For more than a century, the lengthy school days of French children have been punctuated by a midweek day off, in recent decades for most children on Wednesdays, originally created for catechism studies.
The long hours and peculiar weekly rhythm have been criticized as counterproductive to learning and blamed for keeping women out of the full-time workforce, as well as widening inequalities between rich and poor because of the demands they place on working parents. Yet the Wednesday break has remained a fulcrum of French family life.
With all that in mind, the government of French President Francois Hollande recently issued a decree introducing a half-day of school on Wednesdays for children three to 11 years old starting in September, while reducing the school day by 45 minutes the rest of the week. In a country with a broad consensus in favor of shortening a school day that typically runs from 8:30am to at least 4pm and sometimes longer, Hollande’s government still did not expect the plan to be controversial. It has not worked out that way.
Instead, the edict has incited a wave of protest from France’s powerful teachers’ unions, parents’ associations and city governments, which say it was produced without their consultation, is short on details and fails to address deeper concerns about the middling performance of French schoolchildren compared with their peers in other industrialized countries. Thousands have taken to the streets in recent weeks in protest.
“The difficulties facing our students and our schools need pedagogical responses,” said Sebastien Sihr, general secretary of France’s national union of primary schoolteachers. “We have to put an end to this magical thinking that just stretching the school week over four-and-a-half days will improve students’ performance.”
France’s peculiar school week dates to the creation of free universal public schools in 1882 under then education minister Jules Ferry. In a concession to the Roman Catholic Church, which until then had played a leading role in French primary education, the law reserved one day a week for religious instruction.
However, in today’s secular France, children of means spend their Wednesdays at music, sports or language lessons, while poorer families scramble for child care or place their children in subsidized public “leisure centers.” For many parents — particularly women — the default solution is a part-time job.
Despite their four-day week and nearly four months of vacation, French children spend more hours in class than most of their European counterparts: 847 hours a year for third-graders, for example, compared with 750 hours on average for children elsewhere in the EU. (In the US, the average for students of all ages is around 950 hours.)
Yet, a 2009 assessment of high-school students in 65 countries by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked France 21st in reading, 22nd in math and 27th in science. Dropout rates are on the rise, and nearly 40 percent of French 15-year-olds have repeated at least one grade — three times the OECD average.
“This is the only country I know where the adults work 35 hours a week, but they expect their kids to work more,” said Peter Gumbel, a British journalist and a professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, also known as Sciences Po, who wrote a withering critique of France’s education system in 2010.
“French kids are spending considerably more time sitting at their school desks than the average for outcomes which are generally worse,” he said.
He and other critics of the government’s plan say that its emphasis on a shorter school day fails to address more fundamental concerns, such as how and what French children are taught, how best to allocate limited education resources and how to recruit and retain better teachers.
Much of the problem, education experts say, is that France’s centralized primary school curriculum is overly focused on rote learning that discourages creativity and critical thinking. Fifty-nine percent of lessons for seven and eight-year-olds are devoted to reading comprehension and math skills, compared with an average of 48 percent across the OECD. While standards for academic performance are high, teachers are given little flexibility to adapt their lessons to their students’ needs.
Expectations for far-reaching education reform were high after Hollande — who has promised to hire 60,000 new teachers over five years despite France’s mounting budget crisis — narrowly won the presidency in May last year. But by choosing first to confront the four-day school week, Hollande, some politicians fear, risks alienating voters at a time when his approval ratings are low, hovering around 44 percent.
Under the plan, the hours of instruction are to be reduced by 45 minutes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, though it is being left up to municipalities to decide whether to extend the lunch break or tack on 45 minutes of recess or other activities at the end of the day.
Compounding the government’s trouble in its efforts to sell the plan is the fact that it was drafted with little input from teachers, parents or local governments. Those affected said they learned about the plan’s details from interviews that French Education Minister Vincent Peillon gave to the French news media.
“The whole thing started off very badly,” said Valerie Marty, president of the Federation of Parents of Public Schoolchildren, France’s largest parents’ association. “We weren’t asked our opinion beforehand.”
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