alternatives éducatives : des écoles différentes
| Présentation | SOMMAIRE |

I Une école différente ? Pour une société différente ? Qui n'en veut ?! I Des écoles différentes ? Oui, mais ... pas trop |
| L'heure de la... It's time for ... Re-creation | Appel pour des éts innovants et coopératifs |
I Obligation scolaire et liberté I | Une école différente ? Pour une société différente ? Qui n'en veut ?! I

Quelques autres "rubriques", parmi beaucoup d'autres, toujours d'actualité :
les rapports parents-profs, la maternelle à 2 ans, l'ennui à l'école les punitions collectives,  le téléphone portable, l'état des toilettes, le créationnisme...

I Actes du Séminaire International Freinet de Londres I
I Freinet dans (?) le "système" éducatif (?) français ? I
Le mouvement Freinet : passé et présent
Gerald SCHLEMMINGER - History of Freinet Pedagogy
Liliane MAURY – Freinet and Wallon : on the Part Played by Psychology in School

La coopération à l’école : des questions pratiques…donc théoriques
Marine BARO – A l’école choisissons le plaisir d’apprendre avec les autres, de vivre ensemble et de se construire, dans la classe coopérative
Samia CHARMI – L’Auto-ECOLE de Saint-Denis
John SIVELL – Freinet on Practical Classrom Organization

Éducation, civilité, citoyenneté
Hugh STARKEY – Freinet and Citizenship Education
Jacques PAIN -  Des initiatives dans la classe pour réduire la violence à l’école : la pédagogie institutionnelle

La dimension internationale : présence et absence de Freinet
Nicholas BEATTIE – Freinet and the Anglo-Saxons
William B. LEE – The Ecole Moderne, an International Movement. What are the Ingredients for Successful Export ?
Tsunéo FURUSAWA – Pourquoi les enseignants du Japon ont-ils accueilli la pédagogie Freinet ?

De l’école primaire à l’université
Roger AUFFRAND – Freinet dans (?) le système « éducatif » ( ?) français
David CLANFIELD – Using Freinet Pedagogy in a University Environment : Challenges, Frustrations and Happy Outcomes



Nicholas BEATTIE,
University of Liverpool

Alors que la pédagogie Freinet se diffusait dans de nombreux pays d’Europe et du reste du monde, N. Beattie remarque qu’elle n’a jamais vraiment intéressé les anglo-saxons. Cette résistance - ou cette indifférence – qui limite l’ « universalité » du modèle Freinet s’expliquerait par les différences culturelles des systèmes éducatifs. Fondées sur l’expérience d’une école rurale, dans un système centralisé où les enseignants travaillent isolément, les idées de Freinet seraient trop françaises.


