27 March 2015

Julie Bertuccelli’s ‘School of Babel’

It’s surprising how many French films are set in or around school – in 2013, for example, we had Jeune et Jolie, Something in the Air, and In the House. Longer ago, Nicholas Philibert’s 2002 documentary Être et Avoir was set in a primary school in remote central France and in 2009 Laurent Cantet directed a near-documentary, The Class (Entre les Murs), set during an academic year in a secondary school in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. The class’s teacher was played by François Bégaudeau, co-writer of the screenplay based on his semi-autobiographical novel. His 13 and 14 year-olds, who came from various ethnic groups, were difficult or challenging, depending on how you look at it.

Julie Bertuccelli’s documentary, School of Babel (La cour de Babel, which would translate literally as The School Courtyard of Babel), is in some ways a companion piece to The Class. This school is in Paris’s 10th arrondissement and with slightly younger pupils who have recently arrived in France and been placed in a reception class (classe d’acceuil). They will not be allowed to join normal classes until their French is adequate. The 25 or so children come from almost as many different countries. Part of the film’s charm is the way they get to know and appreciate each other despite differences in race, religion, background and circumstances. They benefit enormously from their experienced teacher, Mme Cervoni, who gently helps them correct their inexact French - conveyed by deliberately mangled English subtitles - and who patiently explains their progress to parents or guardians.

At the end of the year Mme Cervoni tells her class that she is off to the French education ministry to become an inspector. This is an implicit reminder that the film would almost certainly not have been made without official support. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is very little material in it which could be deployed by critics of France’s educational system.

Undoubtedly some of the children in the reception class are very able and will soon start to do well in France; others appeared to have problems which could be longer-lasting. Lucy Wadham’s article, Rigorous to a fault, about what’s wrong with France’s schools, in April 2015’s Prospect magazine, is written from the point of view of a parent in France and in the light of the January Paris terrorist attacks. The three jihadist perpetrators were all products of l’Education Nationale. She regards France as having an over-rigid approach to education, one which is optimised to identify and develop an elite. She points out that:
Despite what Hollande says about the Republic recognising all children as equal, there is a chronic problem of educational inequality in France and it often follows ethnic lines. In its Survey of Adult Skills, the OECD found that France's education system, while it produces an impressive intellectual elite, leaves a large proportion of its adult population barely able to read: 21.6 per cent of those surveyed in France scored the lowest level of literacy, compared to 15.5 per cent across 24 other countries. In a culture that puts such emphasis on academic achievement, the stigma of failure is, of course, that much greater. The OECD's final report said of France: "The scores for French people [in literacy and numeracy] vary considerably according to training levels and social background, and this is to a far greater degree than the average across participating countries. The differences in literacy standards between individuals born in France and those who were born abroad are much greater than the average across participating countries."
Perhaps Mme Cervoni really is as exceptional as she seems.

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