Tuesday, 11 April 2017

School's out !

For someone like myself who went to school in England in the 1960s, school holidays were something to look forward to but never very long: about ten days at Christmas and Easter, six weeks during the summer and a couple of half-terms which were no more than a long week-end. My brother went to a different school for few years. His holidays were not always the same as mine.  I never remember it bothering my parents. Life went on as usual.

It was only when I had been living in France for some years and my own children were going to school that I had a first culture shock. I learnt that schools are managed nationally by the Ministère de l’Education Nationale (note the “nationale”, meaning nation-wide) and that holidays were the same for everybody, same weeks, same duration. Over the years, the length of those holidays has gradually increased. Children, and of course their teachers, now have two full weeks at Christmas, two full weeks in February, another two full weeks around Easter and almost two months during the summer, a long holiday that apparently has roots in France’s rural past when children were expected to help bring in the harvest! In the Autumn there used to be a longish weekend around All Saints Day on November 1st. This was gradually extended by a day here and there before François Hollande, in one of his first acts as President in 2012, granted all schools another two full weeks.

The ostensible reason for these long holidays, which are probably the longest in Europe, not to speak of anywhere else in the world, is that chronobiologists (I first heard of this speciality in connection with school holidays!) have apparently concluded that kids need 2 weeks rest after every 7 weeks in class. A quick calculation this year reveals however that the time between the Christmas holidays and the February holidays and between them and the Spring holidays is only five weeks in some cases, especially as the most populous parts of France, like the Paris area and other major cities, now have their holidays staggered  - Paris' holidays starting and ending a week before those of another area and so on. With three academic regions, the total holiday period during the February and Spring holidays is a full month. The academic calendar is laid down by the Ministry at least two years in advance.

Why then have the chronobiologists been forgotten, contradicted or overruled? The reasons are increasingly apparent. A lead story on the evening news the other night provided a telling clue. Just before the start of the Spring holidays, a number of ski resort operators and tourist offices around the country were asked how their season was going and if they were fully booked for the four weeks of the coming holiday period. They didn’t sound too unhappy.

France is certainly a beautiful country with plenty of opportunities for tourism. And the majority of French families tend to spend their short holidays in France. But it is also true that long and frequent holiday periods justify investment in tourist facilities and a powerful lobby of MPs does everything in its power to make sure that the investment pays off by lobbying for the extension of holidays, or against their reduction.

The result of all this is that most of one’s life in France revolves around school holidays. Working parents who can take up to 5 weeks paid holiday a year regularly take week long breaks with their children during the school holidays or, if it’s not possible to do so, pack their kids off to holiday camps, day care centres or willing grandparents for a week in the country, in the mountains or at the seaside. The impact on everyone else is also profound.  A gym class is normally held in a school gymnasium? Not during the school holidays. A lecture series for adults take place in a room lent by a pedagogical institute? Not during the school holidays. More than once during my career as an interpreter, I heard the French delegate say that this or that week was not convenient for the next meeting “because of the school holidays”, apparently oblivious to raised eyebrows and suppressed smiles in the rest of the room. During the school holidays, ski resorts and holiday camps are fully booked, there are special traffic jam alerts for days on which families leave for, or return from, holidays, extra trains are scheduled and sold out almost as soon as the tickets go on sale. Paris and other large cities empty themselves of a large proportion of their inhabitants. Ski slopes, holiday resorts, rural and seaside villages face a big influx of home-grown tourists.

What all this means for the number of hours that children spend in classrooms and how much they learn is not, surprisingly perhaps, an issue of serious national concern, although once a year there is a ritual wailing and wringing of hands when it is reported that France has slipped further down the PISA rankings. It is certainly a non-issue in any presidential campaign. Tourist areas are delighted to function more or less the whole year round, families get themselves organised to go on holiday or mobilise grandparents. Teachers’ objections, understandably perhaps, are muted.

In the U.K, a father was recently fined for taking his daughter out of school for a week’s holiday during term time. He contested the fine and the case went to the Supreme Court that ruled against him, much to the relief of the representative of a head teachers’ association interviewed on the BBC’s Today Programme.  It is a far cry from France. No parent ever has to take a child out of school during term time. School’s out …..for sixteen weeks a year.

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