To what do the Anglo-Saxons owe their superiority? (“A quoi tient la supériorité des Anglo-Saxons?”) This was the provocative title under which, in 1898, Edmond Demolins launched a fierce debate in the French press and elsewhere . The question derived its significance from French feelings of national inferiority in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. The answer, which Demolins claimed to demonstrate through his ‘scientific’ approach, was twofold. It was a matter partly of racial inheritance, partly of education. The superior inventiveness, industry and productivity of the British Empire, and its success in encouraging Anglo-Saxon stock to settle in the colonies, were due in part to the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon racial element in business, industry and colonial expansion. Anglo-Saxons stood for individual initiative as against the subordination of the individual to the collective or the community. By contrast, the Celtic and Norman strands were, according to Demolins, less aggressive and enterprising.
The other answer was educational. Anglo-Saxon education was, in contrast to its French counterpart, realistic and pragmatic. It was concerned to develop the whole man (sic), not, as in France, the swot who would move via the concours (competitive examination) into the Civil Service (la fonction publique), the Army, and similar hierarchical, protected, government-guaranteed activities. The Anglo-Saxon spirit was typified by a headmaster whom Demolins had met: Cecil Reddie of Abbotsholme - so different from the typical French head, more like a pioneer or squatter with his hairy tweeds, his woolly socks and his vigorous mien. If the French wished seriously to make an impact upon the dawning twentieth century, Demolins argued, they must change their education system.
Twenty years later, in the closing months of the First World War, a group of young officers who had survived the trenches, also saw educational change as the key to creating a new and more satisfactory world. And they too saw the Anglo-Saxon contribution as essential to their ‘Université nouvelle’, their ‘new education system’:
We [i.e. the French] already have the clarity of conceptions. Let us take from the English [sic] and the Americans their healthy realism and their confidence in life. Let us profit from the exceptional togetherness which the war has created... May the school of the future and the new education be a harmonious synthesis of French thought and Anglo-Saxon realism. (Compagnons de l’Université Nouvelle, 1918, pp.16-17)
Twenty eight years later still, in 1946, shortly after the end of a second war, the Anglo-Saxons again appeared as harbingers of radical change in French education. M. Husson, Director of the Ecole Normale in Charleville, wrote a sixteen-page pamphlet to reintroduce ‘the new education’ to primary school teachers. Its insights, he claimed, inspired the post-war educational plans of many nations, including ‘the Anglo-Saxons’, who inhabited ‘the most politically developed’ parts of the world (Husson, 1946, p.14). Sceptical readers were recommended to read ‘the old but still up-to-date book by Demolins, A quoi tient la supériorité des Anglo-Saxons’. (ibid.)
Husson’s booklet bore the imprimatur of the Freinet Movement, many of whose members still saw, in 1945-46, Soviet communism as the answer to western civilization’s problems. It was published in the series ‘Brochures d’Education Nouvelle Populaire’, and produced by the publishing house (‘L’Imprimerie à l’Ecole’) attached to the Freinet Movement. But nine years later, in 1954, the Freinet Movement’s founder and leader expressed his disappointment that the Anglo-Saxons had yet again failed to interact with progressive forces in continental Europe. Célestin Freinet (1896-1966), speaking at the Movement’s annual congress at Aix, and conscious of the Movement’s post-war success in spreading its message and methods to Italy, Germany, Poland and elsewhere, posed some heartfelt questions:
Why, in spite of infrequent contacts which nonetheless we have cultivated, have we been unable to find, either in the USA or in England, one single primary teacher, one single class capable of experimenting with our techniques?
The USA remains too often for us that unknown world whose psychology and pedagogy we ought to study more deeply.
And as for England!
Is its impermeability due to its formalist spirit combined with a religious tendency? Or are there other reasons? (Freinet, 1954, p.188)
The aim of this article is to try to answer Freinet’s puzzled question. In doing so, we shall inevitably touch upon  more general questions.  What are the enduring factors which contribute to the mutual incomprehension and ignorance to which Demolins, the Compagnons, Husson and Freinet all in their different ways bear witness? Is an internationalist approach to education, to which all these writers were passionately committed, possible?


The quotations juxtaposed in the previous section demonstrate that over the space of fifty or sixty years French educators of a critical or progressive cast of mind were haunted by an inchoate sense that ‘Anglo-Saxon education’ was in some way better than its home-grown counterpart. What they actually knew about education on the other side of the Channel was, however, vague, partial and distorted. For Demolins to present Cecil Reddie of Abbotsholme, the charismatic proprietor/head of a fee-paying boarding school which had developed quite unusual new procedures and curriculum (see Stewart, 1972, pp.144-9 and 378-401), as typical of Anglo-Saxon education in 1898, is bizarre. As for the Compagnons, their rallying-cry to combine the best of the French and Anglo-Saxon systems remains, through two substantial volumes, decidedly abstract: almost all the non-French examples cited are German.  Husson’s attempt to refer the reader back to an out-of-print polemic of fifty years before is more a mark of ignorance than a serious suggestion.
Consider more fully the circumstances under which Husson’s brochure was produced. It was written in the immediate aftermath of a terrible war, and at a moment when the full horror of the Holocaust was sinking into the European consciousness. It was one of a series of similar booklets designed to free.frrm and inspire teachers (especially primary teachers), and provide them with progressive classroom techniques appropriate to the newly re-established democratic order: at the time, Célestin Freinet, who had spent the enforced idleness of the war years in writing several theoretical works to underpin the classroom practices developed through the twenties and thirties, was relaunching ‘the Freinet Movement’ as the basis for a total renewal of the elementary school. The brochure was written by a man of standing within the French system, responsible for the training of teachers for the elementary school. It must have been commissioned and checked by Freinet himself, because both the Movement and the press were very much aspects of a family business. The Movement presented itself as decisively of the Left, and at the time Freinet was still a member of the Communist Party.  How could such a booklet, written for such a purpose at such a time, have recommended a half-baked, dated, pseudo-scientific and essentially racist text to promote ‘the new education’?
In asking such questions, there is a danger of applying the questions of 1996 to the people of 1946: in this case, we have become more aware over the past twenty years of the collective French need, in the aftermath of Liberation, to suppress or play down the extent of collaboration. No doubt such pressures contributed to the odd myopia about racist theories. Those are not really the questions I want to ask in this paper. The question is more general: why was so much of the educational discussion in France over the period 1900-1970 so ill-free.frrmed and unsophisticated?
The question is deliberately phrased rather brutally, and certainly not out of any sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority. I pose the question in order to answer it not in terms of ‘national character’, ‘innate tendencies’ or the like (the Demolins approach), but in terms of  history and institutions. In answering it, I hope to arrive at a more just estimation of the contribution of Célestin and Elise Freinet. Existing evaluations have been mainly the work of French enthusiasts and scholars, and I believe there are aspects of the Freinets’ work which emerge clearly only in an international perspective.


