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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

I think the whole emphasis on pre-school or ecole is wrong in early years education. From 2-5 is a very important part of childhood in it's own right, and not just as preparation for school. Furthermore you don't prepare 2 year old's best for school by having a formal school like experience, but by providing age appropriate play-based experiences. Even in Reception more emphasis should be on learning through play.
Long live play in childhood, and the British Nursery tradition !

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 15:18:49

I have spoken to a French headmistress of a bilingual school here in Paris that uses the English curriculum as the main basis for teaching. She strongly believes that the earlier English start on reading and writing is beneficial to those DC who are not naturally inclined towards reading early - the longer period in which to pick up phonics (versus the French timetable) makes it easier for them.

Wishihadabs Thu 20-Jun-13 15:46:20

Well things may have changed massively since Ds was 1 (he is now 9). But I and the vast majority of my contemporaries used CMs until they started nursery at 2.5 or 3 (Ds went at 2.5 and I wish I had waited TBH). I think this is a much more "normal" environment for a baby/toddler and they can form a proper attachment to their carer. Only MO people must do what's right for them. State funded nurseries 8 hours a day for 1 and 2 year olds make me shudder.

bunnyfrance Thu 20-Jun-13 15:51:34

I think it should be remembered that only something like 10% of children go to crèches here - the rest are with CMs anyway!

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 15:58:54

10% at crèche
18% with CMs
63% parents (who may be helped by nounous, grandparents etc)

tumbletumble Thu 20-Jun-13 16:04:14

Really? So it's not correct that most French women return to work when their baby is a few months old?

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:07:46

Lots of people use nounous (home helps) which don't get counted as anything but parental care. You can deduct part of the nounou's wages from your tax bill so it is much cheaper than having a nanny in England.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:08:05

This is bollocks.

dd went to maternelle in France and ds went to a state run nursery. The focus is very much on learning through play. They are not formally taught to read but are taught a love of books which encourages them to want to read. They are not given masses of homework (which children as young as 4 are given in English schools) and they do all sorts of activites with them. My dd would come home with paintings, models, etc and she always had a story to tell about what happened in school that day.

They had days out to the market as food education was important and French children certainly have a better idea as to where food comes from than English children.

The buildings might not be in a good state but neither are many British schools. In fact, wasn't it Labour who invested in modernising schools? And wasn't it this government who cut funding?

And what about this teacher/child ratio? Didn't the government want to increase the number of children that any one nursery worker was responsible for?

Maternelle is NOT school, it's a voluntary place like nursery. You do not have to send your child there.

As for crying for a month - tell me what is different? You go into any nursery or pre-school in Britain and there will be at least one child who still cries after being dropped off. My neighbour's 3yo has been going to nursery for almost a year now. He still cries most mornings.

I'm sure every maternelle is different with the more pronounced differences between rural and city maternelles, but I saw both when I lived in France and I didn't recognise any of them from Mr Leitch's description.

I would suggest that the government stop picking holes in other countries and just focus on their own. Yes the French do some things better and they do some things worse. Let the French get on with raising their own children whilst you Mr Leitch, should get on with securing more investment for our own pre-schools.

That blog just sounded like immature, childish oneupmanship based on one man's observations of a day trip in Paris. Now he's an expert on French childcare.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:10:23

"Maternelle is NOT school, it's a voluntary place like nursery. You do not have to send your child there."

The fact that maternelle is not compulsory does not change the fact that it is school. 99% of children in France go to maternelle and those that don't have a very hard time in CP and usually repeat it.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:12:48

Site of the French Ministry of Education, including curriculum etc for école maternelle.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:14:35

From the site:

"Le rôle de l'école maternelle

L'école maternelle est aujourd'hui considérée comme une part normale du cursus des élèves."

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:15:50

Where do you get your figures from?

Besides the point I was making is that it is NOT run like a traditional school. They do not teach them how to read in maternelle. The focus is on learning through play and the children are encouraged to sing, dance, put on performances and go on day trips.

Children have every Wednesday off and this is the day where they usually engage in various other activities.

You know all this already.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:18:34

Er, yes the day is like a school day. It starts and finishes like a school day. They do follow a curriculum just like they do in a British Reception - which is also not compulsory. So what point was Mr Leitch making there?

French teaching at maternelle cannot be compared to British teaching. We have this emphasis on children reaching goals by certain ages, learning to read, etc. In my experience, a French maternelle does not encourage that way of thinking at all. Learning is through play.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:20:35

The teaching of reading begins, officially, in grande section, as does number work. I don't really understand your point because école maternelle is school - it comes under the remit of the Ministry for Education, is taught by teachers who also teach primary (indeed, in DD's school teachers can move from eg PS to CE1 to CM2 over the course of three years) and follows the official hours and term dates of school.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:22:00

Have you seen a school report from maternelle with all the learning goals listed, and whether or not they have been achieved (acquis), or are still being learned (en cours d'acquisition)?

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:23:42

Indeed, your child who fails to make the grade may even be expected to redoubler a year of maternelle...

RikeBider Thu 20-Jun-13 16:25:01

The research is very clear regarding ratios and group sizes for under 3s - children under about 18 months need 1:3 ratios and groups sizes of around 6-9. 18 month - 3 year olds can manage in 1:4 ratios and group sizes of up to 12. Once you start getting higher ratios and big group sizes then care suffers, staff are busier, children are less able to make secure attachments to staff, there is less interactive play.

Yes, good quality care is more expensive - but I don't think making care cheaper but less pleasant for tiny children is the way forward.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:27:43

Sorry Bonsoir but it's not a school because it's not compulsory.

I never mentioned number work. I said they learn through play. Which is precisely what they do.

In Britain, children are taught how to read from nursery. In France, it is left much later, with more emphasis on learning nursery rhymes and songs. By the time reading is taught, every child is ready to read instead of it being forced on them from an early age.

I don't know what your point is either Bonsoir. I have said that French teaching cannot be compared to British teaching. That a maternelle is not compulsory, that learning is achieved through play. It is not run like a traditional British school, they can go home at lunchtime, they have Wednesdays off, they aren't set homework, etc.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:28:55

You are wrong to think that the definition of school includes the criterion of being compulsory. Lycée is not compulsory either - it's still school.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:29:19

Bonsoir, I have no problem with that. Many children like my dd are a year younger than most in their class and would appreciate another year in maternelle before moving onto CPE. I think that's logical. Some children just aren't ready. To me that points more towards the French attitude of teaching the children in their own time and in their own way.

RikeBider Thu 20-Jun-13 16:29:52

When you say "learn through play" - is that child-initiated or is it play that is controlled by the adult?

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:30:30

All children can go home at lunchtime right through non-compulsory and compulsory schooling in France. There is nothing unique to maternelle about that, and nothing unique about having Wednesday off (up until now) - all DC have Wednesday off, from PS through to CM2.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:32:06

Indeed, prépa (18-20) is also (still) school...

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:32:15

You are nit-picking Bonsoir as usual.

A maternelle prepares children for school. It is not compulsory and it does not teach in the traditional sense. Focus is through play.

Lycee is a college in the strict British sense.

The main point is being lost in this nit-picking. Mr Leitch should concentrate on British pre-schools rather than storing points between British and French education systems. It's all rather petty.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:33:01

Again Bonsoir, I am comparing to British schools dear. As Mr Leitch did in his enlightening blog.

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