SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

The World

October 6, 2012

France looks to upend school year traditions

(Continued)

Things aren’t exactly easy for French kids.

Despite long summer breaks and the four-day school week, French elementary school students actually spend more hours per year in school than average — 847, compared with 774 among countries in OECD, a club of wealthy nations. But the time is compressed into fewer days each year.

The French school day begins around 8:30 and ends at 4:30 p.m., even for the youngest, despite studies showing the ability of young children to learn deteriorates as the day goes on.

France ranks below most of its European neighbors and the United States in results on international tests.

But many parents are afraid that the changes will force them to figure out extra childcare five days a week, especially at schools where the afterschool program amounts to sitting silently at a desk for two hours or near-chaos in the play areas. Under the education proposal, school would end at lunchtime on Wednesday.

“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.

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