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School schedule: Reforming traditions in France

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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 after-school 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 after-school 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.

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