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Did you know: why is the rentrée in September?

The beginning of the school year logically follows the longest break from the classroom.

23 July 2018
By Connexion journalist

This has always been in the summer though over the centuries the reasons why have changed and the dates and length have varied enormously, from one month to ten weeks.

The first recorded official break was accorded by Pope Gregory IX in 1231, because there were so few students in the universities during harvest time.

Researcher in education from Nice University, Doctor Daniel Moatti has traced the history of summer holidays in a paper Petite Histoire des Grandes Vacances (A Little History of Big Holidays). He says these first four weeks from study were called vendanges, linking them to the grape harvest.

At that time there was no such concept as a holiday; the students went home to work and any other days off were linked to religious festivals.

School was not obligatory until the Jules Ferry law in 1881, when all children aged 6-13 years old had to go to school. However, Doctor Moatti says there were already holiday dates for existing schools. In 1800, they started on August 5 and ended on September 20, again to coincide with the harvest.

In 1939, these holidays were lengthened from July 15 to September 30, a massive ten weeks, but the two and a half months were still not for trips to the seaside but for help in the fields, as a vast percentage of the population made their living from the land.

Social habits were changing, though, as paid holidays for workers were introduced in 1936, so that gradually more and more families started going away, and often wanted to do so from July 1.

In 1959, the summer holiday dates were therefore changed to start on July 1 and lasted until September 14. Farming families could still make a special request for their children, aged over 12 years, to stay at home if they could show their manpower was needed.

It was not until the 1980s that school holidays came to more closely resemble those we know today. The grandes vacances became shorter and were now known as les vacances d’été, and other holidays during the year were lengthened. In 1986 the summer holidays started on June 26 and ended September 1.

Paid holidays and increases in tourism now govern the pattern of breaks from school, rather than the agricultural calendar. This year the holidays started July 7 and the rentrée is on September 3.

Even now there is debate over the length of the summer holidays, with some education professionals saying the break is too long and should be shortened.

However, no-one has ever suggested that the beginning of the school year should be in January rather than September.

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