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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

duchesse Thu 20-Jun-13 16:34:49

Actually it was the fixed toilet breaks in French nursery that caused my DD to STOP weeing in her pants. Because all the children troop off to the loo at the same time, they all go and perform. They don't have to decide whether or not to stop doing what they are doing to go off for a wee, or whether to wait until it's too late. DD went from having 6 wet pants a day, to 6 wet pants in a term in a France, with a gap of a few days between the two. A few weeks back in UK day nursery (with its very high staff to child ratio) and she was back to wetting her pants several times a day again.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:34:56

Not every school has Wed off and some even stay open on Sat mornings.

In France.

In Britain, the school week is very much Mon-Fri, no going home for lunch in either nursery or school.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:36:47

duchesse again it's a child focused routine. Children thrive in routines and that is what British nurseries don't provide them with.

I still say that what the French do is fine and it works for them. If Mr Leitch is going to start picking after a day visit in Paris then I think he has far too much time on his hands.

TheBirdsFellDownToDingADong Thu 20-Jun-13 16:40:36

This is turning into a rather smashing tennis match and I am agreeing with everybody except the blogman. grin

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:50:21

I am not nit-picking, Rhubarb - I am stating facts while you are writing fiction.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:51:04

Bonsoir would make a point of disagreeing with me even if we were on the same side. She made up her mind about me ages ago.

I don't want to be drawn into a tennis match. My main point is that you cannot compare French maternelles with British pre-schools. They are not the same. The British are far too fascinated with achieving levels and goals and often push children before they are ready, the French are happier to take their time and place more emphasis on routine and play.

Picking on the state of the buildings is a bloody cheek since the government stopped the funding of many of our school refurbishment grants and stating that children cry for a month is ridiculous and obviously cannot be backed up - that was shoved in there to appeal to emotional mothers and makes the French out to be cold, callous and cruel. I coud say much the same thing about British nurseries and some members of staff but this would not be a fair indication of the system overall and Mr Leitch himself should bloody well know this.

I don't appreciate a governmental worker jumping on the bandwagon in a point scoring exercise when frankly, he should have better things to do.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 16:52:13

Bonsoir, try as you might with your goading techniques, you won't insult me into a reaction dear.

Must try harder wink

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:52:22

Rhubarb - Saturday school for maternelle and primary pupils was abolished in 2008, as was Wednesday morning school. As of 2013, Wednesday morning school is being reintroduced (though only about a 1/4 of schools will make the change this academic year - the rest have a dérogation until 2014).

You are clearly not up to date, or even knowledgeable, about this subject.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:57:22

RikeBider - there is no learning through play in French maternelles. There is play (quite a lot of it) but it is free play with no learning goals (you can read the curriculum if you want to check this).

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 16:59:50

duchesse - peer pressure is a well-accepted method of toilet training in France and explains why crèches get the children toilet trained so early!

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 17:03:22

Some private lycees are open Sat mornings, I worked there. I wasn't talking about maternelles I was talking about schools, in particular, lycees which were mentioned by yourself and by me in my earlier post.

Not sure why you mentioned Wednesday as it's clear that many schools are not open on Weds as I pointed out? To quote something that has not come into effect yet isn't really on, is it?

I find your insulting remarks quite childish. Please stick to the topic being discussed. If you wish to inform me what your problem is with me, we have a PM system in place. I'd love to know what I did to you in an earlier life.

NigellasGuest Thu 20-Jun-13 17:05:07

I'm still in shock that some people think allotted times to visit the toilet is acceptable for anyone, let alone a 3 yr old!

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 17:06:19

I have no problem with you Rhubarb, I have a problem with the misinformation in your posts. I am keen that this thread should present a more accurate picture of childcare and school in France, since the picture painted in the OP is very inaccurate.

Some lycées do their devoirs sur tables on Wednesday afternoons and others on Saturday mornings. But that has nothing to do with the timetable in maternelle and primaire (which fall under the same legislation) which changed in 2008 and is now changing again in 2013.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 17:11:11

Bonsoir, I don't think anyone would be quite so rude if they didn't have a problem with the poster they are addressing and I seem to recall that any thread you have been in, you have been similarly rude and very dismissive to me which can only lead me to conclude that I have, at some stage, mightily pissed you off. I'm flattered that you still care about it.

