authority figures within the state are routinely put on a pedestal. While this is not always a desirable condition and is not necessarily something to aim for, it is vital to note that without some shift in English public attitudes towards public servants – who are all too often perceived as feckless, lazy and ill-deserving – the lot of the average teacher is unlikely to improve.
- Religion. Despite France’s worldwide reputation as the inventor and last bastion of laïcité, religious schools – overwhelmingly Catholic in ethos – play a paradoxically important role within the French education system; moreover, they stress personal and family morality in a way which would ironically be unacceptable in a country such as England, which still possesses an established church with a significant presence in the upper legislative chamber. In these schools, teachers are often accorded a kind of especial awe; in England, the trend towards ever-deeper secularisation and individualisation of previously social mores would appear to make this kind of teacher-student dynamic less rather than more likely.
- Children. French society – which twenty-five years ago might have been looked at by many as being more socially liberal than England on countless metrics – has proven rather more conservative on a number of core issues. As the success of the cross-societal movement La manif pour tous – of which there is simply no English equivalent – has illustrated, there are significant differences in the way that the respective French and English publics conceptualise the family and its attendant ethics. More traditional views of children’s welfare tend to stress values such as hierarchy and respecting one’s elders. It is not difficult to see how this could make teachers’ lives significantly easier – but it is harder to see how these values can be transplanted as a matter of policy.