ANALYSIS: Do French schoolchildren really have too many holidays?

The majority of schools in France break up today and pupils will begin two months of holiday. Good times for them, but is the long holiday a good idea, asks Professor Claude Lelievre.

ANALYSIS: Do French schoolchildren really have too many holidays?
School's out for summer. Photo: DGLimages/Depositphotos
According to international comparisons conducted by the OECD, France is among the countries with the shortest school year.
A total school year in France does not exceed 36 weeks, while the median among OECD countries is 38 weeks – and one third of countries are over 40 weeks.
Only two countries have a shorter school year than France.
Does this mean that France gives its students far more summer holidays than other countries?
In fact, with almost nine weeks of summer holidays, France is about average. For primary education, the length of the “summer holidays” varies – 12 or 13 weeks for 10 countries and just six weeks in five countries.
The difference is therefore in terms of holidays during the year, as other countries rarely have “short holidays” that exceed the week.
This distribution has been altered throughout the 20th century – while the total duration of the holidays has not changed since the end of the Third Republic, the calendar has changed significantly.

Socioeconomic distinction

Is summer vacation inherited from “la France Agricole” – following in the footsteps of an epoch in which children helped their family harvest crops? 

In reality, the pattern that finally emerged was that of the secondary schools, which only two or three percent of children attended during the Third Republic.

As historian Antoine Prost clearly demonstrates, nobles did not have to work – it would have been a deviation from their social class.

More often than not, their way of life was alternate: in the colder months they would stay in their mansion in the city then go to a chateau somewhere in the countryside during the beautiful summer seasons. 

In their turn, many of those in the middle or upper-middle classes searched for a noble lifestyle. They had vacation, showing that they too were above the working class. Distinction for them was important. 

The idea that school holidays were organised around harvest time is something of a myth. Photo: AFP

In the 19th century, children of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy – who were then practically the only ones who went to middle schools (les collèges) and high schools (les lycées) – joined their parents in the second half of summer not to work in the fields but to take part in the network of social activities that were established, particularly around hunting (an activity of noble and privileged origin under the Ancien Régime).

From the establishment of the Third Republic, long summer holidays began to start earlier and earlier in the year and lasted longer.

In 1875, it was decided that they would begin on August 9th and from 1891, on August 1st.

In 1912, the start was brought forward to July 14th, but they still lasted until October 1st. 

So from 1874 to 1912 we went from a month and a half of summer holidays to two and a half months.

The arrival of paid holidays

For primary schools, where the vast majority of children went, the decree of January 4th 1894 set the duration of vacation time at six weeks.

But it contained a caveat that merits close attention: “However, the duration of vacation can be extended to eight weeks in schools which organise holiday classes.

The two-week extension was made for different reasons, and would become more widespread.
At first it was granted as a reward (for teachers). The decree of July 27th 1896 granted it to staff “who have contributed to the running of regular courses for adults and adolescents”.
At the very end of the 19th century, a norm was created: the normal length of holidays was extended from six to eight weeks, as recognized by the decree of July 21st 1900.
In 1922, 15 days were added to the month and a half long summer vacation.

Vacation then was from August 1st to September 30th.

In 1938, it became in line with the vacation of secondary school and finalised as July 15th to September 30th.

Under the Popular Front government, paid holidays for workers began on July 14th, and the schools' long summer vacation was extended to run from July 15th to September 30th. 

The government's education minister Jean Zay declared: “The vacations of children and their parents should be aligned.”

Vaccation zones

In 1959, the main holiday was moved by two weeks – they would start earlier on July 1st and finish earlier as well – around mid-September.

Because the first trimester was lengthened, it was decided that four days would be free on All Saint’s Day (November 1st), so that there would be a short break. 

Thirteen years later, in 1972, after the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, winter vacation was introduced to prioritize the development of tourism.

The Grenoble Winter Olympics helped usher in winter school holidays in France. Photo: AFP

Ever since then, we entered a new well-known problem called 7+2 (seven weeks of school followed by two weeks of vacation, which is a pattern unanimously recommended by chronobiologists) but which has many pros and cons. 

The debate on the calendar

If we were to prolong the number of weeks 'worked' to align with the average of other countries, up to 38 weeks instead of France’s 36 weeks, it would be better not to touch the shorter holidays, but instead the shorten the summer break by two weeks.

France is now the country whereby the number of 'work' days per year is by far the lowest, in particular for areas which chose a four-day school week (instead of four and a half), which can be considered a problem.

But this issue is incredibly sensitive and divisive.

Teachers are very reluctant, and many are even hostile, to such a development, especially if there is no compensation such as salary increases.

French teachers are certainly among the ones that have the most vacation time, but they are also among the lowest paid.

When questioned on the issue on July 22nd, 2017, by Le Journal du dimanche, the Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, replied: “Every time we talk about children in the 21st century, we must ask ourselves about the summer holidays or intermediate holidays. It is a more important subject than weekly routine.”

On June 22nd 2018 on radio station Europe 1, the Minister reiterated: “I have been saying for a long time that we will have to ask quietly but surely the question about school holidays”.
So, a year later, we ask – quietly but surely – the question: “when and how?”
Claude Lelievre is an associate professor of philosophy at Paris-Descartes University and has written extensively on the French education system. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.