Anglo-Saxon observers of the Freinet phenomenon in France need two keys to unlock its significance. Firstly, they need to grasp the limited character of the formal study of education in France up to about 1970; secondly, they need to understand something of the day-to-day reality imposed by the structure of schooling in a society which for most of the period was predominantly rural.
Until the 1970s the serious study of education as a separate discipline in France was heavily concentrated on a single institution: what is now known as the Institut National de Recherche Pédagogique. This is now combined with the Centre National de Documentation Pédagogique (library and other resources). It is located in central Paris (29 rue d’Ulm). It depends for its funds and personnel upon the Ministry of Education, and has in the course of the 20th century borne several different titles. It is in other words an institution which for most of its existence has been a constituent part of the centralized Paris-dominated machinery of French state education. It has also for most of its existence been surprisingly small and under-resourced to function as the impetus for the study of educational research and innovation in a large modern state.
Also dependent on the Ministry over this period was the national network of Ecoles Normales, which carried the responsibility for the training of elementary teachers (instituteurs). These institutions were designed for young people - for most of the Freinets’ lifetime, very young: both Célestin and his wife Elise (1898-1983) entered their local Ecoles Normales, as was then usual, at barely sixteen years of age. The task of these institutions was essentially to inculcate the modicum of knowledge thought necessary to teach a nationally defined elementary curriculum, together with the approved attitudes, behaviours and ideological stances (especially secularism). Their function was not to experiment or speculate, but to recycle and disseminate existing consensual knowledge. Nor was there any organic connection throughout most of Freinet’s lifetime between the elementary system, with the Ecole Normale as its crown, and the parallel secondary system which fed higher education (universities and Grandes Ecoles). Thus not until after 1968 was there any pressure towards a developed and integrated system in France having at its centre a serious view of education as an autonomous study. ‘Sciences de l’éducation’ is a neologism of that time, and the Revue Française de Pédagogie was established as late as 1967. The undeveloped character of Educational Studies in France until the late 1960s or early 70s must be seen in contrast to the English and Welsh scene surveyed by the Robbins Report of 1963. Margaret Wilkin summarizes it succinctly:
The disciplines [of Educational Studies] already existed in the UDEs [University Departments of Education] and the UDEs were the leaders in the field. They influenced the curriculum in the colleges [of Education - rough equivalents to the Ecoles Normales] through the status and publications of their members, and they controlled it through the [regionally based] Area Training Organizations (ATOs).  (Wilkin, 1996, p.54)
The contrast at every point with the scene in France over the first sixty or seventy years of this century could hardly be starker. In France, ‘the disciplines’ were undervalued and underdeveloped. Educational psychology was heavily dependent on the Swiss (Ferrière, later Piaget) and the Belgians (Decroly). Vidal (1994) has recently explored interestingly the extent to which the young Piaget’s thinking sprang from a Swiss, even Genevan culture and society very different from that of France. Educational philosophy at this time is exemplified by the Propos of Alain - thoughtful, highly intelligent, elegant, literary (see especially Alain, 1986). None of this writing was ‘earthed’ in teaching materials or classroom procedures. This is true even of the relatively progressive Instructions Ministérielles of 1923 (Ministère de l’Education Nationale, 1923). If read and acted upon, these Instructions are encouraging to teachers of a progressive cast of mind, but all the evidence, including Freinet’s own writings and actions over half a century, suggests that they were rarely read and even more rarely acted upon. They urged
an intuitive and inductive method, moving from observed realities towards ideas, an active method, providing a constant stimulus to the pupil’s effort and uniting him and  the teacher in a common search for truth. (ibid., p.81)
Such statements, though admirable as aims or exhortations, impinge on classrooms only when translated into concrete routines and readily available materials. The educational task of the Freinet Movement was partly to bridge this gap (hence Freinet’s slogan of ‘tools and techniques’), partly to elaborate an as yet non-existent classroom-orientated theory. How that task was tackled over fifty years is described by Bruliard and Schlemminger (1996).
The theoretical task as carried out largely through a series of works produced in the enforced leisure of the war years. Freinet’s preface to his Essai de psychologie sensible explains its lack of academic rigour by the conditions of its writing:
in my prison cell, in the huts of concentration camps... in action with the Maquis... without the direct  help of books, within reach only my pen and the exercise-books which were the faithful companions of my deepest thought... (Freinet, 1950, p. 327)
In reality, though, even if he had had ‘the direct help of books’, it is doubtful if the style and substance of Freinet’s theoretical writings of the 1940s would have been different. Single-handed, he set himself the Herculean task of recasting the formal study of education, and making it relevant and helpful to teachers, especially primary teachers. If he failed, the failure is less a matter of personal inadequacy than of the inherited inadequacies of the solidly-based but increasingly dated post-1887 system.
From an Anglo-Saxon perspective, therefore, Freinet was trying to answer questions which were substantially irrelevant in the more organically developed, less centralized systems of ‘the Anglo-Saxon world’, with their stronger emphasis on the role of higher education as feeding and stimulating schooling.
But the distinctively French orientation of the Freinet Movement was not just a matter of intellectual lacunae. Indeed, those gaps themselves were the product of a combination of mentalities and structures running right through the system and dating back ultimately to Napoleon and the ancien régime itself. To summarize simply (a fuller case is argued in Beattie, 1996)
*a centralized national system of education requires
*a defensible standard recruitment procedure, the concours or competitive examination, which can function only by
*stressing measurable subject competence more than elusive features such as teaching technique or personal commitment.
The high valuation of subject knowledge, and the low valuation of skills in transmitting it to others, are intrinsic to the educational culture with which Freinet had to deal. Another aspect of that culture and of French society itself over the period considered was its predominantly rural character. To summarize again:
*a centralized national system of education allocates to teaching posts
*nationally certified primary teachers, each responsible as a qualified professional for
*his/her classroom in which he/she
*teaches a centrally defined curriculum.
In such a system, the inherent separateness of each teacher corresponds to the low profile of the school as a distinctive ‘business’ or quasi-autonomous institution under a managerial head, and is refree.frrced by the predominantly rural character of France throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The majority of the teachers to whom the Freinet Movement directed its message worked, like the Freinets themselves, in small, more or less isolated, often one- or two-teacher schools. Freinet ‘tools and techniques’ were not marketed to schools, but to individual teachers. In this respect, too, the ‘deep structure’ of the Movement was alien to the Anglo-Saxon world, with its long experience of urban education, large primary schools, schools viewed as distinctive institutions differing one from another and run by entrepreneurial heads in competition with neighbouring schools.


