La Rentrée 2007

The HCE report on primary schools. It's back to school time. A worldwide, regularly reoccurring event that makes headlines no matter where you live. For the media it's part fashion show and part quick-fix advisory bulletin for harried parents.

As D-day approaches, the subjects TV and magazines dissect for you are not all pertinent. The free press treated me to a check list of warning signs for every thing from bird flu to dyslexia and drug addiction while one of the weeklies reported on a comparative study of education in various countries around the world. Radio talk shows preferred to focus on the plight of schools in the Paris suburbs.

Images speak louder than words and "la rentrée 2007" is no exception. On day 1, French TV showed three year olds with tear-streaked faces, anxious students starting their decisive baccalaureate exam year, even more anxious teachers sizing up their new class and a school or two on strike, already!

It's internet of course that offered the most original twist on the matter. When I looked to see what had to say on the subject, high on the search results list was an article entitled "la rentrée" posted on the blog Qu'en disent les philosophes? (What do the philosophers have to say?) It's not bad to have a more inspiring perspective on the question.

One of the more serious subject treated by the French press, a timely 7 days before schools officially opened their doors, was the study on public primary schools submitted to Nikolas Sarkosy, the newly-elected Presidentof France, by the High Council on Education. Previous evaluations have pointed out deficiencies in the organization and teaching methods used in middle schools and in high schools. Primary schools were considered to be in good health, give or take a few well-targeted problem areas. This study examined public elementary schools and concluded that they, and even the much lauded maternelles or nursery schools, are no longer fulfilling their mission. The report recognizes that dedicated teachers do a good job with 60% of the 6.5 million students enrolled in the country's primary schools. However, findings show that another 40% of these young learners have serious difficulties in reading, writing and mathematic as they go into middle school. The counsel accuses the system of being resigned to the failure of these more vulnerable students and unable to help them catch up. Furthermore, preschoolers who are helped at home by an environment that encourages early learning have a real advantage and do much better than the other children in their class. The study group affirms that the maternelle, for children from 3 to 5 years of age, is not compensating for these socioeconomic differences and not fulfilling their purpose.

Does this mean that your children are no longer getting a good education if they are in a public school? No. It does means that you shouldn't assume that everything is fine just because the teacher hasn't asked to see you. Talk with other parents, attend parents' meetings and take an appointment with the teacher to ask what work is being done in class and certainly don't hesitate saying so if you think your child is bored or falling behind.

The fact that children belonging to the same class are not all at the same level is nothing new, and teachers everywhere are obligated to manage time so that the children who understand and work quickly don't become bored, while making themselves available to those who need special help. The surprise expressed by commentators seems to come mainly from the numbers announced. The percentage of students in difficulty is on the rise and the numerous modifications in the national curriculum, ten réformes (changes in the programs and standards decided by the National Education Ministry) over the past ten years, haven't helped these fragile students. To the dismay of all, instruction and curriculum in the maternelle grades is being questioned for the first time.

The study's findings also aggravate a long running debate between conservatives and liberals, between those who accuse the progressive May '68 political movement of corrupting education and who demand a return to the three Rs, and those who say that a more open minded approach is better adapted to the world children are growing up in today. Learning to read by the whole language method, méthode globale, or the phonic method, méthode syllabique, is one of the subjects much taken to heart on all sides of the educational spectrum. Reducing class time, reforming teacher's training and reinstating respect for teachers are some of the other issues fueling discussion in teachers unions and families around the country.


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