“Shear genius: French school enrols sheep to keep class open” was the London Guardian headline.
The BBC went for “Sheep enrol as students at French school” which is a bit pedestrian, and arguably inaccurate since the beasts weren’t given a lot of choice. They were driven to it!
L.et me stress that this is not fake news.
The move came after the school in Crêts, a village of about 3,000 inhabitants at the foot of the Alps, was told one of its 11 classes would have to be closed because student numbers had fallen from 266 to 261.
So, on Tuesday morning a local herder and his dog came to school with some 50 sheep in tow, 15 of whom were “officially” registered after showing their birth certificates.
First day at school for Dolly, Shaun and Baa-bête
Added to the register were pupils with names like “Baa-bête”, “Dolly”, perhaps with her twin sister. There was “Shaun” and another wonderfully baptised “Saute-Mouton” – that’s the French equivalent of ‘leapfrog’ – all this in a comic ceremony watched by a crowd of 200 enthusiastic children, parents and teachers.
And, of course, by a welter of journalists, who’d been tipped off by the far-from-sheepish organisers of the little demonstration.
Children at the event held signs reading, "We are not sheep".
“Now we won’t have to close any classes,” smiled Gaëlle Laval, one of the parents behind the initiative, who accused the national education authority of being more concerned about numbers than about the children’s welfare.
Laval said they had used humour to mobilise people to tackle a “miserable” situation.
A funny look at a serious problem
Had the proposed closure been allowed to go ahead, the classes for six and seven-year-olds in Crêts would have been well beyond the limit of 24 children promised by President Emmanuel Macron during his recent press conference.
The town mayor, Jean-Louis Maret, took an active part in the proceedings, which he described as “joyous and without aggression”.
He went on to deplore the official logic of cut-off points and limits, saying that he and his neighbours had already made an effort, agreeing three years ago to merge two smaller communities to create Crêts precisely to avoid the sort of closure threatened at the local primary school.
There is a serious topic lurking behind all this, which the French call “rural desertification”.
Keeping the countryside alive
Basically, there are huge and growing swathes of rural France where there are no schools, no doctors, no pharmacies, no bakeries, no bars, because the local population is too small or too old to keep essential social services functioning.
Obviously, this is not an exclusively French problem: the flight from the countryside began with the industrial revolution, if not with the agricultural one. And has been causing ravages ever since.
But some parts of France are doubly affected by seasonal holiday trends: places like the Alps or coastal beaches have seen property prices driven off the dial by rich city dwellers who spend barely two weeks each year in the community, forcing the children of locals who might want to return out of the housing market.
And, while we’re talking about education, a reminder that many French schools are closed today to both sheep and other students as some members of staff strike to complain about pay and conditions in the public sector.