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France looks to upend school year traditions

Associated Press Modified: October 5, 2012 at 5:02 pm •  Published: October 5, 2012
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"It's completely unrealistic," Valerie Marty, president of the national parents' organization, said of the proposed timetable. "They have to figure out who will take care of the children after school, who will finance it."

In France, the answer is usually the government.

The state is expected to provide for just about everything education-related: Classes come under the national budget, and lunches and leisure are the domain of municipalities. So if school lets out most days at 3:30 p.m., under the plan most recently floated, more working parents than ever would need afterschool care — and towns would have to figure out what to do with restless children. That would almost certainly involve something more constructive than sitting quietly at desks, kicking around a ball, or playing cards until the evening when parents get out of work.

The Education Ministry has proposed more organized extracurricular activities like sports, theater and art to replace the relatively free-form time children now have after school. But that means trained staff and, of course, more money from local budgets already strained in difficult economic times.

Marty, who has three children, proposes something entirely different: lengthening lunch to three hours.

"After a meal, children have a moment when they're tired. They're not ready for intellectual activities and could do something more relaxing," she said, suggesting theater, or quiet time in a library for others. Afterward, she said, classes could resume until evening.

Trimming the hallowed summer break is another tricky proposition. The school year ends at the beginning of July. Some families take July off, some August. But nearly everyone takes a month, and many French families travel for the entire period.

Peillon said he was flexible about vacation time: "If the question of vacation is blocking things, I'll propose that the prime minister leave it alone."

Eric Charbonnier, an OECD education expert, supports the proposed changes. He believes the current system isn't working for the children most in need of a good education.

"A schedule with long days and lots of vacation is not one that will help the students who are having problems," he said.

Peter Gumbel, a British journalist who has lived in France since 2002 and written a book about the country's education system, said the length of the school day is only part of the problem. He says that French schooling is outmoded, dull and grinding. His take is clear from his book's title: "They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don't They?"

"You have to tackle head-on the fundamental questions of the classroom," he said, citing "the sheer heaviness of the national curriculum, the enormous amount of hours, the enormous amount of unbroken attention required, and the sheer boredom and tiredness."