View from here - Do they know what is at steak?

23rd July 2010 at 01:00
Pupils and staff at a school near Paris are finding the trial of a German-style timetable hard to digest, reports Jacqueline Karp

A major hitch with a new timetable being trialled by a class of 15-year-olds has less to do with the subjects taught than the food. "It's hard to tuck into steak at 10.30 in the morning," explained Bernard Lociciro, headmaster at Lycee Jean Vilar, in Meaux, east of Paris.

The school is one of the first to try a so-called "German-style" timetable, with more than 100 others in France planning to follow from September.

The day limits academic subjects to a five-hour block between 8.30am and 1.30pm, with lunch at 10.30am. Afternoons are then devoted to education physique et sportive as well as activites de decouverte (discovery activities) in which they try out new things, including fencing, sailing, wrestling, mountain-biking, and even chess.

The early lunch break was recommended by bio-nutritionists. But while it may have provided adequate digestion time before the afternoon's activities, it totally ignored pupils' need to mix with other classes, let alone the adolescent distaste for early-morning meals.

The pilot scheme appears to have shown positive results, including fewer absences and less tired children. But the decision to expand the trials was made without any independent assessment.

So whose great idea was it? Step forward Luc Chatel, France's national education minister.

The pilots are just one of the minister's many recent wheezes that have left teachers scratching their heads.

Mr Chatel has recently put forward a range of plans for curriculum reforms, many of which are watered down versions of proposals that cost his predecessor, Xavier Darcos, his job.

For example, from September separate streams will continue for lessons in science, literature and economics, but classes will be mixed up for core subjects. In the upper sixth, history and geography will be axed and de Gaulle's dry memoirs shifted to literature, a move that has caused outcry from the left.

Shared teaching will also be introduced, but the time teachers spend in the class with a colleague will only count half towards their weekly working hours.

"Better preparation for university" is the official explanation for the changes. But, given that the minister's policy is to replace only one out of every two retiring teachers, many suspect other motives.

As for the pilot timetables, they are supposedly part of a move to lighten the school day. But the German system being imitated is a half-day, with sport an extra-curricular activity under parental responsibility. So PE teachers wonder whether they are next for the chop.

Teachers have asked who will pay for textbooks and how authors and publishers could have them ready by September. It seems teachers will be expected to present the early chapters in class and that books could be available by December, when parents may have to foot the bill.

Mr Chatel skilfully announced details of his plans at the end of the summer term when teachers were too busy marking exam papers to protest. But it is a long-standing tradition in France that education ministers do not last long, and that industrial action often gets the better of them.

The next teachers' strike is due on September 6. Mr Chatel may yet find that, like the early-lunching teenagers, he has bitten off more than he can chew.

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