The fears are partially based around imagined dangers that lurk in the dark corners, partially on the lack of space, green areas and healthy air, but mostly, in my opinion, on the quality of the schools. In France, there is no choice in the education system, with the allocation of places depending on a system known as the Carte Scolaire, meaning basically that children will always attend the school closest to where they live. As many young people tend to live in the older, more socially mixed areas of the city, they suddenly realise that their children will also be attending the older, more socially mixed schools. Naturally, if everbody stayed put this would not even be an issue, as the school would become a utopian mix of the more privileged and the more socially disadvantaged. However, the sentiment of fear encourages people either to move their children to the private sector (over 2 million children in France attend such establishments) or to move them out of the city altogether, leaving the public city schools to cater only for those who don’t have choices.
Is this fear justified though, and just what are the schools like in this city? Reading about a recently opened school in North London, the St Mary Magdalene Academy, I am reminded about an interesting school building I'd seen recently in Paris. What interests me about this establishment is not the biomass boilers, photo voltaic cells, and natural ventilation, but the supposedly revolutionary rooftop multi-use games area, and the fact that it is enclosed in a small space. These features also describe the Ecole Maternelle on the Rue de Moscou, a curious structure with metal bars running down the walls, built at least 50 years earlier.
The curious Ecole Maternelle in the Rue de Moscou, 75008
The St Mary Magdalene Academy is a structure designed by the flavour of the month architectural team of Feilden Clegg Bradley, and was built within constraints known as a "tight-fit" space. A school needs to offer the same structures wherever it is situated, meaning that city schools often need to find imaginative ways to use what little space is available. In this school, and in the Rue de Moscou, the play area has been forced upwards and finds itself on top of the structure itself. High fences stop children tumbling over the edges, but apparently in London, a hockey ball has already slipped under the barriers down into the street below.
It is this concept of a ‘tight-fit’ that I find most interesting though. Do city schools squeeze the young into narrow boxes that prevent them from blooming? Do children need space in order to grow and mature? Worryingly, I don’t have answers to these questions myself, and can only look back on my own experiences in order to attempt a comparison.
I attended schools that were situated in a very dull, but safely middle-class suburb of a medium sized town. They were average schools in an average suburb, but they also looked out across acres of playing fields, complete with patchworks of cricket, rugby and football pitches. It was something of a shock to me when I first arrived in France to see that the concept of a school playing field just does not exist. Where do they go to play sports I wondered, and how do they manage to be so good at them whilst we in England were so poor?
My ex-school and green surbaban monotony!
Despite the comfortable income brackets, the cleaner air and open views across green fields, my own experience was that these schools seemed to inspire us only to ordinariness. The town was built around plots of houses with no central meeting points, meaning that the only activity open to us was to wander the streets whilst shadowy faces behind twitching net curtains observed our every step. Had I lived in a city, would I not have encountered a wider range of personalities, abilities, backgrounds and nationalities? Would this not all have been of great benefit to me and my education?My own conclusion would be that it is not about the architecture of the school, the amount we have in our bank accounts or the quality of the air we breathe, but how much as parents we can inspire our children to be imaginative and curious. If anybody else has experiences of city schools they would care to share though I’d glady receive them!
Note: Credit of course to Robert Doisneau for the first picture, called "Information Scolaire". It was taken in 1956 in a Paris city school situated in the Rue Buffon in the 5th Arrondissement.