View from here - Early breaks too tough for tender teens

6th August 2010 at 01:00
Pupils and staff in France are finding the trial of a new timetable hard to digest, reports Jacqueline Karp

A major hitch with a new timetable being trialled by a class of 15- year-olds has nothing to do with the subjects taught, but the food. "It's hard to tuck into steak at 10.30 in the morning," explained Bernard Locicero, 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, which more than a hundred others in France will begin testing 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") when 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 adolescent dislike for early-morning meals.

The pilot appears to have shown positive results, including fewer absences and less-tired children. The pilot timetables are supposedly part of a move to lighten the school day. But the German system being imitated is a half-day, with sport treated as an extra-curricular activity under parental responsibility. So physical education teachers wonder if they are the next for the chop.

The decision to expand the trials was made without any independent assessment. So whose great idea was it? Step forward Luc Chatel, France's Education Minister. The pilots are just one of the minister's many recent wheezes that have left teachers scratching their heads.

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 as half towards their weekly working hours.

Mr Chatel skillfully 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 longstanding 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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