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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

PetiteRaleuse Wed 26-Jun-13 15:32:35

Interesting debate. There was a thread based on one of OP's articles on the same subject a few weeks ago, and I said everything I thought about it on there. I don't recognise anything much in his limited experience of French nursery education. My local creche, maternelle and primary schools are excellent, the teachers come across as caring and the children seem happy. My girls are going into creche here in September, and I am perfectly happy about it and their future progression into the French system. It's not perfect, but a lot of what I see and hear about how things are done in England isn't perfect either.

I think OP went to Paris with an already fixed opinion and slotted in what he saw to fit in with that. Very biased, inflammatory and shoddily written piece both here and also in I can't remember which magazine (a niche mag specialising in nursery education) a few weeks ago.

jass43 Sun 23-Jun-13 16:47:23

I have my kids in French-style ecole Maternelle I Luxembourg, I am not French. Neither English. Am from Scandinavia. And have had two older kids do child care and school up north.

What French system does it takes kids and trains them to be well behaving when grown ups tell them so. Many of them do not notice, as they are already used to that treatment since babyhood. You see parents walking stoically around shops and having lazy lunches with babies crying in their prams. In Scandinavia, this would be crime, in the opinion of society. Here it would be crime to stop fitting new summer wardrobe and rush out of the shop because your baby cries. So, I think kids learn they are not important as individuals this way. French insist they learn just that they are not more important than parents themselves, and they may be right, but it hurts to see the "learning process".

The effect on kids who at home get different signals than in ecole Maternelle, is interesting. Mine behave at school as ordinary French, but at home they clearly revert to the Nordic unruly behavior. Nevertheless, I find schooling the younger ones here easier work, since teachers have made it clear to them that at school you do as you are told. With bigger kids in different system I and teachers had to reason with them, about school issues as well. Here, there is no reasoning, teacher is always right and that's it. It is simple, but I am not sure it is creating self assured citizens.

loopyluna Sun 23-Jun-13 16:42:27

I do tend to agree with the blog, sadly. My 2.5 year old cried for 6 weeks -loud, sobbing, banging on the windows shrieking "Muuummy" crying. The teacher mostly ignored her. It was absolute torture for me to leave her.

Of course she settled and got into the routine very well. Was reading the names of all her classmates, the days of the week and months of the year by Christmas as well as writing her name beautifully by the end of the year. They baked cakes, planted vegetables and visited the fire station. However, she never played in a sandpit, sploshed with a water tray or went mad with finger paints.

Horses for courses but I find the English system more nurturing and just more FUN.

Then again, French primary is the more rigorous, structured, disciplined system ever, so I suppose the maternelle is necessary if they are to survive the primary years!

HoneyandRum Sun 23-Jun-13 15:57:54

Off topic but I came across a study across a number of cultures where French teenagers self reported the highest feelings of estrangement from their parents. The French also have a very high take up rate of antidepressants so I think we may want to be cautious before copying all their childcare and educational methods. I realize this is anecdotal and I apologize for that but with some digging I imagine the study can be found.

Portofino Sat 22-Jun-13 20:57:59

I did quite clearly say I could only comment on my own experience, which was positive. I have experience of the UK nursery system and the Belgian Maternelle system. It is very frustrating when certain posters proclaim to be experts when they cannot possibly be re schools and reading methods etc.

clearsommespace Sat 22-Jun-13 20:20:14

I agree the Nobel argument is a bit dodgy. Aren't Nobel science prizes also going to be affected by how much funding the state puts into research as well as how 'good' the scientists are?

THERhubarb Sat 22-Jun-13 14:09:22

I also wonder why you would ask if I can read French Bonsoir? I thought you had got over your childish nitpicking but it appears you constantly strive to outdo yourself. You must have lots of time on your hands.

I will continue to say that everyone's experience is different and just because you might have had experienced French or Belgium maternelle or the English nursery system or indeed all 3, it does not make you an expert on any of them.

