Monday, December 11, 2017

French sneer at Wednesday classes

PARIS — If you think Wednesday's child is full of woe, as the old nursery rhyme has it, try Wednesday's parents.

Parents like Eric and Isabelle Nizard are angry over a sinister social experiment being conducted on their 9-year-old son, Sacha. It's the latest innovation in French public education: Their child must now attend school on Wednesdays.

Beginning in September, hump day is no longer an official day off, an oasis in the middle of the week for primary school students to rest from the rigors of academic pursuit. Instead, French children — who, like their parents, already enjoy longer lunch breaks and summer vacations than their counterparts in many other countries — have to show up for class Monday through Friday.

The Nizards complain that Sacha has lost his bearings, and that their leisurely Tuesday evenings, when the family could go out to dinner or Sacha could watch TV without worrying about class the next morning, have been sabotaged. His guitar lessons, formerly on Wednesdays, are now sandwiched into his Friday lunch period.

"We weren't asked for our opinion. This was imposed upon us," said Isabelle Nizard, 41.

The new schedule has unleashed protests from teachers and petitions from parents. The deeply unpopular government of President Francois Hollande, who pledged the reform during his election campaign last year, is struggling to defend it.

Because French students had Wednesdays off, as well as a relatively short school year, educators were forced to pack more hours into each remaining school day in order to achieve an annual amount of instruction time comparable to other developed nations. Fewer school days mean much longer ones. Children as young as 6 often remain in class until late in the afternoon, as skies darken and parents get off work.

Adding Wednesday to the mix is supposed to alleviate that burden, at a time when the declining performance of French students is becoming a source of heavy concern. About a quarter of the country's primary schools have already adjusted their calendars, with the rest expected to follow suit next year.

That French schoolchildren have had Wednesdays off is a quirk of history. When France instituted universal public education in the late 19th century, the government granted a weekly day off for children to attend catechism by the Roman Catholic Church. Many schools threw open their doors on Saturday mornings to make up for the lost teaching time, but in 2008, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy's administration decided that a four-day school week was sufficient.

Vincent Peillon, France's education minister, says he feels "great serenity" over a reform that is clearly in the best interest of the nation's young. But that personal uplift has been challenged by public vituperation over how chaotically the shift has been implemented, even from parents who acknowledge that the old system was flawed.

"In theory, everyone agrees on the fundamental principle that kids are overloaded. Everybody agrees that the day is too compressed and that something needs to be changed," said Peter Gumbel, a professor at Sciences Po university here and the author of a bestselling book on problems in the French education system. "However, as soon as you start to change anything, everybody starts screaming."

In Paris, parents are fuming that instead of five days of equal length, the city's new school schedule is a crazy quilt, with no consecutive days ending at the same time.

And moms and dads who have artfully arranged their French 35-hour workweeks to spend Wednesdays with their tots feel shafted.

"We have this midweek day off which helps the kids relax, to establish their own rhythm, to stay up a little longer (on Tuesdays) with us," said Eric Nizard, Sacha's father.

Although some children do attend catechism, today's parents have found Wednesdays useful not for religious instruction but for their kids' music lessons, sports practice and other non-academic pursuits that get short shrift in the highly regimented French education system. Businesses have sprung up to cater to the Wednesday whims of middle-class families, offering such get-ahead programs for youngsters as English classes.

Isabelle Nizard helped put together a petition from her neighborhood in the 16th arrondissement demanding that the mayor of Paris scrap the schedule revamp. It hasn't succeeded. Instead, the parents group she leads and others across France are now urging members to pull their kids out of school next Wednesday in protest. Unions representing teachers and other campus staff have called for a national strike the following day.

Restructuring the school calendar has become one of the myriad issues that officials are looking at in their effort to arrest France's slide in international education rankings over the last decade.

By the time they turn 15, nearly 40 percent of French students have had to repeat a grade — triple the average rate of most industrialized countries. More than 15 percent drop out or finish school without a diploma.

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