Meeting with French Homeschoolers
While my wife and I were traveling in France a few weeks ago we were able to meet with some homeschoolers in Paris. We gathered in a local yoga studio and enjoyed food and wine while we talked about homeschooling for a few hours, comparing and contrasting our different experiences while the young children occupied themselves around us as we spoke. Of course, it is striking how the challenges of homeschooling are the same in any country, such as dealing with school officials who are uncomfortable with homeschooling, performing public advocacy for homeschooling, and finding good homeschooling support, friends, and opportunities for parents and children. They wanted to know about how our children learned without schooling when they were younger and how they are doing as adults. French homeschoolers are in the early phases of homeschooling growth and, like Americans in the 1980s, a common statement was how homeschoolers had to travel a lot in order to meet like-minded families (I think some folks at the meeting said there are about 500 homeschooling families in France now).
The organizer of the event was Claudia Renau, who, with Victorine Meyers, operate Éditions l’Instant Présent, which publishes the French editions of John Holt’s Learning All the Time and Instead of Education. Victorine and Claudia helped translate our comments that night, but there were many bilingual homeschoolers present, including moms from Britain and America who moved to France, so the conversation was lively and not at all stilted by my language barrier. My years of French in school were for naught!
One of the most interesting things I learned from this meeting is the difference between French and American attitudes about homeschooling. Homeschooling is legal in France, but families must register to homeschool with the school system and their local city hall to do so. The school system performs annual academic evaluations of homeschoolers, and the local authority performs biannual evaluations of the family’s reasons for homeschooling and to check the health of the children—they can compel a family to send their children to a conventional school if the family receives two negative evaluations.
When I mentioned that there are states in America that have no homeschooling regulations at all, and that religious reasons and protections for homeschooling were often used in the United States to avoid regulations, I was surprised by the group’s response: “That won’t work in France.” Stating you wanted to homeschool for religious reasons in France would make the officials skeptical of you and more likely to be scrutinized, and several people at the meeting thought you probably wouldn’t be approved to homeschool if your main motivation was religious. The French Revolution has left its mark upon the culture, and the nation actively educates its young citizens about “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternitié,” and the need to contribute to the national welfare as a worker. The French people’s experience and skepticism of religious and political elites led them to create institutions that temper those influences; but, as Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich noted decades ago, educational institutions, in particular, have become the new elites, sorting the population into office workers, political bureaucrats, and so on. For instance, a recent article in the New Yorker (July 29, p. 72) notes, “. . . in France a small class of highly educated énarques—graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration—conduct the business of the state.”
The French school system is a brazen, bureaucratic human-sorting machine, determining student’s positions in life based on their school performance. Several parents at the meeting told my wife and I that where you go to school explicitly determines what your job prospects are in France, and how difficult it is to advance in various professions if you didn’t go to the right school. So why is homeschooling happening in France if school attendance is so important there?
One reason I heard at the meeting was that schools in France are more interested in finding the star performers than in helping all students. For instance, some parents said a common practice in French schools is if you don’t positively know the answer to a question you should not raise your hand in class, because the teacher will ridicule you for being wrong. Having alternatives to school for students who don’t learn the way French schools teach is a growing issue in France, and one homeschoolers there cite.
When I inquired further about why the local authorities are so involved in homeschooling regulation I was reminded of the state’s concern for the welfare of children. If a school or local authority decides a child is unsatisfactorily taught by parents they can force the child to attend a conventional school. “Unsatisfactorily taught” can include indoctrinating one’s children into your religious beliefs if they are considered too extreme by authorities; the vagueness and subjectivity of this regulation is of deep concern to French homeschoolers.
Another similarity I found between us is an interest in advancing children’s rights and issues, particularly in education: Éditions l’Instant Présent is working with me to create a French translation of Holt’s Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children. Ironically, the day after I spoke in Paris I received a message from a different group in France that supports a “childhood liberation movement” (https://enfance-buissonniere.poivron.org/). They, too, wanted to translate and print Escape From Childhood in French!
I hope homeschooling and Holt’s ideas continue to prosper in France, and I look forward to staying in touch with homeschoolers there.