French school reforms: Lunches to languages

France's education minister has announced a series of reforms that will see pupils doing more work in small groups and picking up an extra foreign language earlier. Here are the key points.

French school reforms: Lunches to languages
French pupils will get longer lunch breaks and learn another language under planned reforms. Photo: AFP
France's high school education system (collège) is "doing badly" and pupils' results are deteriorating, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told Le Parisien newspaper on Wednesday. 
"The problem with French high school pupils today is that they are bored. We need to reawaken their appetite," she later told Europe1 radio.
With that in mind Vallaud-Belkacem announced a series of reforms to the school system on Wednesday scheduled to come into effect in September 2016, which she hopes will tackle the disparity among the pupils.
The reforms aim especially to address the issues of children who are falling behind, in an effort to change what some have referred to as France's elitist school curriculum
"The high school system works well for around one third of pupils, while 20 percent of them are failing. The rest, just about advance, but often have to repeat years," said the OECD's education specialist Eric Charbonnier.
Here are the key points from the new reforms, which were presented to the cabinet and must be given the green light by parliament.
An extra language in the fifth grade
The ministry wants pupils to start learning their second foreign language one year earlier than they currently do, meaning they will be picking it up in the fifth grade (aged 12-13). The extra time spent on a new language is likely to affect pupils' time learning English, or at least that's how schools trialing the change have found the time. 
"Bilingual" or "international" classes may also be cut to make time for the learning of the second language.
More time in smaller groups
Four to five hours of pupils' time each week will be set aside for work in smaller groups. These hours will be specifically tailored to pupils' needs, including attention to their depth of learning and their working methods. The aim is to meet the needs of students who may be falling behind.
Pupils will also be given "personalized" teaching time to help them make a smooth transition from primary school to collège.
"Contextualizing classes"
Interdisciplinary lessons will be introduced for pupils in a bid to broaden their knowledge and to contextualize what they're learning in their normal classes.
For the minister this will allow teachers to "remove the barriers" around knowledge and make subjects seem less abstract for the pupils. This may require teachers to develop a radical new approach to teaching, which they may or may not be happy about.
Eight topics have been chosen, ranging from sustainable development to economics, where children will get a chance to apply their theoretical knowledge. Other topics include: languages and culture, science and society, and health and safety.
Long lunch breaks
High school kids will get a break of at least 90 minutes for lunch – something that has been a long-time demand from parents. 
Into the 21st century
The reforms included a push to get up to speed with modern times. This includes a focus on getting tablets and online materials at pupils' disposal and even introducing lessons in coding.
Parents more involved 
Vallaud-Belkacem's reform also plans to get parents more involved and give them a greater responsibility over the success of their children. An online school booklet for parents will be produced.
The next step for the minister could however be tricky as she will present the reforms to unions, after which three weeks of tense negotiations will begin.
Who knows what will be left of her bill after that.

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Schools to close as French teachers strike over Covid rules

Around three-quarters of French teachers plan to go on strike onThursday to protest the government's shifting rules on Covid testing for students, forcing the closure of half the country's primary schools, a union said Tuesday.

Schools to close as French teachers strike over Covid rules
Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP

The strike led by the Snuipp-FSU union, the largest among primary school teachers, comes after the latest of several changes on testing and isolation requirements for potential Covid cases announced by Prime Minister Jean Castex late Monday.

After seeing long lines of parents outside pharmacies and labs in recent days to test children in classes where a case was detected, Castex said home tests could now be used to determine if a student could return to school.

But teachers say class disruptions have become unmanageable with the spread of the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant.

“Students cannot learn properly because attendance varies wildly, and a hybrid of in-house and distance learning is impossible to put in place,” the Snuipp-FSU said, adding that absent teachers are not being replaced.

It is also demanding the government provide facemasks for staff, including the more protective FFP2 masks, and CO2 monitors to check if classrooms are sufficiently ventilated.

“Not only does the current protocol not protect students, staff or their families, it has completely disorganised schools,” the union said, claiming that classes have effectively been turned into “daycare centres.”

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has said the government is doing everything possible to avoid outright school closures that could cause havoc for parents and jeopardise learning for thousands, especially those in low-income families.

“I know there is a lot of fatigue, of anxiety… but you don’t go on strike against a virus,” Blanquer told BFM television on Tuesday.

As of Monday some 10,000 classes had been shut nationwide because of Covid cases, representing around two percent of all primary school classes, Blanquer said.