Mobiles banned, 4-day week: French reforms kick in as kids head back to school

AFP | France's 12 million students went back to school on Monday. There are big changes in store, including a cell phone ban, smaller classes, and a shortened school week.

When some 12 million French children head back to school on Monday, many will be affected by Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer's reforms, including smaller classes, a ban on cell phones, a four-day week and new tests.


No cell phones

A much-anticipated new law has banned cell phones in primary and secondary schools. But the measure leaves it up to schools to choose how to implement the rule, by requiring that phones be either turned off or kept in a locker.

Many middle schools had already implemented similar policies in recent years, but the law will allow school principals to double down on the rules.

Smaller classes

Students who are 6, 7 and 8 years old in underperforming, or "high-priority", districts will see their class sizes halved from 25 pupils to 12. Smaller class sizes, a reform that was tested successfully in first-grade classrooms last year, will be extended to 190,000 students this year. The change is part of an effort to combat early school dropouts and absenteeism.

The move is popular among teachers, but there is a downside. Some cities, like Marseille, have struggled to find enough classrooms – two are now needed where one was sufficient. In schools where there aren't enough rooms, two instructors will co-teach classes of 25 students.

The French system has been accused of being elitist and harsh, geared primarily toward gifted students. Pupils are ranked from a young age, and experts believe coming in at the bottom year after year is demoralising for many of the students most in need of extra attention.

As part of the effort to make sure students are on track, 6-year-olds will take daily dictation and 6-, 7- and 11-year-olds will take twice-yearly French and maths evaluations.

Back to school: What's on the French curriculum this year?

A new curriculum also emphasises civic and moral education. Third-year students will be required to memorise the first verse of the Marseillaise and to learn about French symbols like the rooster and Marianne. By 11, they will be expected to understand how the French parliament works.

Four-day week

Blanquer's reforms are the fourth change made to the school calendar in the past 10 years. The four-day week was first considered under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, but Blanquer only made it official policy this year. Districts can now decide for themselves whether to reduce the school week from 4.5 to 4 days per week. In the past, Wednesdays were reserved for extracurricular activities; now there will be no school at all on Wednesdays in the 85% of districts that have availed themselves of this option.

Many districts are happy about the money saved as a result of the shortened week. But some experts bemoan the effect it might have on students who could use the extra time in class.

France is already the OECD country with the fewest days of class. The organisation has warned that fewer days of school and long, jam-packed days, can pose challenges to many pupils. French pupils actually spend more time studying than the European average.

>> French students most affected by inequality, OECD finds

The 'new baccalaureate'

The changes don't just affect younger students. France’s 15-year-olds will begin preparing for the new baccalaureate exam and will be the first to take the "new Bac" in June 2021. They will begin the first week of la rentrée with 54 hours of orientation to explain the changes, which include more specialisation and greater weight given to written and oral French fluency.

"We're kind of a test generation," one student told FRANCE 24.

"I"m not worried. Someone has to be first," said another.

Students will now take four final exams after their last year instead of seven, one of them oral. The remaining tests will be spread out over the students’ final two years.

>> French government looks to revamp baccalaureate exam

The changes have met with mixed feelings among students.

“Now we’ll have to push hard over the whole year, while for the final exam before, you only had the pressure for a few months,” said one student who is skeptical of the changes.

Another feels the changes will reward steady work.

“I think it’s better to spread the main exams out over time, since it will reward the work we’ve done over the whole year.”

The idea behind the reform is to simplify the baccalaureate and lighten the workload over time. But some teacher unions think it may have the opposite effect.

Increasing the evaluation periods in schools leaves less time for actual teaching, said Frédérique Rolet, secretary general of the SNES Union (a national union for secondary school instructors).

Other teachers think the new format will lead to an uneven playing field, with qualifications from schools with better reputations valued more. The baccalaureate wasformerlyadministered in mass testing centres with students from a number of schools.

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