cover pic gumbels book“On achève bien les écoliers” (Grasset)


Back in 2002, we moved to Paris from Los Angeles, in part because we wanted our children to have a great European education. French schools, with their high academic standards, seemed to offer just that, at least from a distance.


It didn’t take long to discover that the reality of school here is far removed from the magnificent ideal of a great meritocratic institution that the French themselves long boasted about. In practice, it’s a system stricken with high dropout rates, declining scores in international comparative tests, crass inequalities, and a worrying increase in the proportion of children who simply can’t read, write or do basic math even after years of schooling.  All this has given rise to a vexed debate in France about what’s gone wrong. Yet one element seems missing from this debate, the element that’s most apparent to me, and to many other foreigners with children: the harsh and sometimes demeaning classroom culture that piles stress onto kids even as it saps their self-confidence.


I decided to write a book about this culture after I discovered a wealth of international comparative studies that confirmed my anecdotal impressions. These studies unequivocally show that, compared to most of their peers in the developed world, French schoolchildren are more anxious in class and afraid of speaking up, that they feel discouraged and unaided by their teachers, and overall have a much less warm and fuzzy relationship with their school.


On achève bien les écoliers was published in early September 2010. The title is a play on the famous Sydney Pollack movie, and best translated as They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They? It immediately sparked a media storm, including a six-page spread in Le Nouvel Observateur and two write-ups in Le Monde, and it edged its way onto the non-fiction bestseller list. Best of all, it has added a fresh perspective to the old debate about school here, which is why I wrote it in the first place.


-Peter Gumbel