The failure of the Freinet Movement to engage with the Anglo-Saxon world is all the more striking because Freinet’s commitment to internationalism was so passionate and genuine. It was rooted in the experience of the trenches. Elise Freinet’s hagiography (E. Freinet, 1981); Célestin’s repeated assertion of his own legitimacy and patriotism as a veteran with a 70% disability pension, and the new teaching methods as a by-product of that disability (“He soon noticed... that traditional lessons which he could not deliver properly on account of his respiratory problems were as wearisome to the children as to himself” - E. Freinet, 1981, p.17): all these lend an air of fairy-tale to Freinet’s war service. But the experience itself was no fairy-tale. It very quickly led Freinet to a particular perspective on internationalism. For him, commitment to international interaction and understanding was essential for the growth of a stable, peaceful and progressive world order; and it was exemplified in the Soviet Revolution of 1917.  The Soviet exemplar was seen from afar, and often in a partial and idealized form. It was also distorted by being viewed through a vaguely anarchist, or libertarian glass. Freinet’s stance on these matters in the early 1920s was indistiguishable from that of ARAC (Association Républicaine des Anciens Combattants), the most extreme left/anarchist wing of the veterans’ organizations. It was also traditionally French in its assumption that a single model of an alternative society existed, and must, whatever its temporary imperfections, be supported. Such a position does not encourage sensitivity to cultural nuances or even to the distortions in discourse and perception inherent in different languages. In 1922, some veterans ‘took it upon themselves to suggest seriously to the Germans that they should adopt 11 November as their national holiday’:
It is their July 14 that the free German, truly enamoured of the republican régime which he has adopted, should celebrate on November 11. (Prost, 1992, p.89).
It is in something of the same naïve spirit that in the 1920s and 30s, the Freinet Movement’s journals L’Imprimerie à l’Ecole and L’Educateur Prolétarien regularly contain brief reports on education outside France, often in the USSR, and often retranslated from Esperanto translations. Typical is an account of a summer camp for children from the Glasgow slums (Kennedy, 1930), in French, translated from Esperanto, and apparently identical with similar accounts from USSR or France itself. The purpose of such reports was to reflect universal progress, not to explore local tensions or peculiarities. Although Freinet visited Socialist Hamburg in 1922 and the USSR itself in 1925, he spoke, so far as I can ascertain, no language other than French. Inevitably, his view of cross-national educational questions tended to be simplistic and Gallocentric.
In this, Freinet was characteristic of his era. One sees a similar approach from the other side of the Channel in the the New Education Fellowship - with perhaps less excuse, in that most NEF leaders were more widely travelled and better educated in the formal sense than Freinet.
Let us now turn to the NEF (later renamed World Education Fellowship, WEF), which constituted the actual machinery for bringing about closer international collaboration in educational matters. This is not the place to write a potted history of this odd but apparently influential educational organization (see Stewart, 1972, pp. 353-77) - just to note several features of it of relevance to the theme of this article. In reality, the two national pillars which supported its rather ramshackle superstructure throughout its existence were French and English. More accurately, they were Francophone and Anglophone. On the Francophone side, the initial impetus came as much from French-speaking Switzerland and Belgium as from metropolitan France; on the Anglophone side, the USA provided important support, even though perhaps the major thrust of American innovation was channelled into the Progressive Education Association. The geographical realities of the time - the slowness and expense of international travel - meant inevitably, however, that most of the routine running of the NEF centred on Paris and London - and in reality London seems to have emerged as the effective centre. The German Reformpädagogen also played an important part during the latter years of the Weimar Republic, but were forcibly removed from the international progressive scene by the arrival in power of Hitler in 1933.
The next point to note about the NEF was that it was essentially an organization for ‘the great and the good’ - especially professors of education, psychology, etc. - people who had the leisure and the money to attend the international conferences which were its most visible activity, and write in its journals.
The final point to note about the NEF is that although ideologically extremely diverse - the very label ‘new education’ was selected to be imprecise and include as many tendencies as possible - it contained a strong strand of ‘spiritualism’ or ‘idealism’ - a sense among many of its more prominent supporters that the purpose of education should serve some higher reality or power, and that the function of education in the post-1918 world was to inject a new awareness, sensitivity and moral rectitude into the hearts and minds of men and women.
As an elementary schoolteacher with no formal education beyond 18 and a materialist, Freinet fitted uneasily into this association. As a Frenchman and a member of the Groupe Français de l’Education Nouvelle (GFEN) on the other hand, he appeared to be much more acceptable. It is certainly the case that two of the international conferences of the NEF - the 1932 conference in Nice and the 1936 one in Cheltenham - were of importance to him. What that importance was will now be explored.


