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Primaries move into 21st century

France

For young children the future is back to basics - in the company of their parents, reports Jane Marshall

Changes are in store for France's 324,000 primary teachers and six million pupils following the Government's announcement of a "charter to build the school of the 21st century".

Hammered out during the summer after ministerial discussions with teaching unions and parent representatives, reorganisation will focus on the curriculum, the school timetable and teachers' role.

In January, 2,000 schools will start piloting the reforms, paving the way for their general adoption next September.

"The school of the Republic must face new challenges, adapting, evolving and reforming itself, while remaining faithful to its beliefs, ideals and goals without repudiating its fundamental principles," says the charter.

The curriculum is to be lightened and refocused on the basics, notably French and maths, needed to equip pupils for coll ge (lower secondary school).

According to an education inspector's report last month, up to 17 per cent of seven to eight-year-olds have serious difficulties with the 3Rs, with 10 per cent still struggling when they enter coll ge.

Under the "ideal of equality of opportunity", the charter proposes unifying school timetables and holidays. Traditionally pupils used to have Wednesdays off and went to school on Saturday mornings, but during the past decade many experiments have been run across the country to find a better way of arranging school time.

Some schools introduced four-day weeks with shorter holidays to compensate; others confined academic work to the mornings, devoting afternoons to sports and cultural activities; some combined both, or variations.

Claude All gre, the education minister, aside from wanting to harmonise the timetable, is also insisting that children should be looked after at school until the end of the afternoon if parents require such a service. They should have access to the sports facilities and assisted homework sessions.

The charter also defines a new role for primary teachers who, while remaining multi-skilled and responsible for their pupils' education, must learn to work not only with the new army of classroom assistants appointed under the government's youth employment scheme, but also with each other.

The aim is to ensure that subjects such as foreign languages, which are increasingly taught at primary school, the arts and new technologies are taught by those best qualified to do so.

Meanwhile, primary schools and parents are being brought together through a "new partnership for schools and families" launched last week.

Parents were invited to meet their children's teachers and other staff, and spend the day at school as well as taking part in discussions about out-of-school activities and the curriculum. They also learned about the role of parents on school managing boards and were encouraged to vote in last week's board elections.

Schools minister Segol ne Royal said the government wanted families, especially the most disadvantaged, to understand what school expected from their children, so they could better help and encourage them.

"This new partnership must be a spur for equal opportunities and it concerns as much, if not more, parents who themselves experienced school failure, " she said.

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