Saturday, 3 June 2017

Me and Ahmed down by the schoolyard

As I was walking home from the gym yesterday, I passed a downtown primary school just as parents were collecting their children for the lunch break. All the colours of the rainbow were represented in the schoolyard, with the rainbow veering definitely to the darker side. Not surprisingly, this was reflected in the group of waiting parents: at a glance some European, some North African, including three mothers wearing headscarves, Sub-Saharan African and Asian. Impossible of course to tell who was French and who wasn’t, but the majority was clearly of foreign origin, even if their children were probably born in France.  Walking home after lunch, I passed a primary school in the upper part of town where a group of children, definitely on the lighter side of the rainbow, were being taken out on an excursion.

I don’t know how typical these scenes are of the western suburbs of Paris, but a friend of mine who runs an after-school centre for primary school and junior high school kids gave me some clues. Although our town passes for being well off, it is also home to people who struggle to make ends meet, many of them recent immigrants, and it has its requisite quota of 25% of public housing in the total housing stock. She tells me that of the 100 or so children she and her colleagues help with homework and other after-school activities, 80 are of foreign origin and one year she counted 27 different nationalities of origin, a large proportion originally from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, quite a few from Eastern Europe, some from Western Europe and some from Asia. Not many, as yet, from the swelling ranks of refugees from Irak or Syria.

During his campaign for the French Presidency, Emmanuel Macron promised that the French education system would concentrate more resources on primary schools, reducing class sizes to no more than twelve, whereas today they can be twice as large. And this on top of an existing scheme to assign two teachers to large classes. The problem is that this type of arrangement only benefits schools in areas deemed in need of special funding. In the Paris area this applies mainly to schools in areas with very high immigrant populations like the northern suburbs, but not to well-off suburbs like this one, which, as I wrote in a previous post, has returned an orthodox right wing MP to the Assemblée Nationale since 1958. As my friend remarked ironically: “kids from poor backgrounds are better off in poor areas than in rich ones!”

What this translates to in our town is that some primary school classes are far too large. Teachers do not take long to identify children who have serious difficulties with reading, writing and basic arithmetic in their first year of primary school.  They are clearly the ones who need early help. They often come from single parent families where French is not the first language and even if it is, communication within the family and with relatives and neighbours is minimal. If primary school cannot, for lack of teachers, give extra support to these children, if their initial difficulties are not tackled at this stage, they are constantly struggling and can easily enter the collège (a non selective junior high school) at 12 or 13 with serious learning deficits. From then on, they are in danger of becoming early dropouts or, at best, leaving school at the age of 16 with no qualification.

The French education system prides itself on being meritocratic and there are enough examples of children who have benefitted handsomely from it to prove that this reputation is still justified. In his first speech on taking office, Gérald Darmanin, the new budget minister referred with pride to his humble background as the son of a cafe owner and a cleaning lady and the grandson of an Algerian infantryman who fought in the French army. There are many others like him. But there are also many who, for lack of support at home or in school, fall through the net and end up unqualified and unemployed.  Successive waves of early 20th century immigration from Poland, from Italy and elsewhere have been successfully integrated into French society in the space of one or two generations, largely through school, but there has perhaps never before been such a large number of relatively recent immigrants from such a large variety of countries. And the pressure is unlikely to let up.

If Emmanuel Macron and his government wish to uphold France’s record in integrating immigrants from all parts of the world, the obvious place to start is primary school. But that means being pragmatic about the areas, towns and individual schools that deserve special support schemes. Apart from any other consideration, the investment could pay huge dividends if more children are helped to realise their potential and don’t end up in 10 to 15 years time as school dropouts living off benefits or worse. Unfortunately, politicians don’t always look so far ahead!

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