To set the scene, I quote from the notes written for the executive Board of the NEF in London evaluating the 1932 Nice conference and assisting Board members in their plans for the next ‘Fellowship World Conference’, which at the time was planned for 1935. The paper comments on French-Anglo-Saxon tensions revealed at Nice. The author’s name is not given, but was almost certainly Beatrice Ensor, the Secretary of the NEF.
It must always be borne in mind that in order to secure a harmonious atmosphere at a conference it is necessary to take account of the habits and wishes of the country in which the conference is held... in France, we had to remember that French people do not like very rigid organisation... we must remember that a very large number of our conference members were French, who had not attended our previous conferences, and to whom our ways were somewhat strange. This was so, for instance, in regard to the Community Singing... we have felt that while such a country as France is in many ways backward in the philosophy and practice of the New Education as it is understood in England and the USA, as well as some other countries, nevertheless there is a considerable amount to be learnt from France that might be of value to the New Education movement. (WEF papers, III 188)
One does not need to read between the lines to see that the London-based NEF had preoccupations and prejudices of a particularly Anglo-Saxon kind; nor to deduce that  the New Education might be a  distinctly different animal from l’éducation nouvelle, and that in particular Freinet would seem at best a quaint exotic to the idealistic middle classes who dominated the NEF. And so it proved.
This brief article does not permit of a detailed analysis of Freinet’s role in the 1932 and 1936 WEF Congresses, but a few facts about the 1936 Cheltenham Congress will be sufficient to suggest the mismatch between the English setting and the French educator. Freinet’s main advertised activity was to run a series of workshops on ‘The printing press and the school’. These were conducted in French with English translation. One suspects that the number of Anglophone attenders sufficiently interested in printing in primary schools, and sufficiently confident to venture into a Francophone environment, was small. Judging from the book-length report on the conference (Rawson, 1937) and other surviving material in the WEF archive in London, the Congress was almost aggressively English in style and substance - and upper-class cultured English at that. The event had its ceremonial opening on Sunday 2 August with a service in Gloucester Cathedral, addressed, in English of course,  by the Anglican Bishop of Chichester. In the evening, however, Pierre Bovet gave a keynote address in French - but its subject was religious education, which must have seemed an odd preoccupation to a primary teacher from an aggressively secular state system like Freinet. Bovet’s address was preceded and followed by carols from the choristers of Bishop Wordsworth’s School, Salisbury. Finally - and here I quote from another contemporary evaluation (Ryan, 1936, pp. 366-7) -

In a certain sense the most characteristic thing at the Cheltenham conference was the singing of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ - on the first Sunday evening and thereafter. The music leader made it clear that for ‘England’ one could read any of the industrial nations represented at the conference.

