A new OECD report titled Education at a Glance has pointed out some of the strengths and weaknesses of France’s education system.
And one of the conclusions the authors of the report have come to is that it’s time to consider cut the amount of school holidays for primary school children in France.
The report revealed the number of days French primary school pupils spend in the classroom is 162 a year – the lowest number of any of the OECD countries. The average of European countries in the OECD was 182 days.
A look at the school calendar for this year shows just how many school holidays primary kids have in France – two weeks for Toussaint holidays in late October, two weeks at Christmas, two weeks for the winter break in February, two weeks in Spring and then of course eight weeks in summer.
But that doesn’t mean French primary schools kids are getting fewer hours in the class than other countries. In fact they spend more hours in the classroom than in most other countries – 864 hours compared to the OECD average of 804.
The country’s own ministry of education spells out the problem on its website.
“French school children suffer longer and more loaded days than most other students in the world. This extreme concentration of teaching time that is unique in France, is inappropriate and detrimental to learning. It causes fatigue and difficulties,” the ministry states.
And things used to be even worse. Before a 2014 reform was introduced, French primary pupils were only at school four days a week. But then schools were opened on Wednesdays and the school days slightly shortened on Tuesdays and Fridays.
But it’s still not ideal for young pupils, Corinne Heckmann, one of the authors of Education at a Glance tells The Local.
“In France children aged six to 11-years-old face a long week. It’s an issue because the teaching hours are concentrated in the number of days.
“We only recently extended the school day from four to four and half days and that extra half day was very important for us,” said Heckmann.
“Now they have to think about decreasing the length of their vacations with one possibility to reduce the two-month summer break,” she said.
But Heckmann acknowledges that cutting the summer break would prove unpopular in a country where the summer vacation is still sacrosanct.
For a start there are the teachers, who presumably would not want to lose their time off and who could blame them? Although unions insist the subject is not taboo.
Then there’s the tourism industry, which is a powerful lobby in France.
“If schools don’t break up for the summer until July 15th the tourism chiefs would not be happy,” said Heckmann.
In 2013 when former education minister Vincent Peillon said he wanted to cut the summer break to six weeks he incurred the wrath of some in the tourist industry.
“The French are really attached both socially and culturally to the long summer holidays,” Didier Arina, president of the company Protourisme told The Local at the time.
“It’s a tradition that goes back a long way. It’s in our blood to go away in the summer. Any minister who attempts to change it comes up against a mini-revolution.”
But French parents, who often struggle to find childcare during the many school holidays were receptive to the idea.
“We are in favour of a reduction to the summer holidays. Millions of children do not even get to go on holiday and on average the French only go away for two to three weeks,” said Jean-Jacques Hazan, president of the Federation of the Councils of Parents of State School pupils.
But current education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has shown no sign of wanting to tackle the touchy issue, especially given that the previous reform of the time-table sparked strikes and protests across the country.
The OECD report also highlighted other issues about primary education in France, including the relatively low salaries of teachers.
Heckmann also believes teachers in France could do with better access to training in order to learn different teaching practices.
They should also ditch their obsession with marking pupils in primary schools which can often do more harm than good and encourage pupils to stick their hand up and answer questions without fear of being wrong.
“This is really an issue and we need to encourage children to answer even if it’s the wrong answer,” she said. “That way we can understand that they don’t understand and can explain differently.”
France can however pat itself on the back for several aspects of its education system not least the early years education, which sees schools open to pupils from the age of three.
It also has young teachers, so the country is not facing a crisis in a few years when many retire which is the case in Italy.