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Minister pins faith in better early years

France. Jane Marshall reports on a strong government investment in nursery education

France's nursery education is to be strengthened to help avoid school failure later.

Schools minister Segolene Royal has outlined plans to give priority in nursery programmes to first steps in oral and written French, a foreign language and civic awareness.

Introducing her proposals Mme Royal said nursery school was "the first link in the chain of efficiency in the education system," which should be reinforced to fight against school failure and reduce the numbers of pupils who leave with no qualifications.

Studies have shown that children who attend nursery classes read better in national tests at the end of their second primary year, and in the long term pre-schooling is believed to help social integration. Starting nursery at two years, rather than three, clearly helps children from deprived areas.

Compulsory schooling starts at six years, but all French children aged three onwards attend nursery, as do more than a third of two-year-olds. Although it is optional, nursery school is considered important and under 1989 legislation the time spent there forms a vital part of the first two pedagogical cycles, the second of which continues at primary school.

Nursery schools already follow a ministerial guide which outlines what children should be taught, but Mme Royal intends to tighten up the organisation by requiring schools to define their programmes and targets for each class. For language development, greater emphasis will be placed on story-telling and encouraging pupils to express themselves. A working group of teachers and experts will define a series of handwriting styles for pupils, and advise on development of "graphisme" - the complex combination of motor and muscular exercises, including tracing and drawing, which lay foundations at nursery school for a rapid, flowing hand.

Tapes and videos of speech and songs in English, German, Italian or Spanish will attune infant ears to the "music" of foreign languages. Mme Royal is also convinced that nursery school is the appropriate place to start learning civic awareness. "The child becomes part of a group and is respected as much as any other person," she said, listing certain moments during the school day, such as breaktime and when using the lavatory, as appropriate for guidance on living together.

She also proposes school-parent partnerships to encourage contact with and involvement of families, and better links with the primary school to ensure a smooth handover to the next stage of education.

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