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Guest blog: children "cry for a month" in formal French nurseries

(200 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 20-Jun-13 11:10:51



Recently, childcare minister Liz Truss criticised British nurseries, saying that she had "seen too many chaotic settings, where children are running around," with "no sense of purpose."

She called for a more teacher-led approach, like that of France: "What you notice in French nurseries is just how calm they are. All of their classes are structured and led by teachers... We want children to learn to listen to a teacher, learn to respect an instruction, so that they are ready for school."

In this guest blog, Neil Leitch who is Chief Exec of the Preschool Learning Alliance, says, far from leading the way in early years care, French nursery settings are not ideal.

Read the blog, and let us know what you think. Do you agree that young children could benefit from a more formal nursery education - or is free play the best way to introduce children to education? Share your thoughts on the thread, and if you blog on this issue, don't forget to post your URLs.


'The Government has praised the virtues of the French childcare system compared to childcare in England. Apparently our system produces a nation of unruly toddlers, operates chaotic nurseries and delivers discourteous children - whereas in France children learn to socialise with each other, pay attention to the teacher and develop good manners.

Last month I caught a glimpse into the French childcare system in Paris by visiting private-and state-run 'école maternelles', which provide childcare for children aged three to six. On entering the private école maternelle, I was taken back to my own school education during the late 1950s. The classroom consisted of 25 four-year-old children overseen by one teacher (in England, a day nursery would have a staff-to-child ratio of 1:8 or 1:13 in a school reception class).

There I saw 25 children sit around tables, fidgeting so much that staff had fitted tennis balls to the legs of the chairs to stop any noise. I switched off from observing the teacher and watched the effects of the constant teacher-led activity on the children. I watched them sit in their chairs and twiddle their fingers and then they would start playing with their clothes. As the time went on the little boys began prodding each other as their attention waned.

The next visit was to a state nursery setting, where the building was in a poor state and showed clear evidence of under-investment. Three year olds had times allocated in the day to use the toilet. These three year olds could be in the classroom from 8am to 12.30pm, with a 15-minute play break.

It was a shock to see no outdoor play equipment except for a small climbing frame. The kind of resources many of us would expect to find at an early years setting - bikes, balls, sandpits and the like - were absent.

The children's experiences were all adult-led, as this was the only way the teacher could manage the number of children in her class. When asked what she would improve if she could, the teacher said, "Fewer children," explaining, "I cannot give them enough time. The system formalises their learning and they are only three."

Although 30 children attend the morning session, about half go home at lunchtime and do not return, so the teacher saves the more interactive elements of the curriculum until the afternoon session when she feels better able to cope with the smaller number of children. I clearly saw two-tier childcare provision, where a child's experience was completely different depending on whether they attended the morning or afternoon session.

But we don't hear that side of the story from the Government. Neither did we hear, to quote one teacher, about the countless children that cry for a month when they join the class in September.

The trip only served to support my view that, when it comes to quality childcare and an emphasis on children's learning experiences, we in England have the right approach. Perhaps then the Government could explain why it continues to champion the French approach to childcare when, in terms of quality provision, England leads the way.'

Neil Leitch is Chief Executive of the Preschool Learning Alliance

psychologymum Thu 20-Jun-13 12:02:44

I agree that there should be a play-based approach in preschool. Children learn better through play when they are 2,3 and 4-years old. Low childcare ratios are important. I write about the importance of play and low child: staff ratios on my blog http://psychologymum.wordpress.com and in my book 'Psychology for parents: Birth to teens'.

morethanpotatoprints Thu 20-Jun-13 12:26:29

I find this so sad, and tbh find the whole idea of structured or formal teaching before school wrong.
The right for children to play is a human right.

Littleturkish Thu 20-Jun-13 12:29:57

Interesting but would prefer to hear opinions based on more thorough research, even though I'm certain the findings would be the same, it's no better than Truss' anecdotal bleatings.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 12:47:33

I live in Paris. Ecole maternelle is not childcare. Ecole maternelle is school and the teachers who teach 3, 4 and 5 year olds have the same training and qualifications as the teachers who teach 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 year olds. It is quite wrong to compare French ecole maternelle to English childcare. The merits of school for such young children are however debatable.

weemouse Thu 20-Jun-13 12:51:22

My child is in his second year of state-run maternelle in France, and the only thing I agree with above is that yes the classes are fairly large - 28 kids with a teacher and assistant.

However, his learning is fantastic and I find many of my UK friends say he is more advanced in what he's doing than their nursery kids.

He is in no way disadvantaged at all from this system, and there is plenty of time for play. Many of the structured learning exercises he does in the class are very play/fun based.

And yes they do have allocated toilet times, what's wrong with that? It's part of the daily routine, along with longer lunchtimes, with freshly cooked balanced meals, and afternoon naps.

He's as happy as larry, as am I as I see a very normal child with good learning base at the age.

