Schools - Primary children say au revoir to midweek break

Despite outcry, French schools will start to open on Wednesdays

Irena Barker

French primary schools are renowned for their long and arduous teaching days, with a strong focus on academic achievement. The intensity is relieved only on Wednesdays, when, unlike any other country in the developed world, children do not attend school at all.

But many students whose summer holidays begin this month are waving goodbye to this regime for the last time. From September, almost a quarter of French children will attend school on Wednesday or Saturday mornings, with the rest following suit from September 2014.

The controversial decision has prompted teaching strikes and outcry from parents, amid fears that the move is being badly managed and will not solve wider educational problems.

But France's education secretary, Vincent Peillon, who is concerned about the country's worsening performance in international tests, says that an extra half day will allow less gruelling teaching schedules and improve learning. More time will be available for homework clubs, sports and cultural activities, he claims.

"This extreme concentration of teaching time, unique to France, is ill-adapted and prejudicial to learning. It is the source of tiredness and problems in school," a government statement said.

Ministers have pointed out that, since traditional Saturday-morning lessons were dropped in 2008 (see panel, page 16), French children attend school for the fewest days compared with the 33 other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. They have some of the longest and busiest timetables as a result.

According to the official government website, France came 29th out of 45 countries and was below the European average in the most recent Pirls (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) tests, taken in 2011.

But despite these arguments, many teachers and parents in France have claimed that shortening the teaching day by 45 minutes and adding school on Wednesdays or Saturdays will have little effect on performance.

A recent survey by the Peep parents' organisation found that 64 per cent of parents thought the additional half day would not improve learning, and 75 per cent said it would not help to manage the problem of student tiredness.

Teachers' organisations have said that they are in favour of reforming school hours, but they have reservations about the way that the reforms are being introduced and the speed of the changes. Teachers will teach the same number of hours but their timetables could end up being spread over five days.

Laetitia Barel, head of schools at the SE-Unsa union, said: "We are in favour of improving the system but there are concerns in areas where this is being badly managed."

She added that the majority of councils - especially those in rural areas - have delayed the changes until September 2014 because of the complication of arranging after-school activities.

Sebastien Sihr, general secretary of the SNUipp primary teachers' union, said that ministers were wrong to make school hours the flagship element of school reform, and needed to look at other areas, such as the curriculum. "Vincent Peillon has relegated the issues that are the priority in the eyes of the teachers," he said.

Significant concern surrounds the funding of the many extracurricular activities that will be introduced to fill the timetable. Although the education department has made EUR250 million available for the project, some fear that this will not go far enough. In the Montmagny region near Paris, local authorities are considering introducing charges of more than a euro per child, per day, newspaper Le Parisien reported.

The reforms - which will limit teaching to five and a half hours per day - are part of a wider overhaul of French education. This includes stopping homework in primary schools, so that students from poor backgrounds are not disadvantaged, recruiting thousands of new teachers and reforming teacher training.

Mr Peillon has also said that he wants to cut the summer holidays by two weeks. The Peep survey, unsurprisingly, found this to be an unpopular move among students.

Past and present

History of school hours in France:

1881-82: Free, secular state schools are introduced. Children have a day off each week for religious instruction and make up the hours on Saturday mornings.

2008: President Nicolas Sarkozy's government scraps Saturday school so that families can spend more time together.

2013: President Francois Hollande's government orders local authorities to reinstate half a day of schooling, on either Wednesday or Saturday mornings. The vast majority opt for Wednesdays.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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