Is UK schooling really that bad?
In the UK we seem to always be hearing how terrible our schooling is, how the children learn nothing and how we should change EVERYTHING. So I thought I would share some comparisons between schooling in the UK and in France, having recently spent a week with French friends whose daughter, A, is the same age as L (age 7 and in Year 2 (UK)/CP (France)). While they were with us talk turned to schooling, as it became blatantly obvious that despite there being just a month between L and A, there was a world of difference in their reading ability.
Reading has been a key part of L’s schooling, from the basics in Reception class (age 4), which progressed to actual reading in Year 1, and has really taken off this year. She is now at the stage where she will happily read a 100+ page book on her own over the space over a few days.
This came as a great surprise to A’s parents, as in French schools children don’t learn to read until CP (our Year 2), when children are 6-7. It was so strange to see our 2 daughters, who are a month apart in age at such different levels of this key part of education. L started with the reading basics in September 2011 and reads pretty much anything now. A started learning to read at school in September 2013 and so is understandably nowhere near this stage yet.
It is important to note that some schools in France teach the basics of reading in Grande Section, the equivalent of Year 1, in the same way that some schools in the UK don’t start with reading until Year 1. It is also interesting to see that by the end of CP (Year 2) the majority of French children know how to read fluently, despite having only started to read at the start of the school year.
Homework was another area where we discovered that France and the UK differ wildly: in general British children in Year 2 will have one or two pieces of fairly light homework per week, in addition to reading most days/every day depending on the school; in France children in CP (Year 2) have homework every day which by all accounts is taken very seriously.
Another thing that both A’s mum and I found surprising was that although French schools have far longer days than UK schools, the amount of schooling across the day is actually the same. After quizzing various friends across both countries I’ve established that most primary school days in the UK run from 8.45/9am until 3/3.30pm with around 1.5-1.75 hours break across the day, making up around 5 hours of schooling. The majority of primary schools in France run from 8.30am until around 4.15/4.45pm with around 2.5-3 hours break (they all seem to have 2 hours for lunch, with some pupils going home to eat), this again gives 5 hours schooling.
Interestingly French primary school children don’t go to school on Wednesdays, whereas I don’t know any UK schools that do anything less than 5 days a week. Many French mums (and some dads) don’t work on a Wednesday and this tends to be the day for children’s extra-curricular activities, so is not necessarily a rest day either.
Another big difference is the school holidays, I am sure many people are familiar with the term “les grandes vacances”, but did you know that France has 3 weeks more school holidays a year than the UK? 13 weeks for British school kids vs 16 weeks for French children.
So that means across the school year UK children have 975 hours of schooling vs 720 hours of schooling in France. Last year Education Secretary Michael Gove gave a speech, talking about lengthening the school day and reducing school holidays, but as we can see British children have a great deal more schooling than France already, and shorter holidays too.
Something that is interesting to bear in mind when comparing the two systems is “who is this best for?”. As a working mum in France and in the UK, I can say without any shadow of a doubt that I prefer the French system: when L was at school in France (age 2 and 3/4 – 3 and 3/4) we used to drop her off at 8am (we could have dropped her off at 7.30am) where she had an hour of pre-school club, then after a day’s work we would pick her up at 6.30pm (which was the latest she could stay) where she would have been at after-school club from when her classes ended at 4.30pm. On Wednesdays the school (like most schools) provided a Wednesday club and she did the same hours. So having a school age child and working full-time were fully compatible. Even if your child is only at school for the usual school hours in France, this is around 8.30am – 4.30pm so you have a fair amount of time to get work done.
When we moved to the UK and L started full time school (a whole 2 years later than in France), it was a massive difference and a shock to the system: her school day starts at 9am (there is a breakfast club which opens at 7.45am) and ends at 3.30pm (there is an after school club that ends at 6pm). This means as a parent you have far less time to get to work and do a part-time job/work from home.
So absolutely, without hesitation, as a working parent I prefer the school system in France.
Now, let’s look at it from the point of view of a child: my primary school finished at 3.15pm and I had no homework until Year 6; my secondary school finished at 3.35pm and I had homework every day, but I was home by around 4pm/4.30pm, which gave me a long time to get it done. I remember coming home from school and going out to play when I was at primary school, or having chill out time of an evening when I was at secondary school.
When L finishes school at 3.30pm we either stay and play in the school playground/go to the local park if the weather is good, or come home and play, and talk and relax. She has weekly homework which is usually done at the weekend, or one evening a week, it is always something fun (and educational) and doesn’t take more than half an hour in general. This leaves time for imaginative play, reading, writing, crafting, baking, and generally being a 7 year old. (Not to mention the days when she has activities after school such as swimming or gymnastics etc or playdates with school friends.)
L’s friend, A, only has school 4 days a week but she finishes at 4.45pm and then has homework to do, there is no time for playdates and not really any time for fun, as it’s a race against the time to get the homework done, dinner eaten, have a bath and go to bed. Now I’m no child psychologist or professional, but I was once a child and I have a child, and it seems to me that you have your whole life to work all day 4-5 days a week, with little time to let your hair down, what a shame to start at such a young age.
This is not meant to be a criticism of either country, I think there are pros and cons to both systems. If this were all about me I would rather L went to school in France so I have more time to work, but if I’m doing what I think is best for L then I choose the UK system. Interestingly a British friend whose children have attended state schools in both the UK and France tells me that although they were very happy in France they say they prefer school in the UK.
One thing I do know is that I liked the fact that L started school when she was nearly 3 in France, and I liked the school day that she used to have there, I will miss C not having that in the UK when she is a bit older. L used to have classes 9-11.30am, followed by lunch and a nap, then more classes from around 2pm (or when they woke up from naps) until 4.30pm. I think this is just right for a 3 year old and L absolutely loved going to her French school.
I don’t think there is any right or wrong, and often one country may be preferable for one child whilst the other system suits a different child. But one thing is sure, the debate is still raging over UK education, which is a shame as I would say it’s really not that bad at all, and the teachers do a bloody good job.
It is hard to compare French years with years in the UK schooling system as the UK breaks these up by birth dates before 31st August and after 1st September, whereas in France the cut-off is 31st December/1st January. As L was born in December 2006 in France she would be one of the youngest in class CE1, whilst her friend A was born in January 2007 so is in CP, whereas in the UK the two of them would both be in Year 2. Bearing the different cut-off dates in mind I believe these are the class equivalents from the UK to France:
Nursery – Petite section de maternelle (3-4 years)
Reception – Moyenne section de maternelle (4-5 years)
Year 1 – Grande section de maternelle (5-6 years)
Year 2 – CP (6-7 years)
Year 3 – CE1 (7-8 years)
Year 4 – CE2 (8-9 years)
Year 5 – CM1 (9-10 years)
Year 6 – CM2 (10-11 years)
Year 7 – 6ème (11-12 years)
Year 8 – 5ème (12-13 years)
Year 9 – 4ème (13-14 years)
Year 10 – 3ème (14-15 years)
Year 11 – Seconde (15-16 years)
Year 12 – Première (16-17 years)
Year 13 – Terminale (17-18 years)
Confusion is added by the fact school is obligatory in the UK by age 5 (at some point during the Reception year), whereas in France only from CP (Year 2), also in France you can (and often do) repeat a year if your grades aren’t good enough, so Hubs did his baccalaureate (A level equivalent) with a 21 year old.
Disclosure: it is hard to generalise across a whole country, but I have done my research on this. The information above has come from asking numerous friends/acquaintances from different regions and from different social backgrounds across the two countries, as well as reading many forums in both English and French covering both countries and both school systems.