This thread is becoming a rather tiresome point-scoring exercise and it seems that no-one can post an opinion or thought on the blog in question without that post being scrutinised and "corrected". The whole point of a debate is to share experiences and opinions, it's not a factual news report just as the blog is far from factual itself.

superfluouscurves Fri 21-Jun-13 22:36:38

Bonsoir Just returned to this thread tonight. You (rather pedantically if I may say so) addressed your comments about the differences between the French and Belgium system to me upthread.

I just wanted to say probably equally pedantically but never mind that is why I chose my words very carefully when I said that "certain" aspects of the education system were similar, not all of them.

And just for general info, one interesting method they use here to prepare maternelle dc for writing is 'psychomotricite' which is a music and movement activity, where the children physically make the shapes and movements involved in writing with their hands and bodies. They also do a lot of pricking of outlines of letters on pieces of paper attached to cork boards.

Bonsoir Fri 21-Jun-13 20:37:03

In anything! School started in PS and has been a pretty straight curriculum progression ever since. As I wrote earlier my impression is that Belgian maternelle is quite different to French maternelle.

Portofino Fri 21-Jun-13 20:27:46

A difference in what?

Bonsoir Fri 21-Jun-13 20:20:36

I didn't find a very significant difference between maternelle and primary for DD (and it was the same for the DSSs) - CP was very much the continuation of GS. The reports looked very much the same.

Portofino Fri 21-Jun-13 19:21:37

Personally I do not think that dd's day to day activities were that much different in Maternelle, to what she was doing under the Early Years Foundation stuff in the UK. The difference was that there was one qualified teacher vs nursery workers. The culture is different. Here they go much more for routine and are quite strict. It suits my dd. I don't hear complaints from other parents.

Primary is a different thing. Lots of homework. Very rigid. No SN inclusion. But i personally love the Maternelle system ( free too of course) I think the ideal would be to take them from 3/4 for a couple of years, then start Primary. reading, writing etc from 6 onwards.

Bonsoir Fri 21-Jun-13 18:08:37

Are you able to read French, Rhubarb?

THERhubarb Fri 21-Jun-13 15:26:52

I think that might be opinion? It could also be opinion as to whether a more restrictive system is for the better or not.

Mr Leitch seems to think that the English system is championing the French (but offers no evidence for this) and that the English system is better than the French (based on his little day trip to Paris). That is the real debate, which isn't much because Mr Leitch really doesn't offer much to go on. If this was a sociology exercise he'd have failed due to lack of evidence and biased opinions stated as fact.

Bonsoir Fri 21-Jun-13 15:20:32

The rules that govern French maternelle and what can and cannot be done within it are a lot more restrictive than the British EYFS.

THERhubarb Fri 21-Jun-13 15:11:44

Portofino yes, that was pretty much my experience of it too.

THERhubarb Fri 21-Jun-13 15:10:05

The title of the blog is very inflammatory. Mr Leitch has quoted one teacher who mentioned about children crying and has used that as some kind of statement about what the French system is like.

As I said earlier upthread, there are plenty of English pre-schools where children also cry for months every time they are dropped off, that cannot be used as a stick with which to beat pre-schools.

He spent, what, a day? In Paris? And how many maternelles did he visit? He mentions one private and one state maternelle, so is that the sum of his whole experience there? Two maternelles in one of the busiest cities in Europe? Is that what he is basing his judgement of the French pre-school system on?

Those who have experienced the French pre-school system will have different tales to tell dependent on whether they went private or state, whether they were in the country or the city and just dependent on that particular maternelle and the teaching staff. One person's experience does not make them the font of all knowledge when it comes to France's education system.

I'm sure you will find a whole raft of differing experiences when it comes to the British system too. All of them are biased because they are based on personal experience. Unless you work closely in the education sector either here or in France, you cannot give a general impression of the system.

My experience of a French maternelle was that they encouraged creativity and explored different styles of painting, drawing and colouring. They made masks and costumes; they visited food markets; they sang and danced; they had story-time and they were very well looked after.

Someone else might come on and say that their experience was very different. It doesn't make them wrong or right, what it does mean is that their view of the system is biased.