Tee2072 Thu 20-Jun-13 12:53:40

Why are we constantly being compared to the French? Why them specifically?

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 12:55:54

psychologymum and morethan I agree wholeheartedly; one of the few positive things that New Labour did was increase the number of teaching assistants in the EYs. as an ex EYs teacher I know it's impossible to teach or even just look after 30 under 8s effectively. The academic approach is totally wrong IMO and E.

I live in France and I'm sorry, but I find this blog post ridiculous.

First off, maternelles are not really childcare, as he calls them, but preschool (hence including the word ecole). You can argue about whether it's appropriate for children to attend preschool at 3, but this is their function, to prepare children for proper school. They are not compulsory. It's very common for people to send their children for only half a day.

Second, this is all purely anecdotal experience. He visited, what, two maternelle in Paris? One of which was underfunded and did not have nice play equipement -- I mean, shocking, I'm sure there are a few nurseries in London that are pretty shabby too. I'm sure there are English children who cry for a month while they adjust to nursery, in fact I've seen the threads on MN.

I don't have an opinion on which is better, the English or the French way -- actually, I think the French way works for the French, and the English way works for the English. They are very different cultures, you could not impose one style on the other.

But I find this style of argument really irritating. Huge generalisations from a small amount of anecdotal data.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:06:17

It is perfectly possible to teach groups of 25 or 30 DC effectively - providing the DC have been trained to listen and comply. Sure, it's not the most fun way to learn, but life's luxuries are not available to all.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:09:51

Most Parisian state écoles maternelles have lovely buildings. It's the private ones that are shabby and overcrowded. I wonder if the blogger mixed the two he visited up by applying English prejudices? He seems pretty confused in his post in other ways and full of prejudice ( what is wrong with fixed toilet breaks?).

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 13:24:08

Bonsoir What's wrong with fixed toilet breaks Erm 3 yr olds are often just potty or toilet trained are you going to expect them to wait for a fixed toilet break???? you'd end up changing a lot of underwear and outerwear if you did that.

Tee2072 Thu 20-Jun-13 13:25:05

"...actually, I think the French way works for the French, and the English way works for the English. They are very different cultures, you could not impose one style on the other."

This is why I don't understand why we are always compared to the French. Our cultures are so different I think it's comparing oranges and toy cars.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:25:24

But French écoles maternelles do do that, and there is no problem at all. French DC are toilet-trained much younger than English DC, so by the time they go to école maternelle there are no accidents.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:29:42

My biggest problem with école maternelle is that it is boring and the days are too long. My DD only did half-days in a half-size class in petite section but I shudder to think of those poor 3 year olds in a class of 30 for 8 hours a day (including canteen). DD was 3.10 when she started all day school, in moyenne section, in a full class of 30 and she was shattered for the first two months - and she is a very robust child!

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 13:30:24

Yeah and none of them have problems hmm. My DDs were dry at 2 but when they needed to go they needed to go; don't YOU ever feel the same? IMO the french expect their DCs to be automatons.

There's a book by an english woman who sent her DCs to french maternelles and was amazed that her DS was reprimanded for being a 'dreamer' at 3yrs old FFs.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:31:36

French DC are much more routine-based than English DC - they eat four times a day, at 8, 12, 4 and 8, they sleep through the night at two months old and they expect to live life to a rigid timetable that is the same throughout France. So they cope with rigid toilet times too!

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:33:26

I have known small children (under 3) be fired from their crèche (nursery - so what the English think of as childcare) because their parents failed to ensure they maintained the eating/sleeping timetable that the crèche imposed during the week at the weekends and, resultingly, were out of synch on Mondays.

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 13:38:01

Interesting because we live between Fr. and England and generally the Fr, are friendly but once behind their steering wheels (or on their motos) seem to need to 'let off steam' some of them extremely so. Perhaps the automata aspect of their education is to blame who knows?

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:38:05

I will admit that I used to attribute my own DD's excellent manners and general good behaviour in group settings to French school - for me, it was one of the positives of French schooling that helped compensate for some of the negatives.

Last Monday I spend the whole day with her class as a parent helper on a day out to rehearse in a theatre before an evening performance. I now revise my opinion: my DD's excellent behaviour is not mirrored by most of the DC in her class! So I must attribute it to other factors than school!

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:39:49

Oh they are notoriously terribly bad tempered behind the wheel! Though the rules of the road don't help - driving is much harder here.

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 13:40:27

All I know is that I prefer giving the children the freedom that is part of the english EYs system.

Fillyjonk75 Thu 20-Jun-13 13:40:38

Sounds like a nightmare. I think we what we should do in the UK is the opposite - follow the Scandanavian/Finnish model and carry on with the EYFS for an extra year and start the National Curriculum in the current Year 2.

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 13:43:41

Yes I totally agree Fillyjonk.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:45:18

The French are not free, that's for sure. Liberté, égalité, fraternité is just doublethink....

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