“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.”