The view from here - France - Recovering the 40 days 'stolen by the Right'

Colin Randall

Newly elected Francois Hollande made change a byword of his presidential election campaign, and primary school pupils are among the first in France to know how a socialist government will alter their lives: their four-day week and long summer holidays are under threat.

In France, Wednesday is traditionally a day off, while Saturday morning is part of the timetable for many pupils, especially in secondary school.

Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right government decided in 2008 that there should be no classes on Wednesdays or Saturdays for primary school children. But Mr Hollande's education minister, Vincent Peillon, wants children in school from Monday to Friday, even if they will still be allowed a half day midweek.

Mr Peillon explained the move as an attempt to restore 40 school days "stolen by the Right" from primary pupils. French children currently attend school for 140 days a year, compared with 180 in neighbouring countries. This, the minister said, leads to overloaded schedules. He cited the view of a public health institute, the Academie Nationale de Medecine, that a six-hour school day, sometimes extended by individual tuition, is simply too much. "The academy said it was unbelievable," he said. "Beyond four and a half hours, a pupil loses the capacity to learn."

Parents are divided on the issue. Working mothers say the present routine makes life intolerable, only to find themselves accused of selfishness by others choosing to put greater contact with their children before careers.

"First prize for hypocrisy," declares one online reader of the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. "It is not out of love for children that some parents would send them to school for five days, but to have free childcare on Wednesday's scandalous that a government of the Left should announce a longer working week for teachers without a trace of consultation."

But ministers are determined and also want talks on cutting summer holidays by 15 days. This year's break stretches from 6 July to 2 September.

Yvan Touitou, a scientist who has studied scholastic rhythm for 30 years, said that he is surprised anyone objects. Indeed, he told Le Figaro, the ideal solution "to respect children's body clocks" would be for them to attend school only in the morning, but for six days a week.

Children have a view, too. Many the world over will identify with the message of a cartoon in Mon Quotidien, a newspaper for 10- to 14-year-olds. "School on Saturday? We're all for that..." says a boy, leaving the girl walking with him to complete his train of thought: " long as we then have every other day off."

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Colin Randall

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