Wed, Nov 07, 2018 - Page 7 News List

In first, French town puts schoolchildren in uniform

AFP, PARIS

As primary-school students returned from their autumn break on Monday, some in a town east of Paris were wearing the same polo shirts and sky-blue sweaters — the first uniforms ever seen in a French public school.

The highly symbolic move by officials in Provins comes as France wrestles with how to close a growing achievement gap between children from poor and wealthy families.

Many countries around the world require school uniforms, with advocates saying they bolster respect between students and teachers while reinforcing a communal sense of belonging.

However, they are relatively uncommon across much of Europe, with the notable exception of Britain.

In June last year, 62 percent of parents in Provins voted in favor of a uniform emblazoned with a crest of the medieval city’s famed Cesar Tower and the French motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

Yet just a few children were wearing the new outfits on Monday morning — officials did not go so far as to make them mandatory.

“I was a little worried,” eight-year-old Noe said at his school’s entrance.

“But I like it, because we’re dressed like in Harry Potter,” he said.

At 137 euros (US$156), the kit includes matching trousers and an aviator-style jacket. Subsidies are available for families who cannot afford it.

“About half the students will wear it,” said Provins Mayor Olivier Lavenka of the Republicans Party, who pushed for the vote as a way of easing social discrimination.

“It’s an experiment, and in a few years we’ll see how it has worked out,” he said.

Traditionally, uniforms have been the preserve of private schools, often Catholic institutions in the nicer parts of French towns.

However, more parents have been calling for uniforms as a way to promote social cohesion, in particular in deprived neighborhoods, and ease the resentments that can emerge over how different kids are dressed.

French children in deprived areas are four times more likely to end up struggling than students in higher income areas, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found.

On this measurement, France was the worst-performing of 36 major economies measured by the Paris-based research institute, far behind the UK or the US, but also Brazil and Mexico.

Two candidates in last year’s presidential campaign, rightwinger Francois Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, called for a “return to uniforms.”

Historians said there has never been such a policy in French public schools.

Students did have to wear aprons or smocks until the late 1960s, but only to avoid stains from using fountain pens and ink wells.

“Lots of people have this memory of uniformed smocks, but it’s a reconstructed memory — you only have to look at class photos from that era,” education historian Claude Lelievre said.

Since 2013, three proposals have been lodged in parliament urging uniforms in public schools, but have gone nowhere.

French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer has said he is in favor of the measure for schools that want it, but has not called for nationwide implementation.

Lavenka said that school uniforms are common in the French overseas territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

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