ANALYSIS: Do French schoolchildren really have too many holidays?

ANALYSIS: Do French schoolchildren really have too many holidays?
School's out for summer. Photo: DGLimages/Depositphotos
The majority of schools in France break up today and pupils will begin two months of holiday. Good times for them, but is the long holiday a good idea, asks Professor Claude Lelievre.
According to international comparisons conducted by the OECD, France is among the countries with the shortest school year.
A total school year in France does not exceed 36 weeks, while the median among OECD countries is 38 weeks – and one third of countries are over 40 weeks.
Only two countries have a shorter school year than France.
Does this mean that France gives its students far more summer holidays than other countries?
In fact, with almost nine weeks of summer holidays, France is about average. For primary education, the length of the “summer holidays” varies – 12 or 13 weeks for 10 countries and just six weeks in five countries.
The difference is therefore in terms of holidays during the year, as other countries rarely have “short holidays” that exceed the week.
This distribution has been altered throughout the 20th century – while the total duration of the holidays has not changed since the end of the Third Republic, the calendar has changed significantly.

Socioeconomic distinction

Is summer vacation inherited from “la France Agricole” – following in the footsteps of an epoch in which children helped their family harvest crops? 

In reality, the pattern that finally emerged was that of the secondary schools, which only two or three percent of children attended during the Third Republic.

As historian Antoine Prost clearly demonstrates, nobles did not have to work – it would have been a deviation from their social class.

More often than not, their way of life was alternate: in the colder months they would stay in their mansion in the city then go to a chateau somewhere in the countryside during the beautiful summer seasons. 

In their turn, many of those in the middle or upper-middle classes searched for a noble lifestyle. They had vacation, showing that they too were above the working class. Distinction for them was important. 

The idea that school holidays were organised around harvest time is something of a myth. Photo: AFP

In the 19th century, children of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy – who were then practically the only ones who went to middle schools (les collèges) and high schools (les lycées) – joined their parents in the second half of summer not to work in the fields but to take part in the network of social activities that were established, particularly around hunting (an activity of noble and privileged origin under the Ancien Régime).

From the establishment of the Third Republic, long summer holidays began to start earlier and earlier in the year and lasted longer.

In 1875, it was decided that they would begin on August 9th and from 1891, on August 1st.

In 1912, the start was brought forward to July 14th, but they still lasted until October 1st. 

So from 1874 to 1912 we went from a month and a half of summer holidays to two and a half months.

The arrival of paid holidays

For primary schools, where the vast majority of children went, the decree of January 4th 1894 set the duration of vacation time at six weeks.

But it contained a caveat that merits close attention: “However, the duration of vacation can be extended to eight weeks in schools which organise holiday classes.

The two-week extension was made for different reasons, and would become more widespread.
At first it was granted as a reward (for teachers). The decree of July 27th 1896 granted it to staff “who have contributed to the running of regular courses for adults and adolescents”.
At the very end of the 19th century, a norm was created: the normal length of holidays was extended from six to eight weeks, as recognized by the decree of July 21st 1900.
In 1922, 15 days were added to the month and a half long summer vacation.

Vacation then was from August 1st to September 30th.

In 1938, it became in line with the vacation of secondary school and finalised as July 15th to September 30th.

Under the Popular Front government, paid holidays for workers began on July 14th, and the schools' long summer vacation was extended to run from July 15th to September 30th. 

The government's education minister Jean Zay declared: “The vacations of children and their parents should be aligned.”

Vaccation zones

In 1959, the main holiday was moved by two weeks – they would start earlier on July 1st and finish earlier as well – around mid-September.

Because the first trimester was lengthened, it was decided that four days would be free on All Saint’s Day (November 1st), so that there would be a short break. 

Thirteen years later, in 1972, after the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, winter vacation was introduced to prioritize the development of tourism.

The Grenoble Winter Olympics helped usher in winter school holidays in France. Photo: AFP

Ever since then, we entered a new well-known problem called 7+2 (seven weeks of school followed by two weeks of vacation, which is a pattern unanimously recommended by chronobiologists) but which has many pros and cons. 

The debate on the calendar

If we were to prolong the number of weeks 'worked' to align with the average of other countries, up to 38 weeks instead of France’s 36 weeks, it would be better not to touch the shorter holidays, but instead the shorten the summer break by two weeks.

France is now the country whereby the number of 'work' days per year is by far the lowest, in particular for areas which chose a four-day school week (instead of four and a half), which can be considered a problem.

But this issue is incredibly sensitive and divisive.

Teachers are very reluctant, and many are even hostile, to such a development, especially if there is no compensation such as salary increases.

French teachers are certainly among the ones that have the most vacation time, but they are also among the lowest paid.

When questioned on the issue on July 22nd, 2017, by Le Journal du dimanche, the Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, replied: “Every time we talk about children in the 21st century, we must ask ourselves about the summer holidays or intermediate holidays. It is a more important subject than weekly routine.”

On June 22nd 2018 on radio station Europe 1, the Minister reiterated: “I have been saying for a long time that we will have to ask quietly but surely the question about school holidays”.
So, a year later, we ask – quietly but surely – the question: “when and how?”
Claude Lelievre is an associate professor of philosophy at Paris-Descartes University and has written extensively on the French education system. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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