Last Saturday morning my family slept in. The Saturday before as well. And the Saturday before that. This fact might sound banal — especially since by “sleeping in” I mean we got up at 8 a.m. But for me and other parents with grade school-aged children throughout France, it was practically revolutionary. As far back as anyone can remember, French kids have had classes on Saturday mornings — if not every weekend, then every other week. And now, rushing to get the kids out the door on a day one might normally consider part of the weekend is a thing of the past.
I grew up in Western New York, and recall learning in Madame Keller’s high school French class that in the faraway country where people spoke an unpronounceable language and ate smelly cheese, kids had no school on Wednesdays and attended class on Saturdays. It seemed so random and exotic — even hard to believe. Little did I know that years later, as an adult, I would be living in Paris, chaperoning my kids to tennis and ballet throughout Wednesdays, and setting the alarm to ring just a few hours after returning home from well-lubricated Friday night dinner parties.
Wednesdays off were no problem. They were even surprisingly charming for a parent with a flexible work schedule, one who could pause in the middle of the week to hang out with the children. Saturday morning classes, on the other hand, were a drag, most (though not all) agreed. Among the most vocal opponents were divorced or separated parents who shared custody and felt that they were shortchanged on weekends. There were others with country houses who couldn’t leave the city until Saturday afternoons. Or those who simply wanted two consecutive days without a morning scramble after a week at the office.
I had a feeling religion might be at the root of this strange school calendar, so I contacted Antoine Prost, an educational historian. He told me that when the Republicans made school obligatory and secular in 1882, children were given classes five days a week (including Saturdays) while one day — Thursday — was reserved for the Church to teach the catechism. After the student revolts of May 1968, Saturday was reduced to half a day. But the week was now unbalanced, so Wednesdays off replaced Thursdays.
Eventually people began to complain about having to take their children to school on Saturday mornings, too. Starting in 1991, the government gave individual school districts the right to implement the schedules of their choice, which led to a certain chaos – some imposed Saturdays and not Wednesdays, others held classes Monday through Friday, while others opted for shorter vacations instead. The whole mess was paralyzed by opposing interests.
Then along came President Nicolas Sarkozy. Reforming the school system was a campaign promise and a priority. Last fall, his education minister, Xavier Darcos, suddenly announced the end of Saturday classes in all elementary schools, starting this month. The week would be shortened from 26 to 24 hours, and the two extra hours would be devoted to aiding any students struggling to keep up in class. “We are going to give families their freedom,” Darcos proclaimed. And just like that, it was over. Welcome to Planet Sarkozy, where anything is possible.
Not everyone in France is pleased with the change — especially not the chronobiologistes, who pay particular attention to biological rhythms. One parents’ association, the FCPE (Fédération des conseils de parents d’élèves des écoles publiques), even created its own scientific panel to study the question. They claim on their Web site, “A four-day week without extracurricular studies only accentuates and prolongs the disturbing effects of the weekend on one’s adaptation to school. The effects are normally felt by children on Mondays, but sometimes last until Tuesdays at noon.” In short, after a two-day weekend, it takes children nearly two days of class to get back in the groove and start learning again.
Another parent from our school, Antoine Gérin (a representative of the FCPE and a doctor as well) agrees with this theory. He made me feel pretty sheepish when he explained that the new policy is “great for parents, but not for kids. Their schedule is too chopped up and grueling. The school days should be shorter [they currently extend from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.] and there should be a couple of half-days per week.”
French kids spend more hours in class each week than their counterparts in many other countries do: 24 in elementary school, and up to 40 hours a week in high school, where many still take Saturday classes. But according to Gérin, they ultimately receive fewer hours of instruction per year since they’re on vacation all the time. Every six weeks or so they have two weeks off, and two months more in the summer. Antoine Prost says that when you add up the hours, French primary students receive a full year’s less schooling than they did four decades ago.
President Sarkozy has floated a few other educational reforms, most with less success. He would like students to stand up and bare their heads when a teacher enters the room, as part of their “moral and civic instruction” (this one may yet pass). But his proposal that every fifth grader identify with one of the 11,000 French children who were victims of the Nazis by learning his or her life story was met with vehement criticism, and it was quietly dropped.
In any case, as a divorced parent, the French president is as beholden to school calendars as any one of us — although his youngest child, 11-year-old Louis, currently lives overseas. • 23 September 2008