New French President plans to ban homework because it's 'not fair on poor kids'
By Leon Watson
Published: 00:28 GMT, 17 October 2012 | Updated: 09:08 GMT, 17 October 2012
Children in France already have lessons just four days a week. And they get two hours each day for lunch and enjoy longer school holidays.
But after President François Hollande's latest education announcement, their British counterparts will really have good reason to be envious.
Mr Hollande has said he will ban schools from giving their pupils homework as part of a series of reforms to overhaul the country’s education system.
French president Francois Hollande has said he will ban schools from giving their pupils homework as part of a series of reforms to overhaul the country's education system
The nation's new government says it is unfair that some children get help from their parents at home while children who come from disadvantaged families don't.
The government also argues that primary schoolchildren risk classroom burnout, and is moving to help them cope.
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.
Will be banned: The French government says it is unfair that some children get help from their parents at home while children who come from disadvantaged families don't
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 children to a full day at a state-run 'leisure center.'
It isn't all easy for French children either.
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.
France ranks below most of its European neighbours and the U.S. in results on international tests.
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' organisation, said of the proposed timetable. 'They have to figure out who will take care of the children after school, who will finance it.'
The Education Ministry has proposed more organised 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.'
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French President François Hollande this week announced his plans to get rid of homework as part of his far-reaching education reforms, France 24 reports, a move that is also becoming popular among individual American schools.
In his speech, Hollande outlined proposals for his five-year term, which also include increasing teacher presence in disadvantaged areas, targeting absenteeism and reducing the number of students who fail and are thus forced to repeat school years. He pledged to employ some 60,000 teachers in the coming years after former French President Nicolas Sarkozy cut tens of thousands of jobs.
Under Hollande’s reforms, the school week would also return to four and a half days. It had been reduced to four under the previous administration in an effort to cut costs.
“Education is priority,” Hollande said at Paris’s Sorbonne University on Wednesday. “An education program is, by definition, a societal program. Work should be done at school, rather than at home.”
According to Global Edmonton, Hollande also told reporters that students aren’t on a level playing field when it comes to homework, since some are able to get help from their parents while others cannot.
Just last week, a German high school banned homework in an effort to help students unwind, United Press International reports. Most parents are in favor of the change, and school officials say they will test-run the ban for the next two years to see how effective it is. Michael von Tettau of Elsa-Brandstrom high school said that for students, "there is barely enough time for sport or to learn a musical instrument," adding that a 44-hour working week was just too much.
The no-homework policy has already been adopted by some schools in the U.S. In lieu of assigning homework, teachers at Gaithersburg Elementary School in Maryland ask students to spend 30 minutes a night reading.
Principal Stephanie Brant said she sought permission from the district to abolish homework after the school’s staff determined the majority of assignments were worksheets that did not relate to what students were studying in the classroom. So far, the experiment has seen mixed results. The percentage of third graders passing the Maryland School Assessment reading test declined from 76 percent to 64 percent this spring. Meanwhile, the fourth-grade pass rate remained the same, while fifth graders scored at 84 percent proficiency, up from 81 percent the year before.
Still, the scores are impressive given 70 percent of Gaithersburg’s students come from non-English speaking households and 82 percent qualify for free or subsidized lunch.
Elsewhere, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee scrapped extra credit and graded homework for middle schoolers. Administrators are hopeful these measures will allow for better confirmation that students have actually mastered the material they are being taught.