An early reading and writing drive aims to stem the decline in standards, reports Jane Marshall
FRENCH nursery and primary school pupils will study reading and writing for at least two-and-a-half hours a day under plans announced last week by education minister Luc Ferry.
By presenting his programme at the first meeting of President Chirac's new right-wing coalition government Mr Ferry has honoured his pre-election promise to give priority to the fight against illiteracy.
Mr Ferry, head of the national curriculum council during the previous socialist administration, claimed last week that "standards relentlessly continue to deteriorate and pupils with difficulties in French have difficulties in all subjects. In 10 years the facts have systematically been played down and the true causes of the harm have been evaded."
However, education ministry research indicates that the proportion of pupils with literacy problems has remained stable for some years. About 15 per cent of pupils experience some trouble with reading and writing when they enter lower secondary school, with 4.3 per cent in great difficulty.
Mr Ferry's action plan confirms key points from the new primary programmes announced by his socialist predecessor, Jack Lang. These focus firmly on mastery of French.
From September, teachers will be required to devote two-and-a-half hours daily to reading and writing for pupils in the final year of nursery and the first two of primary school, and two hours for those in the remaining three primary years. Regular reading and writing must also feature in all other subjects.
In addition to assessments of pupils' abilities in the three Rs at the age of seven and when they enter lower secondary, another evaluation will be introduced at the start of the last primary year.
A new booklet for teachers of pupils in the first year of primary will list principal literacy problems and methods of overcoming them.
For those in serious difficulty, Mr Ferry intends to set up pilots over two years in 150 schools which will cut class sizes in the first year of primary to a maximum of about 10 pupils. The eventual aim is to be able to identify accurately the children with the greatest problems.
Anticipating accusations of streaming from the majority primary teachers'
union Snuipp-FSU, the minister added that these split groups would be of mixed ability.
Other measures include setting up out-of-school reading schemes in holiday centres, a pilot study on potential benefits for children using new technologies, development of online assistance for pupils, a dyslexia and dysphasia information website, improved help for families with children who have poor eyesight or hearing, and a system to monitor the efficiency of the anti-illiteracy actions.