No doubt this was made clear; but the style of all this must have seemed bizarre and alien to a man of Freinet’s views and recent experience (in 1936 he was still reorganizing his life and work after the trauma of a right-wing ‘anti-Freinet campaign’ resulting in what amounted to forced early retirement over the period 1933 -35). Sure enough, Freinet appears in the conference report as a dissenting voice - but a voice which in the reporting has been curiously sanctified and Anglicized:

A communist teacher maintained that no one has the right to inflict his own religious point of view upon children - not even the communist one. On the other hand he declared that it was right for him to practise communism in his own school, just as he recognised the right of Christians to practise the real religion of Jesus in their schools. He did not preach the theory of communism to his children, since in any case they would be incapable of understanding it... (Rawson, 1937, p.42)

Freinet then went on, according to the report, to describe how orphan children from Paris were fed before they could be taught.

As an interruptor said, “But that is love!” (ibid.)

A few pages later (ibid., p.59) Freinet appears again, in a discussion on the impact on family life of poor housing. His plea that ‘educators’ should ‘attempt to improve the material conditions under which their children live’ appears as support for G.K. Chesterton’s extolling of the virtues of (presumably Catholic) family life.

August 1936, when these discussions were going on, was of course in France the moment of the first legally guaranteed paid holidays for the workers, one of the most memorable achievements of the Popular Front. The Spanish Civil War was at its height. Somehow, in crossing the Channel, these grand political confrontations have become diluted, blurred, spiritualized. Consensual ‘Anglo-Saxonism’, if the neologism is permitted, has triumphed.


Another perspective on this question is obtained by comparing Freinet with A.S. Neill (1883-1973). The two educators had a good deal in common. Neill was older (born  thirteen years before Freinet) and the impact on him of the First World War was less total, though like Freinet he too drew the conclusion from the war that European civilization was fatally flawed (see Croall, 1983, p.78ff.). Neither Neill nor Freinet thought or wrote in conventional academic categories, and the style of writing in which they were most relaxed and effective was unstructured, concrete and colourful: Neill’s curious autobiographical novels written in his ‘Dominie’ persona, or Freinet ventriloquizing for the wise old peasant ‘Mathieu’ (C. Freinet, 1959). Both men projected themselves as practical teachers first, and theoreticians second. Both were affected by psychoanalysis - Neill more deeply than Freinet, but even with Freinet one of the pretexts for the 1933 Right-wing campaign against him was a dictée entitled ‘My dream’ (reproduced in Barré, 1995, p.88), and recording a pupil’s dream of an attack on the mayor of Saint-Paul. The recounting and recording of dreams was in the 1920s and 1930s one of Freinet’s new techniques. Both Neill and Freinet favoured closer and more humane relationships between pupils and teachers, and saw this as contributing long-term to a more democratic society. Politically both were communists of a decidedly pre-Stalin kind, with a strong (in Neill’s case, very strong) admixture of anarchism.

Yet what fundamentally distinguishes between Freinet and Neill is not differences of individual personality, nor different emphases in their philosophical or political views. The real distinctions derive rather from the different educational environments in which they grew up and practised. They can be summarized in their differing commitments to two institutions: Neill’s to private boarding schools in Britain, Freinet’s to mouvements pédagogiques in France.

One of the paradoxes of the A.S. Neill story is how easily, in spite of his supposed ‘communism’ (“I practise the communism of Jesus, sharing all with children and staff” - Croall, 1983, p.318), he accepted the role of head of a private fee-paying boarding school. Sometimes he argued that a boarding environment was educationally necessary for ‘pupil self-government’ or for the sort of quasi-Freudian approach he favoured, and that this justified recruiting pupils as young as 3, 4 or 5 (ibid., p.194). In reality, however, his enthusiasm for boarding seems to have been as much cultural as educational. He had few ethical qualms about confining his services largely to the awkward offspring of the well-off, and Croall goes as far as to speak of his ‘refusal [in his latter years] to open his eyes and ears to the changes in practice and attitudes taking place in the mainstream of education’ (ibid., p.333). As soon as Neill (who was raised in Scottish state day schools, and first practised in them) had some sense of his own personal contribution to ‘the new education’, his almost instinctive response was to open ‘a school of his own’. Surely this reaction sprang almost unconsciously from his English [sic] environment, with its ready acceptance of schools as businesses and heads as entrepreneurs.

