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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

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 13:47:15

Bonsoir I was talking to a Fr. teacher|mum and she said that when teenagers are away from their parents and schools e.g. on visits etc. they go wild!!!!

Wishihadabs Thu 20-Jun-13 13:49:24

Our only experience of French nurseries is on skiing holidays but our impression was that they are phenomenaly rigid and structured. For example all the children go to bed between 2 and 4pm. Also very rigid snack and lunchtimes.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 13:50:40

French people spend most of their waking hours in institutional structures with clear hierarchies and rules, and severe penalty for disobedience. It is only human nature to go completely mad when faced with freedom if you have never been required to take responsibility for your own actions.

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 13:56:33

It's fascinating Bonsoir what type of penalties do they get for disobedience?

MBRaz Thu 20-Jun-13 13:57:35

ppeatfruit my aunt is a teacher in France and says the same sort of thing - that they are all beautifully behaved up to about 11 or 12 then they often go completely beserk when they are given a little bit of freedom (I was worrying about my dd's table manners and she was reassuring me!)

Amazinggg Thu 20-Jun-13 14:02:28

I too would like to see some formal research on this. But all my instincts wouldn't let me place a 3yo in such a heavily structured environment - it seems such an old fashioned and punitive approach to bringing up children. Why make them suffer when the benefits are this unclear? Children in the UK in general learn through play and vey gentle discipline until at least 5/6, they still manage to learn, sit exams, study at university, and have challenging careers. If I thought the French style would help my son succeed in life perhaps I'd think it was worth it, but I can't see a benefit other than some sadistic and out of date view of battering the very childhood out of them sad

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 14:03:32

That's sad IMO MBR.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 14:06:18

I certainly don't think that the French education is superior to the British one. And I say that from the comfortable position of someone whose eldest child (DSS1) is currently doing his bac exams, in which we and he have every expectation that he will excel, so I have no axe to grind there.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 14:07:14

education system

AnnaFiveTowns Thu 20-Jun-13 14:09:35

I spent several years living in France in the early 90s. One of those years was spent working as an au pair for a 5 year old boy. I'm not sure what category of school he was in but I do know that having witnessed his treatment there, I have a very low opinion of French schools. It felt like stepping back in time (and not in a good way!). The headmaster was an aggressive bully. The little boy's class teacher came over to me on my first day at drop off and told me how she pitied me having to look after such a naughty, unpleasant child. There was a tiny playground with no play equipment at all. He told me they never got to play at school. He never came home with pictures he had drawn at school. The little boy finished at around half past 4 and then had to go home to at least half an hour of homework - every night! The general atmosphere at the school was very sad. The place gave me the creeps. From speaking to other au pairs at the time I got the impression that this was quite normal. I think the attitude to schools, especially early years, is very different in France. Some people may like it and feel that striicter schools automatically lead to better behaved kids. I actually saw the opposite with this particular boy. His teacher was right, he WAS naughty but it wasn't difficult to understand why when you witnessed the oppressive schooling regime. I felt very sorry for this child then but now I have my own children and realise what 5 year old children (especially boys) need and it breaks my heart.

I love France and the French but why we aspire to have an education system like theirs, I will never know. UK schools are far more progressive IMO. If it weren't for the schools DH,DC and I would be living in France right now.

tumbletumble Thu 20-Jun-13 14:15:35

Bonsoir I'm currently reading French Children Don't Throw Food which gives the definite impression that French children are much better behaved than English ones, so it's interesting to hear that you don't necessarily agree. Have you read the book? What did you think of it?

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 14:21:49

Yes I have read the book. The first half is quite good and quite funny, but I think that her grasp of école maternelle is much less good than her grasp of creche, which is good.

I don't like group childcare for under-threes whatever it looks like - but I am aware that my distaste for it is a luxury position that many people cannot afford to hold. Having said that, I don't think French crèches are worse than English nurseries - they are very different, but I don't think children are unhappy at crèche and they are certainly less chaotic than English nurseries and cheaper, so those are plus points and on that I agree with Liz Truss.

Wishihadabs Thu 20-Jun-13 14:27:25

Bonsoir I agree, don't like group childcare for the under 3s.

ppeatfruit Thu 20-Jun-13 14:31:46

AnnaFiveTowns We waited till our DCs left schools in England before living in Fr. and for the same reason as you. If we had (for work or whatever) to have moved before we would have sent them to the International or Steiner\ British schools.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 14:32:29

But if we acknowledge that it is a societal necessity to provide group childcare for under-threes so that parents who need to can work, surely that childcare should not be overwhelmingly private for profit (the English model)? Because if it is, it is going to eat up too much of the income generated by working to make working worthwhile. And then we need to think about how childcare can help very busy working parents bring up their DC, and surely includes the kind of routines and structures that French crèches are so good at?

AnnaFiveTowns Thu 20-Jun-13 14:35:52

ppeat The areas we like are more rural but we did look at Steiner/international schools. Unfortunately there were none nearby. I think we'll go whe the kids have left school too. (smile)

AnnaFiveTowns Thu 20-Jun-13 14:36:38


AnnaFiveTowns Thu 20-Jun-13 14:37:12

How do I get a smiley face?! God, I'm thick!

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 14:37:37

To go back to French Children Don't Throw Food - I think that the author's cultural reference for non-French parenting is New York upper middle class parenting, which is a microcosm all of its own with many very indulged offspring!

dreamingbohemian Thu 20-Jun-13 14:41:48

I do think it's worth pointing out that in France, under-3 childcare is heavily subsidised, and maternelle is free.

I'm not sure I prefer the French style, but I very much prefer not having to give up my career or suffer backbreaking childcare costs.

You may have 1:8 ratios in English nurseries but by god you pay a lot for it.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 14:44:37

I think that there are clearly good economic reasons for the British to adopt some aspects of the French childcare (by which I mean crèche, not école maternelle) but Liz Truss did such a terrible PR job that it is going to take years to erase her fiasco!

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 14:45:07

the French childcare model

Phineyj Thu 20-Jun-13 14:55:48

bonsoir I think nurseries run by charitable trusts would be a good compromise, but I certainly would not expect the state in the UK to provide a better service than private chains, as when it is someone's business they presumably care about retaining customers (unless in an area with massive waiting lists). I have a horrible vision of state run nurseries being like (some) NHS hospitals.

As a general observation, my DH and I visited 5 or 6 nurseries last summer and none was in the least chaotic - they were lovely places. I was impressed and reassured.

I do wish the govt would encourage more large employers to set up creches though and that there was more termtime only care.

Bonsoir Thu 20-Jun-13 15:00:09

Employer nurseries mean DC have to travel (so very long days) and don't know DC in their local community with whom they will carry on to school.

TheBirdsFellDownToDingADong Thu 20-Jun-13 15:05:12

Gah what is it this week with the "down with schools" stuff.

I agree with Bonsoir. Word for word.

(has anyone dragged out the old "children should not start school till they are 6 like they do on (that mythical and mystical place..) the continent yet? They will.......)

Dd went to a (private) scuola materna in Italy (pretty much the same as maternelle in France I believe) It was fabulous. 8-4 provision 6 days a week (for about 130 euro a month) 1 teacher (proper teacher, not a 17 yr old nursery nurse) for 26 kids ranging from 3-6. Learned to read and write there.

I would probably not have sent her to nursery at all in the UK.

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