Does France really lead the way?

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Neil Leitch finds elements of practice to question on a visit to French nurseries

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I can't imagine that there are many in the sector who have yet to read the now-infamous Daily Mail interview with Early Years Minister Elizabeth Truss in which she describes childcare providers in England as 'breeding a generation of unruly toddlers'.

In it, she argues that we should emulate the "traditional" French approach to childcare, where learning is more structured and children 'pay attention to the teacher and develop good manners'.

Keen to understand more about the French model, earlier this week I travelled to Paris, accompanied by two senior executives from leading day nursery groups, to visit both private- and state-run 'écoles maternelles', which provide childcare for children aged three to six.

While I was, of course, aware that the trip would only provide a glimpse into the French childcare system, it was an ideal opportunity not to only speak directly to French practitioners and find out about their views and experiences, but also to observe French children closely in their learning environment. 

Upon entering the private ècole maternelle, I was taken back to my own school education during the late 50s. The classroom consisted of 25 four-year-olds overseen by one teacher (to put this in context, in England, a day nursery would have a staff-to-child ratio of 1:8 or 1:13 in a school nursery class).

The children sat at tables, with every chair fitted with tennis balls at the base of the chair legs to prevent them from making a noise when the children pushed their chairs back, shuffled or became restless when their concentration wandered. It was interesting to see the change that came over the children when the time came for them to move to another table to begin another activity. Children whose eyes had been glazed over suddenly became animated and happy, clearly enjoying the freedom to move about.

After the session, we spoke separately to three teachers, all of whom voiced their concerns about the inflexibility of the French childcare system.

"We don't accommodate the individual child and we don't really identify special needs," the first told us. "The child generally fits and succeeds or has to do the year again until he or she succeeds," said the second, adding, 'We expect four-year-olds to behave like 13-year-olds and they are different.'

Similarly, the third described the state sector, where she had previously worked, as 'rigorous', stating that 'the child is deemed right or wrong', with 'no middle ground or flexibility to adjust for the individual child's needs'.

We also had the opportunity to speak to the school head, who was full of praise for the English system, saying, 'French teachers really like the Anglo-Saxon approach to learning. When English children come to us, they seem more advanced.'

Our next visit was to a state nursery setting, where I immediately noticed that building was in a poor state and showed clear evidence of under-investment.

During the visit, one thing that struck us in particular was how rigidly the daily schedule was mapped out, to the extent that even toilet times were pre-scheduled (for three-year-olds!).

Coming from a childcare sector where such emphasis is placed on the benefits of outdoor play, it was also a shock to see that there was no outdoor play equipment visible except a small climbing frame, which we discovered was shared by around 90 three-year-olds. The kind of resources that many of us would expect to find at an early years setting – bikes, balls, sandpits and the like – were nowhere to be found.
There was also no evidence of an enabling environment with very little equipment accessible at child level or stimulating displays available.

Inside the setting, we observed a classroom which, despite being home to a class of 30 three-year-old children, could not have been more than 7 x 8 metres, with the small play area in the corner measuring just 2 x 2 metres. And, as with the outdoor area, there were very few resources visible.

The children's experiences were all adult-led as this was the only way in which the teacher could manage the numbers of children in the class. When asked what she would improve about the current situation in the setting if she could, the teacher simply said, 'Fewer children,' explaining, 'I cannot give them enough time. The system formalises their learning and they are only three.'

The teacher explained to us that, although 30 children attend the morning session, about half go home at lunchtime and do not return, which meant that she saved the more interactive elements of the curriculum until the afternoon session when she felt better able to cope with the smaller number of children in attendance. We were clearly seeing the existence of two-tier childcare provision, where a child's experience was completely different depending on whether they attended the morning or afternoon session.

The teacher revealed that there was little intervention in the early years for children displaying a developmental delay, explaining that the appropriate class teacher would only be advised when the children reached the age of six. She also talked about the lack of opportunity for a proper transition with the family and how hard it was to settle the children when they all started in September.

It's worth pointing out that the French Government is, in fact, planning reforms to enrich the experience of the child's day in a childcare setting, as some French parents feel that their children don't have a sufficiently wide experience of the more creative and cultural elements of learning and discovery, such as music and arts. However, while the Government is currently working towards offering an extra three hours of tuition per week, it is finding it difficult to recruit specialist teachers for the required subjects.

The French teachers we spoke to were clearly positive about aspects of the English childcare system, and were very open in voicing concerns with the quality of care they could realistically provide with such large classes. One point on which we were all in firm agreement was that there are extremely complex issues around culture, funding and educational policy which would make it impossible to successfully replace our own system with another country's model of learning.

Clearly our brief visit only offered a small snapshot into the French system and I certainly wouldn't want to generalise about whether either approach is better or worse. That said, I was struck by how different the settings we visited were from anything I have experienced in England. One thing we did notice was how committed the practitioners were at working within such constraints and how hard they worked to give the children the best start they could within the confines of their system – something which we know is so true of practitioners in this country too.

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. Let's not forget that the Economist Intelligence Unit's Starting Well report on early education and childcare ranked the UK fourth out of 45 countries in terms of quality, availability and affordability of early education for three- to six-year-olds, ahead of Denmark, France and the Netherlands.

Perhaps then the Government could explain why it continues to champion the French approach to childcare when, in terms of quality provision, it is England that is leading the way.

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