PARIS – French children go to school four days a week. They have about two hours each day for lunch. And they have more vacation than their counterparts almost anywhere in the West.
It may sound a bit like the famously leisurely work pace enjoyed by their parents, most of whom work 35 hours per week as dictated by law.
But the nation's new government says elementary school kids risk classroom burnout, and is moving to help them cope. The issue: French school days may be relatively few, but they are at least as long as a day of work for adults. Even 6-year-olds are in class until late into the afternoon, when skies are dark, attention flags and stomachs rumble.
As a candidate, President Francois Hollande promised to change things by adding a fifth day of classes on Wednesday while shortening the school day. For France, it's something of a revolutionary idea that would overturn more than a century of school tradition. The thinking is that the days are too full for young children under the current system and that Wednesday free time could be put to more productive use.
"France has the shortest school year and the longest day," Hollande said at the time, promising change.
His education minister, Vincent Peillon, will decide this month how to carry out the reform. He has said he may also compensate for a shorter school day by trimming France's sacred summer vacation. A panel of experts will present their conclusions on Friday, and the president is expected to address the issue on Tuesday.
No proposal affects tradition — and potentially family and municipal budgets — as much as what the French call changes to the "scholastic rhythms."
There's been a midweek break in French primary schools dating back to the 19th century, a government concession to the Roman Catholic Church, which wanted children to study the catechism on their weekday off. In today's secular France, Wednesdays currently are a blur of sports, music, tutoring for families of means, or a scramble for working parents struggling to get by — who must either find a sitter or send their kids to a full day at a state-run "leisure center."
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.
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.
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."