Maths in France

My colleague Mr Rey gives me a bit of a hard time for rarely mentioning mathematics in my Friday letters. I have a confession to make: as a student, I was a disciple of Flaubert’s in his belief that maths harden the heart.

However, it is Mr Rey who is right: we need to talk more about maths, not least because it is a French speciality as the Shanghai ranking reminded us a few weeks ago – listing two French universities in the global top 10.

On the subject of universities – please excuse the digresion –  I know a lot of our FS families hope that their children will one day attend an American university. It is, as I have written several times before, important for us to show that schooling in the French Section can help children get into the best US universities. We will speak about it again this year, but in the meantime it is worth noting that a year’s tuition in Princeton or Stanford  (#1 and #3 respectively in the ranking) will set you back between US$50,000 and US$60,000, whereas a year in University of Paris-Sud (#2) costs US$195…

But let’s get back to Maths. They have a special place in the French school system. A school within a school. They are the judge of peace, an indicator of achievement, the line on the report card that all eyes are drawn to. To define Maths in two words would be to say – much as it pains me – they evaluate intelligence.

Maths teachers have built up a real tradition over the years – they know how to inspire respect, and sometimes, fear. They teach a challenging, difficult, abstract subject. It is thanks to the talent of our teachers that FS students find Maths approachable, lively and interesting.  Our maths teachers have demonstrated their professionalism and versatility – changing their teaching methods to match the modifications to the maths curriculum, which now incorporates programming and coding. Our maths teachers help our students to realise that maths are everywhere, not just in the classroom.  

Taiwanese, Singaporean and Korean students do well in the PISA tests, it’s true. But for the French, mathematics is a way of life that has been cultivated over centuries. Beauty is found in maths, not merely in its solutions and answers, but also in the methods used to reach them. Elegance is found in maths through reasoning, rigour, logic and how they are all deployed in the service of maths. In France, we don’t just do maths for maths’ sake, but as part of a quest for greater intelligence. Being excellent mathematicians is one of our trademarks and the results of this long and beautiful history speak for themselves.

Pascal said that life is only good for learning and teaching mathematics. It’s clearly an exaggeration; let me reassure you that there is life after maths! Nonetheless, maths is an essential part of our school life and is part of a tradition that has been tried and tested. French maths are the envy of other countries. The French approach to mathematics is taught in primary school and continues in secondary, where the work of Mr Rey and his colleagues gives our students the opportunity to acquire one of the best mathematical backgrounds in the world. It’s something we should be proud of and boast about more often!

Have an excellent weekend!


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