THE BLOG
20/05/2014 08:33 BST | Updated 19/07/2014 06:59 BST

French School of Shanghai: A Factory

The French School of Shanghai (FSS) is an oddity amongst the heavily underdeveloped lands around. There is a a certain symbolism to its presence; in an almost erratic way, it stands tall, proud and most importantly: gated. The french consulate is proud of the establishment, calling it a sure fire sign of ameliorating franco-chinese relations, and constantly praise the high standards, teaching staff, and results of the school. Students are welcomed in the mornings by the school's numerous guards and cleaning staff, totalling to over a hundred.

I went to the school for 6 years and for all that time, did not realize despite being a french expatriate in Shanghai -- a so-called international student with an 'extremely cultural diversified background' -- how me and my peers were isolated. "Isolated", not in the sense that we had been isolated by another group, but rather that we had willfully excluded ourselves.

I think I can safely say today, that the school did not teach me what was necessary to respect others' vocations, but taught me what 'success' meant, and further, conditioned students towards that 'success'.

A friend of mine, while we were on this very subject, informed me that during a conversation he had with one of the school's administrative staff, the FSS was referred to as a small and medium enterprise. Nowadays, that's not as surprising, considering that the fine line between business and education is no longer there.

But in the FSS, the feeling that it's a business is overwhelming.

Upon walking in through the upper entrance, you're greeted by the kind reminder that the school is sponsored; the likes of Saint-Gobain, Danone, Michelin... in short, mostly french conglomerates. None of the companies listed are specialists in education. Money is invested to improve school grounds, to make it more able to welcome an increasing population of students every year and to of course, to impress.

If parents of prospective students are looking for a good first impression, then the FSS is a dream come true. Modern campus and facilities, high level of security, school bus for every route imaginable and most importantly, bilingual students (read: influence) with good grades and an even better disciplinary record. No parent wants 'bad' influences on their child, and the FSS has done a brilliant job at weeding them out.

Classes are made according to performance, quality, autonomy... in short, the grade bulletin. Top grade students are sent to classes marked with an "A", while other classes are randomly formed. As such, a 10th grader with good grades, fluent in two languages or more would be sent to 10A, whilst other less brilliant peers, to "B" or "C".

But it doesn't stop there; it pushes the best students even further.

Parents are given the option to enroll their students for extra classes (e.g., latin, history of art), as well as the choice to let their child take the International Bilingual Option (IBO) whereby the result is 40 hours of school per week, or 8 hours of school per day. Those taking extra classes are blessed with an every day schedule that starts at 8 am and finishes at 6.30 pm, the time around which professionals get off of work.

The IOB option used to only be available in the 10th grade when I was still at the FSS. Now, it starts as soon as the 6th grade. Granted, 6th graders do not have the same workload as high-schoolers, but the homework given to them is certainly not what one would expect of the 6th grade. Upon enquiry, a few teachers responded to me by claiming that such workloads were "necessary" to "prepare these students to the amount of work that is needed in the IBO in high school".

In my view then, what I see today, now that I have graduated from the FSS, is that it wasn't a school anymore, but a factory by which students with very similar academic record to their parents are produced. In other words, the school was there for french expatriates, to create even more expatriates. In short: social reproduction; the values that children were taught at home, were strengthened and sharpened further in school to be similar to their parents.

In itself, that's not an issue. The school is producing individuals that are and will be successful academically and professionally. However, what I find disturbing is what the school did to ensure the academic success of the IBO classes. They never shared the same lunch period, or the same classes. Interaction between IBO students and non-IBO students were kept to a minimum.

What they called "bad" students would be deemed a "problem" and would be sent to the school psychiatrist, in the hopes of fixing the issue to help these students produce good results again.

The one thing that parents didn't teach their children, that the school taught instead, is the loss of the value of money, primarily due to China's weak currency. At the time I was in school, one euro was worth 10 RMB. From that viewpoint, nothing was expensive anymore as the price of everything was divided by 10, making it seem far more accessible, which it was. Price was not a limit, but a number that had to be reached. Going out a night, none of us had to worry about missing the last train or which bus to take. We'd simply pay for a taxi in the middle of the night. No one was ever broke.

The first time I came to London was for my first year of university. The first thing I did was buy a Vodafone sim card and 30 pounds worth of credit. Even then, I distinctly remember dividing the 30 pounds by 10, and thinking it was cheap. Here, the extravagant habits of the expatriate disappear. There are no private drivers, no housekeepers to do everything for a bunch of young adults, who've never really had any responsibilities.

Higher education is definitely a business. But at least, the experience is not as distant from reality as the FSS was.