I am pleased that you agree that some lycees are open on Sat mornings, I thought perhaps I had imagined those teaching hours I put in! Maternelles and primaries (unless private) were not taught on Weds. I obviously am concerned here with the present situation and not the future one.

I fail to see how any of this wrangling has anything to do with the original blog?

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 17:12:33

Sorry, should have inserted a gallic shrug in there. I'm beginning to remember how the French attitude goes now! grin

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 17:13:01

The only person who is being rude and personal here is you, Rhubarb. I am merely stating facts.

THERhubarb Thu 20-Jun-13 17:19:13

<gallic shrug>

Off to make tea for hungry enfants. A bientot.

RikeBider Thu 20-Jun-13 17:20:29

What does "learning through play" entail in the French system Rhubarb?

Ooooh of course England has the right approach... how could anyone doubt it?

I am not even French, and yet, I feel slightly offended by this "research".

Or is it another excuse for not providing state childcare? England is one of the few countries where you still have to pay to send your 3+ children to nursery school, or whatever you call it.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 17:34:27

It is probably worth noting also that maternelle has come under a lot of scrutiny in France in recent years and there is widespread consensus that its methods are outdated and that its teachers are not properly trained in the early years stage.

ILoveDolly Thu 20-Jun-13 17:43:15

Besides, having spent quite a lot of time in UK schools and nursery settings I have to say that a play based setting does seem chaotic to the untrained eye. A 3 yr olds idea of purposeful activity being quite different from an Education Ministers.

Louison Thu 20-Jun-13 17:48:52

I'm french and first of all, "école maternelle" is NOT a crèche or a nursery. For us this is school, and that's where good maners and rules start. I find this post quite offensive. Yes, our system is not perfect but it exists at least. I've been in some very rude private schools and nursery, and I'm still here, happy with the way I've been educated.
In my point of view there is no way to compare the english and the french childcare system, you can't follow a system from another country as it's another way to think/live anyway. But please don't say our system is "bad", it's just different. I'm still proud of my french education !

nancerama Thu 20-Jun-13 18:02:16

This one size fits all approach really frustrates me. Children are all different people with their own needs, challenges, likes and dislikes. Why do we have to adopt a particular system? There must be children who thrive and children who don't get on in every system. Why can't there be a range of provisions and parents (who know their own children best, after all) can place their children in the right place for them?

LillianGish Thu 20-Jun-13 18:06:57

Maternelle is not really school because it is not compulsory, but it is not really childcare either as it only takes place within school hours so if you worked you would need extra childcare on top of that. Whatever it might sound like to hear it described (and I agree it does sound a bit like a throwback to the 1950s) both my dcs absolutely loved it and thrived in that environment and I would say that was the case for the majority of their peers. The day may sound long, but most of the afternoon was spent sleeping (in the cutest little dormitory) and I really don't understand the oppostion to regulation toilet breaks - in effect it means noone has an accident because noone "forgets" to go and it ensures young children (mine were both two-and-half when they started) get the idea really quickly. They don't have any homework until they start school proper at 6/7 and they don't learn to read until then either - but they do start preparing to learn to right by drawing lines, circles and wiggles which means that by the time they do learn they are usually pretty quick off the mark and which is why they all have lovely writing. I did smile at the tennis balls on chair legs - I thought that was just at our school (actually I thought it was a good way to avoid that ear splitting scraping sound - my SIL says they have adopted it at her English school after I mentioned it because she thought it was a good idea). France is France though and England is England - that system works in France because the French are much more conformist (as Bonsoir pointed out with their regular meal breaks). It wouldn't work in England because so many people require an individual approach which when you think about it isn't really workable when you have a large group. As for the poster who said she'd look for a Steiner school - well I think that says it all.

LillianGish Thu 20-Jun-13 18:09:54

write blush

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