Babygate, Claridge’s

Mediapart, the French online opinion journal, ran an article by Jean-Louis Legalery this week, about the polemic that has risen up in the UK over Lou Burns’ experience of being asking to cover up whilst breast feeding her three month old daughter in Claridge’s. (
The title of the article was ‘Tartuffe s’invite au Claridge’s’, which could be translated along the lines of Tartuffe comes to Claridge’s. Tartuffe is a comedic play by Molière in which the protagonist is a puffed up man who exaggeratedly feigns virtue, but actually has a long history of criminality, thereby revealing himself to be nothing more than a hypocrite.
This title humorously tells us all we need to know about the author’s opinion of Claridge’s. It comes across as a stuffy, hypocritical hotel, with over hyped puritanical values that seem ridiculous. The author goes on to note the contribution of Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right party UKIP, to this debate. He quotes his comments that women who need to breastfeed their child should ‘perhaps sit in the corner’. Legalery also gives his opinion that Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP, responded in the best way to this, by saying that Farage himself should go and sit in a corner.
Legalery cynically notes that David Cameron, who was initially reluctant to get involved in the debate, had to eventually weigh in, and support the official viewpoint of the NHS (which is that it would be unacceptable to make a woman feel uncomfortable for breastfeeding in public) so as not let Farage dominate the media coverage over the case. This was perhaps not motivated by genuine feelings of support towards the situation in which Lou Burns found herself.
Legalery notes that both Farage and Claridge’s attitudes were ‘restrictive’ and ‘macho’, and wholly ‘regressive’, and compares them to Pétain’s theme of the ‘femme au foyer’ which he describes as an obvious hindrance to equality. Due to his military prowess in the first world war, Maréchal Pétain was a national hero in France before 1945. However, during the second world war, he collaborated with Hitler, and created the authoritarian Vichy Regime, which lasted until the liberation of Paris in 1944. During his time in power, Pétain changed the republican motto from ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity) to ‘Travail, Famille, Patrie’ (Work, Family, Fatherland), and instigated a rather Mao like campaign of rejecting the liberalist, secular traditions of the third republic, and instead promoting catholic, paternalist and agrarian values. He aimed to do away with the work of recent progressive figure heads such as Leon Blum, who, whilst Prime Minister, had managed to introduce measures such as the 40 hour week and paid holiday for workers. Pétain wanted a new France, that would be ‘a social hierarchy…rejecting the false ideal of the natural equality of men’.
The warnings bells ring out when women are told to cover themselves up whilst feeding their child. That is why I personally appreciate articles like this, which show a fresh perspective on British society, reminding us that institutions like Claridge’s are faintly ridiculous, whilst a pleasure to go to, are in some ways very backwards.


PISA Rankings: A brief comparison of France and the UK

Yesterday, the PISA (Programme for International Assessment) OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) rankings came out, and the comparison of the results in France and the UK is an interesting one to make.

The ranking was covered extensively in both the British and French press. France is currently in 25th place, with the UK in 26th place. This puts both countries firmly in the middle of the tables.

An article covering the issue in Libération yesterday stated that French children are generally within the national average, but that inequality between students was on the rise. That is to say, that students coming from a background of immigration were at least ten times more likely to have problems in school. This has worsened in relation to the situation in 2003. An article in The Guardian yesterday reported that the UK has relatively good results in terms of the attainment of immigrants, and a smaller gender gap then in many other countries.

In an interview yesterday with Le Monde, Maryline Baumard, head of the Education Service at Le Monde, analysed the French results and especially highlighted the slight lowering in French teenagers’ performance in Maths; France’s score went from 498 to 495. (The UK’s score is 494, ranking 26th). Baumard highlighted the fact that in France, ability in Maths is seen more as a way of separating the most gifted students from the rest, then as an actual talent in its-self. As, therefore, it is very important to perform well in Maths, it is pertinent to note that 65% of French teenagers declared themselves to be interested in what they are currently studying in Maths, in comparison to an overall average of 53% in the OECD report. Baumard also continued to say that the French system is effectively penalised by PISA for its ‘elitist’ system. That is to say, a system which divides students into ‘performers,’ or ‘non-performers,’ and leaves little space for those in the middle. She stated that the non-performing students in France were on the same level as Romania, or Cyprus, but that the best were on the level of Taiwan or Hong Kong. In the UK, the PISA report showed that the while the UK pumps a lot of money into education, the high proportion of under-achieving students stopped it from rising in the rankings. The average UK student is now three years behind those in Shanghai in Maths.

In terms of literacy, France is above the average of 496 points, with 505 points, but the UK only just tops the average, with 499 points, ranking 23rd. Nevertheless, this is up from in 2009, where the UK scored 494 points.  Another interesting point to note in France was that there was a forty-four point difference gap in the scores between boys and girls in literacy, with girls generally scoring higher, and therefore bringing the French average up.

Rosie Millard expressed the view in The Independent yesterday that the disappointing statistics for the UK aren’t very surprising, given that 9% of the population, thanks to their parents income, receive what she refers to as ‘The Rolls-Royce’ treatment, whereas the remaining 91% are left to fend for themselves in state schools. Yet, when presenting the PISA results in London, Andreas Schleicher, the co-ordinator of the PISA programme, said that; ‘Much of the advantage that comes from private schooling is confirmed by the social-economic context, not in value added.’ (  Millard attacks the UK schooling system as failing to inculcate into school children a sense of their own potential, which leads them to underachieve.

So, are teachers to blame? Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of Sutton Trust, was quoted in The Guardian yesterday about his views that the way for the UK’s rankings to improve was effectively to make the standard of the quality of teaching available much higher. He used the example of research carried out by Sutton Trust that showed that within the next 10 years, the UK could become one of the top five educations providers in the world, if teachers were brought up to the national average. In the same interview quoted above in Le Monde, Maryline Baumard said that in France, the two requirements for becoming a teacher were to excel in the subject being taught, and also be skilled in pedagogy. She believes that in France, recently, less emphasis has been put on the second requirement when recruiting teachers.

In the French press, much was made of the ‘failure’ of the French Republican school system, taken ‘hostage’ by Trade Unions. Le Figaro in particular was alarmist about the lowering of the Maths ranking. Yet in the UK, articles abounded in the Press filled with scepticism about the meaningfulness of PISA and whether or not we should be flagellating ourselves over these results.

In both France and the UK, recent reforms have been introduced by Micheal Gove and Vincent Peillon (French Minister for Education) respectively. In this PISA report, it is too early to see the results. Both countries will have to wait until 2015 to see what changes, or improvements these new reforms may bring.