The contrast with the Freinets is sharp. Of course, they too finished up as proprietors of a private fee-paying boarding school; but they were forced into that role after fifteen years as state-employed instituteurs by a highly politicized, nationally orchestrated campaign (Barré, 1995, pp. 82-96; Freinet, E., 1981, pp. 167-196). It is clear from all Freinet’s subsequent comments that the experience of becoming a scapegoat for progressivism and left politics was personally traumatic for him, even if his new ‘private’ position eventually gave him a freedom and autonomy which he could hardly have retained in the employment of the state. Shortly after ‘l’affaire de Saint-Paul’, Freinet wrote in L’Educateur Prolétarien: “We labour for the mass of children, for the mass of educators” (Freinet, E., 1981, p. 205), and it is clear also from the admissions policy of the Ecole Freinet in the late 1930s that the Freinets made strenuous efforts to use their new private status to cater for children with deep-seated learning problems, physical handicap, etc., and especially for refugee children from Republican Spain. It is equally clear that for the rest of his life much or most of his energy and creativity went into the Mouvement Freinet, which was directed essentially at teachers in state primary schools. Part of the rationale for the Ecole Freinet was that it should serve as a test-bed for new teaching materials and techniques, and as an exemplification and training-ground for teachers interested in them. A central part of its raison d’être was the support it could provide for the mainstream state system, and for many years Freinet negotiated to get it recognized by the state as an experimental school - a status achieved only recently, long after its founder’s death.

These professional commitments flow partly from the Freinets themselves, from their experiences, their values, their politics and their personalities - but they derive too, and perhaps more deeply, from the underlying structures of French education. In 1831, Victor Cousin described universal schooling (l’instruction générale) as ‘a sort of intellectual and moral conscription’ (Plenel, 1985, p.16) - and in that Napoleonic machine, private schools run as businesses by individualistic heads  were marginal and exceptional. The inadequacies of educational theory and teacher training, sketched in in section 3 above, meant that much of the responsibility for innovation was carried by independent associations or mouvements pédagogiques: for these, there is really no parallel in the Anglo-Saxon world. An important part of the Freinets’ failure to engage with les Anglo-Saxons stems from this fact: so much of his activity and exhortation went through channels and were directed to purposes which hardly existed in the Anglo-Saxon world. For example, the massive quantity of writing produced month by month for L’Educateur Prolétarien (later L’Educateur) was often recycled in book form, but is hardly comprehensible without some grasp of the environment from which it comes. Les dits de Mathieu  (C. Freinet, 1959), which began life as editorials for L’Educateur, is a prime example.


Freinet’s question of 1954 about the absence from his movement of the Anglo-Saxons, cited in section 1 above, suggests that he was groping for cultural explanations. ‘formalist spirit’, ‘religious tendency’ - these vague formulae reflect perhaps his bemused observation of the Cheltenham conference. Five years later, however, he attempts a fuller and rather different account in correspondence with Peggy Volkov of New Era, the London-based journal of what had been the New Education Fellowship, now rechristened World Education Fellowship (WEF). WEF was attempting at this time to ascertain whether GFEN, the Groupe Français de l’Education Nouvelle, was still committed to the kind of educational progressivism favoured in London, or whether it had become a straightforward front organization for the Communist Party. Freinet, as an old contact from pre-War days and longstanding member of GFEN, was approached. He replied with a trenchant survey of the French scene as he saw it. Party control of GFEN had broken the potential unity of progressive forces which he had struggled to promote after the Liberation. The Freinet Movement, he claimed, now ‘animated’ a fifth of the French teaching force.

But we no longer manage to attract the curiosity and interest of intellectuals, psychologists, teachers (professeurs) at all levels of education which we need if we are to rethink a pedagogy born of action. (Letter from C. Freinet to P. Volkov, 12 February 1959: WEF Archive, Box II 96 (A))

By the same token, the GFEN, cut off from the practitioners of the Ecole Moderne, ‘the marching wing of the New Education’, is a mere shadow - ‘practically vanished from the wide range of French pedagogy’.

Because the Freinet Movement’s relations with the GFEN are broken (concludes Freinet), relations with the NEF/WEF, as the Anglo-Saxon ‘branch’ of a movement of which historically the GFEN is the French representative, are also broken.

