In the week when the nursery voucher pilots started, and Sir Claus Moser was bitterly contrasting the 4 per cent of our education budget devoted to the sector against the l0 per cent in France, a group of early-years specialists was in Paris to check whether the grass really is greener in the land of universal three-five provision.
The party of practitioners and policy-makers, transported there last week by the Franco-British Council to meet their French counterparts and to experience l'ecole maternelle at first hand, learned some hard truths about delivery of the nursery promise in France and gained some unexpected insights into the debate here on issues such as class size, cost, curriculum and parent choice.
The vital factor is that the French government long ago committed itself to nursery education in response to the parental demand which built up in the late l950s and 1960s. This came from all social groups and crucially occurred at a time of economic expansion.
With primary schooling starting at six, nursery classes were gradually extended downwards: to all five-year-olds by 1970; to all four-year-olds 10 years on; and, soon after, to virtually all three-year-olds, though attendance is voluntary. Now 35 per cent of two-year-olds are in nursery schooling, though this last group is confined mainly to rural priority areas and is not growing as rapidly as the others. There is indeed some fierce debate as to whether two is too young an age to start formal schooling.
For one of the surprises for many of the British visitors was that formal schooling is what you get, and that is linked to the fact that classes are large. The French are evidently not as hung up as our nursery campaigners on low pupil-teacher ratios for the youngest children. The nursery class size can range from 19 to 31 but the average is 27.5. There may be an assistante as well as the teacher, but in Paris the reality is just one assistante to every two classes.
The education ministry is severely practical on the issue. No one doubts that nursery education is both desirable and beneficial (see the latest research, quoted by Anne Corbett and Bob Moon in their book, Education in France, TES, April 5), and that it should be free. But it must also be affordable and available, so curriculum, teaching and planning must take account of large class size.
French officials are if anything more suspicious than our own of any integration of care and education services (and were plainly horrified to hear a comparative description of a free-range London family centre), but in many ways the question is less urgent for working parents in France. Nursery schools keep precisely the same hours as primary schools, open full-time from 8. 30am to 4.30pm, their teachers have the same training and qualifications, and there is a high ratio of inspectors to schools.
The Alphonse Baudet ecole maternelle we visited was built on several storeys and linked - by bridge and overlapping curriculum - with two neighbouring primary schools. In the youngest class a superlative teacher began the day by taking an attentive group of 22 three and four-year-olds through their plans for the day, then divided them into groups for cookery, painting or early number work. Few children strayed. When they trooped upstairs for gym after their milk break, the assistante stayed behind to clear up.
Though the curriculum laid down for French nursery schools was welcomed by the visitors as more akin to our old HMI "areas of experience" than Dearing's "desirable learning outcomes", assessment methods sounded mechanistic and geared to the formal structure exemplified at Alphonse Baudet.
Though it was parental demand which led to France's nursery expansion, there is no rhetoric about parent choice. Children are expected to attend the local nursery school allocated. If they don't like the school or the other children there, the only recourse is to pull strings to secure a more desirable place elsewhere.
Nor can they expect any say in the curriculum. Once children are in nursery school, the state wishes to turn them into good little citizens, initiated into the national culture and cuisine. But that may not be the most important message for the British Government to pick up from the French experience.
A fuller report on the symposium will be available shortly from the Franco-British Council.