While a debate currently takes place in the UK about school examinations, it’s a rather different pedagogical topic hitting the headlines in France.
The organisation of the school calendar seems to pre-occupy the French like no other country on earth.
The 'rythmes scolaires' - the organisation of the school calendar and school hours – is one that is rarely out of the news and generally moves centre stage following a presidential election.
This year is no exception, with the government having announced that it proposing to make several changes to the organisation of the school calendar in 2013 for primary school children. Similar ideas were expressed by the previous government of President Sarkozy.
Foremost amongst the proposals is to increase from 4 to 4½ days the length of the school week, while simultaneously reducing the hours of attendance each day and the length of the summer holiday.
Shortening of the summer holiday by one or two weeks would be accompanied by zoning of the country over a longer period of summer, as currently occurs for the winter and spring holidays.
These proposals come as no surprise, for France distinguishes itself in Europe by having the longest primary school day and the shortest school year.
Children in primary school normally start their day at 0830, finishing at 1630, during which there are six hours of classes, with additional hours for those having difficulties.
Since 2008 these classes take place over four days of the week, with a no classes on Wednesday, reserved for extra-curricular social and sporting activities outside of the school.
Over the year primary school children attend school for 140 days over 36 weeks, well short of the number of schooling days in other countries of Europe due mainly to long summer holidays in France. In the UK the minimum number of days is 190, as is similarly the case in many other countries in Europe.
So perhaps not before time the government has decided that the concentration of hours puts too much pressure on young shoulders, particularly when travel time to and from school is added into the equation.
They have been helped in coming to this view by a recent report from the OECD, who were critical of the French school calendar, which they considered detrimental to the proper education of children.
However, although that may self-evident to most of us, nothing is that simple in France, so the issue has become a major affair of state. Everyone has something to say on the subject, and there is even a website set up by the previous government dedicated to the debate on it.
Judging by a recent IFOP poll a majority of parents support the changes, but support is highest amongst the 'classes aisées', with only 53 % of the ‘classes moyenne’ in support of the proposal. Many parents continue to believe that a break on Wednesday is beneficial for the child and that putting them into school for a half day on a Wednesday causes a great deal of inconvenience and cost for working parents.
A return to Saturday morning attendances at school seems unlikely, but this remains a fear some opponents of the change. This timetabling period was finally abolished by the former President Sarkozy in 2008, although many local authorities had taken their own decision to end it years prior to this date. It has only been since 1969 that France ended primary schooling on Saturday afternoon!
The change also raises egalitarian concerns about childcare out of school hours. Critics argue that whilst well-healed parents will be able to make appropriate arrangements for the shorter schooling day, this will not be possible for the majority of working parents.
There is general agreement that a reduction in the length of the summer holiday would be beneficial, but less of a consensus on how this is to be done. The hotel and tourist trade are lobbying for zoning of the country so that holidays take place over a longer period, while the parent associations are opposed to such an idea, as they consider it will make it more difficult to arrange family renunions. The powerful teaching unions are also concerned about any reduction in the length of their summer holiday.
Whatever the outcome of the debate, as the OCED report points out, a reduction in the school year will not necessarily by itself bring about an improvement in education performance.
They consider that other measures also need to be taken, such as a reduction in repeating years (le redoublement), which they consider “beaucoup trop important”; a reform of teacher training, which they consider to be “trop académique”, and a ending of the practice sending the youngest and the least experienced teachers into the most difficult schools, an approach which the OECD considers to be “ une aberration”.
The Minister of Education, Vincent Peillon, is due to publish his report in October, with consultation then taking place at least until the end of the year.