The only thing we can say for sure is that Mr Leitch deliberately wrote an inflammatory blog piece that is not based in fact but experience of 2 maternelles in the middle of Paris. It hardly makes him an authority on the subject.

Again, I should think that he had better projects on which to focus his time and energy.

LillianGish Fri 21-Jun-13 15:02:42

It is a great way to get used to the structure of a school day and learn the necessary social skills without having to get to grips with reading, writing, maths at the same time - brilliantly expressed. I totally agree.

Bonsoir Fri 21-Jun-13 14:52:13

I always get the impression (but it is only an impression, I have no hard data) that Belgian maternelle is more informed than French maternelle by Nordic influences and that the children are kept busy exploring themes and doing a lot of manual tasks.

In French maternelle they get very busy very quickly with holding pens and colouring in within the lines in the colour scheme indicated by the teacher sad.

Portofino Fri 21-Jun-13 13:26:26

I can only speak from my own experience, but dd thrived at Maternelle. They would have a theme, such as wheat. They would draw pictures, made models, go to the farm, go to the bakery, bake stuff themselves, bring in different baked items from home etc. then move on to Weather or Insects or some such. She learnt a huge amount about any number of different things in a way we would have been unlikely to do at home. Also, as we moved to Belgium when she was 2 it was the best form of language immersion.

It is a great way to get used to the structure of a school day and learn the necessary social skills without having to get to grips with reading, writing, maths at the same time. When she started P1 aged 6.5, the teacher was very clear that every child would be reading freely by the end of the year. I swear they are just more ready for it.

duchesse -- this whole silly tangent started because you told Bonsoir that her style of debate was abrasive, that it was very French, that the English style of consensus-driven debate was superior, and that this way of debate had something to do with the superiority of British scholarship and its outpacing of France in nobel prizes.

I disagree with this argument. I think it's full of assumptions that don't hold up. That's all.

I agree it has little to do with the subject at hand.

CoteDAzur Fri 21-Jun-13 13:19:55

"I think that Nobel prizewinners per capita is very useful as a measure of the level of creativity and inventiveness produced or fostered on average by an education system."

Why not look at the number of artists per capita, if you are interested in judging relative creativity and inventiveness?

Nobel prizes are given for contributions to peace, science, and literature. Surely the peace prizes are not a measure of creativity & inventiveness in a generation, and neither is literature necessarily "inventive". Do you think science prizes are given to the most creative & inventive people of their generation? Sorry, but I really don't understand how this is relevant to nurseries in particular.

Nicolaeus Fri 21-Jun-13 13:12:42

Oh and I love the fact that childcare is subsidised here. Meant we could afford a nanny to look after DS, which I'm much happier with than crèche.

I do think 3 is young for school but also I think that the school is adapted to 3 year old IYSWIM.

I also think that no uniforms is no bad thing...

Nicolaeus Fri 21-Jun-13 13:11:01

Agree with PP that the title is inflamatory.

And with PPs who said that spending 2 days in French nurseries does not give you enough information to make sweeping generalisations!

DS will be starting école maternelle just before his 3rd birthday. I was a bit hesitant but our friends' DS is thriving at ecole maternelle and really loves it. Whenever we visit he shows us his latest drawings etc.and tells us stories about the playground and the sports he does.

I think routine is no bad thing. As for set toilet breaks I think this is really good for reminding little ones to go! Set toilet breaks does not mean just one a day hmm

DH went through the French school system as did many of my friends and colleagues. They've all excelled both at school and at work.

I did wonder about international school but as we're most likely staying in France for ever, I think it'll be best for our DC to go through the French system.

@FF: Yes, I know. I think age 4 is too young to start formal, full days of school, full stop - whether Scottish or English or any other nationality. I don't think my DSD (also a Feb birthday) should have been allowed to start school at the age she was. I know she could have been deferred with no issues, but the teenage girls at her nursery thought she was ready, and my DH and his exW were under a lot of financial stress at the time, so had a very pressing incentive to cut down on nursery costs as quickly as possible. Since they could, they did.

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