English teachers in France (by Laurel Zuckerman)

Laurel Zuckerman

Is the current concours system the best way to select and prepare English teachers? Perhaps the most reliable answer is to be found in the students' results. The 2002 European Assessment of English skills is, in its fashion, eloquent:

The 1996 results [in the assessment of pupils' skills in English] show that French pupils were performing at a level well below that of the Swedes but similar to the Spanish level. In 2002 the performance of the French pupils is significantly lower than that in the other six countries...

In short, France scored last among the eight countries tested. From 1996 to 2002, its results actually declined relative to other European countries.

And yet, 97% of French children study English, most starting in primary school and continuing on for more than a decade. This represents a massive investment in time and money. Why, then, such disappointing results? Why should it be harder to learn English in France than in the rest of Europe?

Explanations include dubbed films and spectacularly uneven English teaching in primary school*, both symptoms of France's deep ambivalence towards the language. Experts have also identified problems at the IUFMs which train middle school (collège) and high school (lycée) teachers. The latter is key because it implicitly acknowledges the link between the quality of teaching and the results of the students. And in France, one cannot talk about the quality of teaching without talking about the concours.

The French Exception

Unlike its European neighbors, France uses national competitive exams for recruiting teachers into the civil service.

Introduced by Louis XV in 1766, the concours for teachers has expanded and changed over time to cover collèges and  lycées. Each year 100.000 candidates invest millions of hours to prepare the CAPES or the Agrégation in one of 37 different subjects including economics, sport and, of course, English. Some devote two or three years to preparing the exam. 90% fail.
It is an article of faith in France that de
concours selects the best. And yet, there is absolutely no evidence that

France's arduous elimination process produces good teachers. Certainly the PISAs and European Assessments of English skills provided no support for this belief. It is noteworthy that none of the top performing countries used the

French method to select, train and promote teachers. The 2002 Assessment frowned on the excessive use of French by

English teachers and an overly critical atti tude which inhibited students. Given that these pedagogical

aberrations are both behavioural and system-wide, it is logical to ask: could they, perhaps, be caused by the system?

Do as I say, not as I do

The Agrégation d'anglais, for example, emphasizes a highly critical spirit, a mastery of certain arcane forms, and an ability to dazzle professors. Its connection to teaching English to children aged 11 to 18 is tenuous at best. Half of the competition is not in English but in French. It begins with a seven hour hand-written Cartesian dissertation in

French, the mastery of which could not say less of a person's abil i ty (not to mention desire) to teach English to teens.

Until 2006 candidates spent a year practicing the leçon orale in French—an exercise which, if reproduced in the

classroom, has been identified as an impediment to learning English.

Can it be an accident that the 2002 Assessment identi fied precisely those elements cultivated by the

concours —too much French and too much criticism—as problematic in the classroom?* * Teachers, like everyone else, learn more from experience and example than from exhortation. It is not enough to decree that teachers favor oral communication when they themselves have experienced something entirely different. Do as I say, not as I do. Every parent knows how effective this approach is.

Perverse incentives

But certainly, some might protest, the problem is not the concours but the IUFMs! After all, the concours merely

selects; the IUFM trains. A wide consensus already exists on the need for more and better teacher training, especially in the form of continuing education. This has nothing to do with the concours!

On the contrary, it can be argued that the concours are the single biggest systemic obstacle to teacher training in France. Simply stated: teachers are significantly rewarded, not for being or becoming excellent teachers, but for passing a concours: the CAPES and—for a small but influential elite—the Agrégation. This reward system has two negative consequences: it diverts scarce national resources away from teacher training; and it incites individual teachers to invest in improving their concours skills instead of their teaching skills.

All those hours English teachers invest in preparing for the Agrégation d'anglais (honing French dissertation skills, learning phonetic script, boning up on literary jargon...) are hours they do NOT spend in improving their classroom skills. All the resources engaged in the gigantic exam machine (professors, universities, publishers, administrator, juries, exam centers, surveillants), are resources NOT engaged in improving teachers' pedagogical skills. As far as teacher training is concerned, it is wasted money, time and effort. Wasted because 90% of candidates fail; wasted because there is no proof that the concours, in particular the career-boosting Agrégation d'anglais, improves collège or lycée teaching skills. What if all those hours had been invested, not in competitions, but in training teachers instead?

There are currently 38,610 English teachers with the CAPES or Agrégation.* Civil servants with a job for life, their

average age is 43 and most of them will teach English for their entire career, that is 35-40 years. Decrees and orders rain down on them, yet the Education Nationale (EN) does little to update their pedagogical methods to achieve the new objectives. Instead EN offers a strong financial incentive to divert hours from training into a probably failed attempt to pass the Agrégation which has, at best, no pedagogical relevance.

In sanctifying the concours, EN sabotages its own goals.

The English class system

In no other industry—and teaching English is a multi-million euro industry involving, within EN alone, over

5,000,000 children and 38,000 teachers—would such an obviously incoherent and unsuccessful approach be tolerated for such a long period of time. Until now, it has been protected from serious systemic analysis and reform by a

combination of wishful thinking, tradition and hypocrisy. Yet, the simple truth is that despite successive

governments' goals and plans, EN has failed to impart the necessary English skills to its students at a time when

poor English can exclude one from a good job in France.

Weal thy families hire private English tutors, send kids abroad to study or enrol them in private schools. Thus the

children of the privileged acquire the English skills required by the top schools which supply France's economic

elites, while the children from poorer areas do not. English has become, ironically, the most reliable marker of class

in France.

By diverting resources and incentives away from crucial teaching training, the concours system fails both teachers and learners. Concerning English, this chronic underperformance has become a question, not just of efficiency, but of social justice.

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