From this regrettable divorce derives perhaps the fact that we are so unsuccessful, in spite of our now totally convincing experimentation, in attracting a single Anglo-Saxon school’.  (ibid.)

Even a decade after the event, the pain of Freinet’s brutal exclusion from the Communist Left (of which the best account is Testanière, 1989) is evident in these letters. No doubt also, Anglo-Saxon suspicion over the Cold War period of the Freinet Movement’s left orientation contributed to the lack of contact and understanding. However, as a full explanation Freinet’s account is insufficient and Gallocentric. The crucial reason for the Freinet Movement’s failure to engage with Anglophones was neither politics nor language, though both factors may have been obstacles: it was that the Movement strove to solve some of the problems of small, poor, predominantly rural schools operating within a centralized hierarchical bureaucracy. The Freinet message, refined in France through the 1920s and 1930s, was intrinsically appropriate to post-Liberation Italy or Poland, and intrinsically inappropriate to Britain or the USA. The clue to Anglo-Saxon resistance is more structural than ideological.


Like many of his generation, Freinet believed that international understanding could and must be achieved through education. His belief was refree.frrced by the success of the Freinet Movement in transplanting its influence to pre-War Spain, and to a wide range of other countries after 1945. Semenowicz’s international bibliography (1986) contains substantial sections of writings from Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the USSR and Yugoslavia. It closes with four pages of articles on Freinet topics in Esperanto, all from the 1970s and 1980s. The international Freinet Movement is organized through FIMEM (Fédération internationale des Mouvements d’Ecole Moderne). The Annuaire FIMEM of 1987 lists regular journal publications in various languages from national Freinet Movements outside France, in Italy, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Columbia, Panama, Brazil, Venezuela and Canada. Against this background, it is understandable that to Freinet ‘the Anglo-Saxon world’ represented an incomprehensible aberration from a generally enthusiastic response. Anglo-Saxon resistance - or better, inertia or indifference - seemed aberrant because Freinet wanted to believe that his message was universal, rooted in permanent human nature rather than in transient cultural factors. The last book he wrote before he died, a summary of thirty central principles, was entitled Les Invariants Pédagogiques (C. Freinet, 1964). It opens with a quotation from Montessori:

These are the laws of life; they cannot be ignored; we must act in conformity with these laws; with that purpose we list them, like the Rights of Man, as common to Humankind. (ibid., p.385)

In his lifelong devotion to a defined unitary package of beliefs and procedures, Freinet was less universal, and more French, than he thought. He criticized many aspects of the curricular ‘Encyclopaedism’ characterized by Holmes and McLean (1989), yet at the level of ‘deep structures’ of thinking he too was shaped by that paradigm. Nor was this incompatibility with Anglo-Saxon education only a matter of philosophical tradition or mindset. It was deeply affected also by structures and by the economic and geographical environment. The structures governed and constrained the training and job descriptions of teachers, located curriculum development in different areas of the system from those familiar in the Anglo-Saxon world, and allocated to schools different levels of autonomy. The economic and geographical realities were those of a state which remained predominantly rural until much later than, for example, the United Kingdom (Weber, 1977).

For Freinet, the idea of deep-rooted incompatibilities between education systems was distasteful; a similar distaste is felt by the present writer. a generation after Freinet’s death, the evolution of the European Union again pushes the internationally minded educationalist to highlight commonality rather than difference. Yet if real, durable interaction is to root and grow, with mutual learning between systems, then analysis must be prepared to identify and reflect upon cross-national incompatibilities, and explore the reasons for them.


Most of the research on which this article is based was subsidized by grants from the Leverhulme Trust and the Spencer Foundation. I am grateful to both, though the views expressed in this article are my responsibility, not theirs. The material on the NEF is drawn mainly from the WEF Archive at the University of London Institute of Education: to successive archivists (Stephen Pickles and Diana Guthrie) I am also grateful. Translations from the French are done by the author.


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| Présentation |
| SOMMAIRE | Des écoles différentes? Pourquoi? Pour qui? | Colloque Freinet à ... Londres |
| CHANGER L'ÉCOLE | Des écoles différentes ? Oui, mais ... pas trop ! |
| L'heure de la... It's time for ... Re-creation | Freinet dans (?) le système "éducatif" (?) |
| 68 - 98 : les 30 P-l-eureuses |
| Le nouveau sirop-typhon : déplacements de populations ? Chèque-éducation ? ou non-scolarisation ? |
| Pluralisme scolaire et "éducation alternative" |  | Jaune devant, marron derrière : du PQ pour le Q.I. |