French are feeling the back-to-school blues

7th September 2012 at 01:00
Attention is turning to the creation of teaching jobs and five-day schooling

Memories of Atlantic and Mediterranean beaches quickly faded as French children returned to school this week after what was guaranteed to have been a frantic burst of last-minute shopping.

The rentree scolaire, as the start of the school year is known, meant parents who left it late had to devote part of recent weekends to the annual ritual of stocking up on increasingly expensive stationery, accessories and school wear.

Francois Hollande's new socialist government has kept one campaign promise, increasing grants for 5 million children in lower-income households at a cost of pound;300 million. But as the academic year begins, attention will switch to his ability, in the face of continuing financial crisis, to live up to his version of Tony Blair's famous commitment to "education, education, education".

The government has already approved the return to five-day schooling in primary schools and sees that sector as most in need of further improvement. The agenda includes proposals to lengthen the school year, combat violence, push up standards and improve teacher training and evaluation.

But there is also the small matter of the 60,000 teaching jobs Mr Hollande pledged to create, starting this year. His gradual realisation of the need to tackle France's massive public deficit, with official auditors warning that he must impose cuts of pound;35 billion this year and next, has already fuelled doubt that he can see through key aspects of his bold tax-and- spend manifesto.

Far-left complaints about Mr Hollande's work so far may be premature and clearly ignore practical realities. And the government promises new legislation in the autumn after a wide-ranging consultative exercise, launched in July, which has just resumed. Aides to education minister Vincent Peillon insist that he will not settle for a final report reflecting "a consensus everyone can agree on". That may be just as well, because parents have been having their say and the picture some paint is not a rosy one.

Mr Peillon could do worse than check an online debate among readers of the free newspaper 20 Minutes. One said the issue was not schools, but what she called a mentality of left-wing thinking and educational mediocrity among teachers themselves. By way of balance, another complained that French education was unsuited to a modern generation because it was "founded by Napoleon with the sole aim of reproducing the elite, picking the brightest among the children of the bourgeoisie".

There was praise for the English, US and Scandinavian models, with calls for a more rounded education and urgent attention to language teaching. "These are difficult times and it is natural to wonder about our children's future," said Thierry Vidor, director general of Familles de France. "But I don't doubt the government will try to improve things and the national consultation is a step we welcome. We are entering an interesting period for French education."

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