Alternative Education


Alternative education doesn’t have the same long history as, for example, in the UK where the Summerhill model of a pupil-lead school was introduced in the 1920s, but it does exist in France. 
Whilst French secondary education is well rounded and the bac respected worldwide, the education system  is sometimes criticised for being too rigid and inflexible, more about learning by rote than questioning and exploring. Non-academic children can move into more vocational education from around the age of 14, but what about the bright kids who just don’t fit into regular, hierarchical lycée life? Who find themselves at odds with the system or just downright unmotivated? A lycée expérimental might just be the answer.


To find out what they are really like, we spend a day at the Lycée Expérimental in St Nazaire:



Picture a room of about thirty teenagers who have been told they have the chance of a school trip to Holland. Imagine their reactions. Chances are you didn't picture any of them saying: 'We need to really think about this, I mean, there'd be so much to organise: who should go, how we travel, where to stay...before we agree, we need to accept the work involved.'
At the Lycée Experimental, your expectations are turned completely upside-down. 

Just outside Nantes, in the side-streets of St Nazaire, the Lycée Experimental is run as much by students as by the staff. Established in 1982, this is an educational establishment with 160 pupils on its register and a radical approach that is not always well-perceived yet, in nearly twenty years, only two students have ever been expelled. 
Whereas traditional schooling has a strict syllabus and hierarchy, the Lycée Experimental operates a rota system whereby every two weeks a new group of students and adults take over the daily running of the school – everything from paperwork to the canteen. During these two weeks, on-rota students attend fewer lessons but it does mean that everyone is involved in every decision process.
So what are your preconceptions? A school for drop-outs; a hippy commune treating kids as adults? A statistics game to increase numbers of students enrolled in lycées? It takes time to see this for what it is: a radical approach to education that is no longer experimental as it has been running for nearly thirty years.
Firstly, this is a Lycée and as such open to anybody aged sixteen or over who has completed their compulsory education up until this point. 
They can follow a BAC syllabus or simply go to lessons that appeal; even the subjects and teaching methods are decided by committee. It is not a school for misfits or 'troubled kids', but an utterly alternative approach which seems to connect with those who couldn't get along with conventional education.
Anaël Bochet,19, arrived three years ago having abandoned school for a patisserie apprenticeship.
'I knew the apprenticeship wasn't right for me but didn't know what else to do. But then I heard about this school through my Dad's friend who came here, so I thought, why not try it? Over my first two years I discovered learning was actually enjoyable, something I wanted to keep doing. Now, I'm heading for my BAC and in the meantime picking up extra skills that will be useful to me throughout my life.'
This element is crucial: participating in the running of the school means shouldering responsibility. It's not so easy to moan when you had every opportunity to influence daily decisions, hence the pragmatic debate about school trips to Holland: it's not just a jolly, it's a project that requires joint organisation, budgets and commitment.
'The students understand that their involvement enables the Lycée to continue,' explains Julien Rougelot, who has been on the staff for four years. 'If they value this as an alternative to traditional education and want it to keep going, they need to play their part in everything from answering phones or cooking (when they're on rota) to attending meetings where decisions are made.'
The system is fascinating. Important decisions make it to the agenda of a ninety-minute fortnightly meeting called a collège, held in the morning. Significantly, the adults meet separately from the students and then both groups send three nominated delegates to an afternoon meeting where they discuss the minutes and opinions of each group to reach an overall, representative conclusion. This is how the school is run: everything from foreign exchanges to what's eaten in the canteen is jointly decided. 
'The collèges are open to all students,' says Julien, 'although it would be unusual for all 160 to attend. Students and adults manage jointly: it's called co-gestion. Some students attend meetings without contributing but they are still part of the process and for many that's just as important.'
There are still rules here but these, too, have developed over time in consultation with students. It's less hierarchical than traditional schooling, with adult 'teachers' – referred to as MEEs (membres de l'équipe d'éducation)participating in decisions alongside  students and holding co-evaluation sessions to assess individual progress: academically and personally. Students take responsibility for managing and recording their own education, so if they choose to study for a science BAC but spend hours in music lessons they'll need to decide how to make up the time or spread out the course over a longer period.
Walig Le Clec'h, 17, has been at St Nazaire since September 2009.
'It's nothing like lectures with kids falling asleep, more like round-table discussions. Take next week's workshop on Homer's Odyssey: even if it's designed for the year above, I can go. Final-year students get what they need for their BAC, I might produce a completely different project.'
'You might say that here we lose time, only to gain it in other ways,' says Julien. 'I've found that in my science classes we spend much of the first term debating big questions such as 'what is learning?' and 'what is science?' That might seem like wasted time, but suddenly, by the final term, they seem to have absorbed an enormous amount of information to the extent that they reach pretty much the same point as in a year of conventional schooling.'
'The first fortnight is a real shock, especially if you're used to boundaries,' admits Amandine Nizard, 17, 'but it can become liberating, that responsibility for yourself.' She and her friend Marie d'Ausbourg, 18, moved up from Toulouse in September to attend. 'I'd missed a lot of school through illness and thought I couldn't keep studying until I heard about St Nazaire,' says Marie. 'It really suits my way of thinking and I'm very glad it's here.'
Of course there are still teenagers smoking outside, mobile phones everywhere and that strange blend of gothic-hippy-surfer-punk garments only found in student zones; there's still graffiti and kissing in corridors. The biggest surprise, however, is a lack of intimidation. As an adult, you don't feel threatened by these teenagers, just embarrassed when you realise that knocking at the door to the office is seen as highly amusing, because everyone else goes straight in, past one of the on-rota students taking phone messages.
In the morning collège meeting, no-one was jeered at for raising an opinion: all contributions are genuinely acceptable. Yes, out of thirty students only seven or so really ran the session but isn't that the same in every walk of life? 
Far from the wacky chaos expected, most students here have an astonishing level of maturity, which was evident in the delegates review of the morning meetings. The adults felt that the best way to choose participants for the Holland trip was to consider basic criteria: can those who rarely attend school truly represent us abroad? Should those in their final year take precedence over first-years who will get another chance? How do we balance boys and girls...?
The students felt that this was ludicrous: 'So if one girl but forty boys apply, the girl is guaranteed her place? Either dictate who goes or do a lottery but at least make it genuinely random, otherwise you're not treating us fairly, you're changing the value of the individual.'
Suddenly, you see that by encouraging freedom of thought, you raise far deeper questions such as how do you define justice? How can you treat people with absolute equality? This might create administrative headaches but it also raises some of life's biggest questions – and surely that kind of education is priceless.


Article by Annaliza Davis, originally appeared in the French Paper

Lycee experimental St Nazaire http://lycee-experimental.org/

OTHER ALTERNATIVES...
In France, there is also the Lycée Autogéré in Paris (www.l-a-p.org ), and Collège Lycée Experimental in Hérouville-St-Clair (Caen) http://www.etab.ac-caen.fr/cleh/spip5/ both established in 1982 and in Clisthene in Bordeaux http://www.clisthene.org/

Other experimental and alternative forms of education include the Montessori method, Waldorf, Steiner and home-schooling. For a central resource of alternative education worldwide, see www.educationrevolution.org 


Article by Annaliza Davis, originally appeared in the French Paper

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