Thursday 15 January 2009

A School of Thought

Living in a city, one statement that I begin to hear more and more often amongst people of my approximate age group is "I'd never bring up children here". Cities are giant playgrounds for young adults, with brightly coloured distractions and amusements ensuring that those with disposable incomes and time need never be bored. However, at a certain age it suddenly seems to strike these same people that the city is not a healthy place, and indeed is as dangerous an environment for children as the forest in fairy tales. Is the city really such a big, bad wolf?

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.


PeterParis said...

Difficult to have one answer to all this - as always there are pros and cons, to be counted (?)!

Of course, the problem may also be different when you reach the higher level education which cannot so easily be offered in every little village ... and then, often, the big city is the alternative. This doesn't necessarily mean university level, but even before. Then, if you don't live in that city, you will probably have to send your children far away, unfortunate for many reasons and also with costs involved ... or move yourself - again.

I agree that the integration / segregation is a problem. This is perhaps accentuated by the fact that it's rather easy - not so extremely expensive and often can be afforded by "middle class" - in France to choose a private school, which mostly are heavily subsidised. When I was brought up in Sweden a private school was just not possible to imagine; there were hardly any and they were extremely expensive.

Another way of segregation are the "elite schools" and I believe that the "Carte Scolaire" is there to try to diminish this kind of segregation. However, not really working perfectly.

My questions about the French education system is more linked to too long hours / days, not enough of time for sports and cultural activites. Here the parents have to take over and not everybody has the time, the money, the energy...

Cergie said...

J'aime beaucoup ta conclusion. Les parents ont un rôle important à jouer, par l'exemple et aussi par la vigilence à détecter le moindre dérapage et y pallier avant qu'il soit trop important. Personnellement j'ai élevé trois enfants avec l'aide de mon mari qui donnait l'exemple de la ténacité et de la confiance en soi. Et j'ai toujours fait confiance au système scolaire public de proximité. Je n'ai jamais dit à mes enfants qu'ils étaient des petits génies méconnus par leurs profs mais qu'ils devaient écouter attentivement et travailler autant que possible en s'assumant seuls.
Je ne suis pas mécontente du résultat : issus d'un lycée de banlieue, ils ont tous fait une classe préparatoire et une grande école.
(Le fait de regarder en l'air montre que ce garçon a un certain type de mémoire ; je ne sais plus lequel, une mémoire visuelle ? Le prof de guitare de mon fils au conservatoire regardait en l'air pour se souvenir des partitions)

Starman said...

Motivated children can learn in any situation. I think that is the main difference between education in Europe and the US. Parents in the US don't seem to stress education as a means of understanding the world and our part in it, and how we can contribute to the beauty of it. The whole point of education in the US is to get "the" job. It's difficult to instill in children the need to get "the" job, and as a result they see no reason to "waste" their time in a dull classroom, studying things they'll never use in "real life". Our schools are beautiful things with a lot of space and a lot of activities, and still they can't keep children from dropping out in ever-increasing numbers. I believe it is because parents here simply don't provide the motivation for staying and learning beyond getting a better job. Nor do I see it turning around any time soon.

Adam said...

Peter: Yes, I didn't think about the flow of children in the opposite direction, from small villages where there are no facilities.
It seems that the rest of Europe has much to learn from the Scandinavian countries, but is their model only possible in small countries?

Cergie: Félicitations! Avec trois enfants en plus je sais que c'est pas facile (je suis le plus jeune de trois..). Je peux que rever d'un tel résultat (avec un seul pour l'instant!), mais je pense que ton modèle de 'responsibilisation' de soi est certainement le bon.

Starman: I think the US system is similar to the UK model. You are either ready for Oxbridge, and therefore a possible prestige element for a school to nurture, or are simply someone to look after and prepare for work. There is little sense of education to inspire people to be better, well-rounded individuals.

Sage said...

Just a thought:

Adam said...

That's a very interesting article Sage. I think though that it only investigates our powers of concentration, although that is of course a very important issue for children.

Anonymous said...

Lack of space and green open areas to me is a major factor in not wanting to raise children in Paris. Access to wildlife and natural environments seems paramount to me. I hate the idea of kids being boxed-in and city kids believing that milk comes from cans.

I agree with Peter that the carte scolaire is meant to ensure a certain social mix - and to a certain degree this works.

There's about two hours worth of writing that could go on a comment on the topic of French schooling or raising kids in a city so I'll stop there.

Avid Reader said...

I was brought up in NYC and never suffered from it, public schools and all, but I never did 'take' to suburbia. I like rural or city life, but could never live in a housing estate or a place with no ethic diversity, so it did effect me that way. I need to be able to walk to a deli, and to meet different people on the streets. In America rural/suburban children have more trouble with boredom & alcohol & drugs than city children who have more entertainments. You would think the opposite was true, but no.

martha said...

This revolutonary concept was already revolutionary in Victorian London where the revolutionary idea of providing free eduction to the poor meant taking advantage of cramped inner city buildings by putting the fenced in playgrounds on the roofs.

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