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Banned Homework In France

As part of an effort to overhaul education in France, President Francois Hollande is proposing the elimination of homework. Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

As part of an effort to overhaul education in France, President Francois Hollande is proposing the elimination of homework.

Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

In the name of equality, the French government has proposed doing away with homework in elementary and junior high school. French President Francois Hollande argues that homework penalizes children with difficult home situations, but even the people whom the proposal is supposed to help disagree.

It's 5:30 p.m. and getting dark outside, as kids pour out of Gutenberg Elementary School in Paris 15th arrondissement. Parents and other caregivers wait outside to collect their children. Aissata Toure, 20, is here with her younger sister in tow. She's come to pick up her 7-year-old son. Toure says she's against Hollande's proposal to do away with homework.

"It's not a good idea at all because even at a young age, having individual work at home helps build maturity and responsibility," she says, "and if it's something they didn't quite get in school, the parents can help them. Homework is important for a kid's future."

Toure lives with her son, her little sister and her mother in public housing near the school. On the surface, it seems just the sort of family environment that might put a child at a disadvantage. Yet Toure says she sits down with her son every night, even though she's in law school and has her own studies.

"Poor people want homework because they know that school is very important, and the only chance — the only possibility — they have to give their children a better life is if their children succeed at school," says Emmanuel Davidenkoff, editor-in-chief of L'Etudiant, a magazine and website devoted to French school and education.

An Educational Divide

Davidenkoff says the Socialist government doesn't seem to understand the concerns of the working and middle class and in the name of equality, got it all wrong.

President Francois Hollande argues that homework puts poor children at a disadvantage, but others argue the extra work is needed to help those students succeed. Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

President Francois Hollande argues that homework puts poor children at a disadvantage, but others argue the extra work is needed to help those students succeed.

Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

"Mostly, wealthy people don't want homework because when the kids are at home, they make sports or dance or music. They go to the museums, to the theater. So they have this access to culture, which is very important," he says. "In poor families, they don't have that, so the only link they have with culture and school is homework."

Elisabeth Zeboulon sits in her office over the playground. Today, she's the principal at a private, bilingual school in Paris, but she spent most of her career in French public schools. Zeboulon says the centralized French education system doesn't leave much room for trying different teaching methods.

"The kids are very different from one place to another, from one school to another, and we don't have much way of adapting," she says. "And whenever they start saying, 'Well in this place we could do this, in that place we could do that,' then you have a lot of people coming up and saying, 'Look, it's not equal.' "

Infusing Happiness

Cutting homework is just part of an effort aimed at making primary and secondary school a happier, more relaxed place for children. The school week will be lengthened — currently, French children have Wednesdays off — but the school day will be shortened. Kids get out so late here there's no time for extracurricular activities. Basically, French school is a grind, says Peter Gumbel, author of a scathing book on the education system in France.

"There's an enormous amount of pressure, and it's no fun whatsoever. There's no sport or very little sport, very little art, very little music. Kids don't have a good time at all," he says. "And it's not about building self-confidence and encouraging them to go out and discover the world. It's much more about, sit down and we'll fill your empty heads with our rather dull and old-fashioned knowledge."

There's another big reason the French government is making changing school policy a top priority, Gumbel says.

"The French are discovering — to their horror — that their performance internationally has been declining over the last 10 years. The French actually are performing [worse] than the Americans in reading and science," he says.

This is a huge shock, Gumbel says, to a country that long considered itself an education pioneer.

New French President plans to ban homework because it's 'not fair on poor kids'

By Leon Watson

Published: 00:28 GMT, 17 October 2012 | Updated: 09:08 GMT, 17 October 2012

Children in France already have lessons just four days a week. And they get two hours each day for lunch and enjoy longer school holidays.

But after President François Hollande's latest education announcement, their British counterparts will really have good reason to be envious.

Mr Hollande has said he will ban schools from giving their pupils homework as part of a series of reforms to overhaul the country’s education system.

French president Francois Hollande has said he will ban schools from giving their pupils homework as part of a series of reforms to overhaul the country's education system

The nation's new government says it is unfair that some children get help from their parents at home while children who come from disadvantaged families don't.

The government also argues that primary schoolchildren risk classroom burnout, and is moving to help them cope.

As a candidate, President Francois Hollande promised to change things by adding a fifth day of classes on Wednesday while shortening the school day.

For France, it's something of a revolutionary idea that would overturn more than a century of school tradition. The thinking is that the days are too full for young children under the current system and that Wednesday free time could be put to more productive use.

'France has the shortest school year and the longest day,' Hollande said at the time, promising change.

His education minister, Vincent Peillon, will decide this month how to carry out the reform. He has said he may also compensate for a shorter school day by trimming France's sacred summer vacation. A panel of experts will present their conclusions on Friday, and the president is expected to address the issue on Tuesday.

Will be banned: The French government says it is unfair that some children get help from their parents at home while children who come from disadvantaged families don't

No proposal affects tradition — and potentially family and municipal budgets — as much as what the French call changes to the 'scholastic rhythms.'

There's been a midweek break in French primary schools dating back to the 19th century, a government concession to the Roman Catholic Church, which wanted children to study the catechism on their weekday off.

In today's secular France, Wednesdays currently are a blur of sports, music, tutoring for families of means, or a scramble for working parents struggling to get by — who must either find a sitter or send their children to a full day at a state-run 'leisure center.'

It isn't all easy for French children either.

Despite long summer breaks and the four-day school week, French elementary school students actually spend more hours per year in school than average — 847, compared with 774 among countries in OECD, a club of wealthy nations.

But the time is compressed into fewer days each year. The French school day begins around 8.30 and ends at 4.30 p.m., even for the youngest, despite studies showing the ability of young children to learn deteriorates as the day goes on.

France ranks below most of its European neighbours and the U.S. in results on international tests.

But many parents are afraid that the changes will force them to figure out extra childcare five days a week, especially at schools where the afterschool program amounts to sitting silently at a desk for two hours or near-chaos in the play areas. Under the education proposal, school would end at lunchtime on Wednesday.

'It's completely unrealistic,' Valerie Marty, president of the national parents' organisation, said of the proposed timetable. 'They have to figure out who will take care of the children after school, who will finance it.'

The Education Ministry has proposed more organised extracurricular activities like sports, theater and art to replace the relatively free-form time children now have after school. But that means trained staff and, of course, more money from local budgets already strained in difficult economic times.

Marty, who has three children, proposes something entirely different: lengthening lunch to three hours.

'After a meal, children have a moment when they're tired. They're not ready for intellectual activities and could do something more relaxing,' she said, suggesting theater, or quiet time in a library for others. Afterward, she said, classes could resume until evening.

Trimming the hallowed summer break is another tricky proposition. The school year ends at the beginning of July. Some families take July off, some August. But nearly everyone takes a month, and many French families travel for the entire period.

Peillon said he was flexible about vacation time: 'If the question of vacation is blocking things, I'll propose that the prime minister leave it alone.'

Eric Charbonnier, an OECD education expert, supports the proposed changes. He believes the current system isn't working for the children most in need of a good education.

'A schedule with long days and lots of vacation is not one that will help the students who are having problems,' he said.

Peter Gumbel, a British journalist who has lived in France since 2002 and written a book about the country's education system, said the length of the school day is only part of the problem.

He says that French schooling is outmoded, dull and grinding. His take is clear from his book's title: 'They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don't They?'

'You have to tackle head-on the fundamental questions of the classroom,' he said, citing 'the sheer heaviness of the national curriculum, the enormous amount of hours, the enormous amount of unbroken attention required, and the sheer boredom and tiredness.'

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