Ecole maternelle in France

At the start of the 2019 school year, education becomes compulsory for children from the age of three. But what will they learn? Jane Hanks finds out

30 May 2018
By Jane Hanks

From September 2019, it will be obligatory for all three year olds to be educated. For the majority this will mean going to an école maternelle, although home schooling will be permitted.

This is not the huge change it first appears as 97% of children already attend école maternelle but President Emmanuel Macron said making it obligatory was important to allow everyone the same chance to have a good start in education. 

This will mean children in France start school earlier than those in any other European country. Many others provide optional pre-school education, but for most, compulsory education starts at five or six, or four in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Cyprus.

Teachers’ unions and parents’ associations accept the move, but are worried the government will not provide the necessary resources to improve schooling for the very young.

But what do children do all day in maternelle? Connexion spoke to Ghislaine Merly who has been teaching young children in a rural school at Marcillac-Saint-Quentin, Dordogne, for the past 15 years.

She, like all her colleagues, is a qualified teacher who can teach at all levels of primary school, including the four maternelle classes: Toute Petite Section (age 2-3), Petite Section (3-4), Moyenne Section and Grande Section (4-5).

This year she is teaching GS together with the first year of école élémentaire, CP (age 5-6). Another teacher has a class with the other maternelle sections. All maternelle classes have an assistant to help them, known as an ATSEM (Agent Territorial Spécialisé Des Ecoles Maternelles). They help with workshops, prepare activities, take children to the toilet and work under the guidance of the teacher.

Mrs Merly described a typical day, similar but not identical in all schools: “Our main aim is to make sure school is as enjoyable as possible for the children and that they are in an environment which makes them want to learn.

“To begin the day there is a 20-30 minute welcome period when children are allowed to play and parents can come into the classroom to make the transition from home to school easier.

“After that the morning, which is three hours long, is divided into periods of 20 minutes for the youngest and 30 minutes for GS, as any longer and they loose interest.

“We start with activities such as playdough or painting with a maximum of six for each workshop.

“Then we talk about the date, the season, whether it is anyone’s birthday, etc, to work on the notions of time at the level appropriate for each age.

“After that there are a series of different activities and the children pass from one to the other as their session ends. These can be artistic, motricity activities, singing, listening to stories, we go to the salle des fêtes and do activities like running, jumping, throwing, and we have a period when they can choose from a variety of trays which are set out with different games for individual activities to encourage autonomy.

“Our activities are related to learning to read, write and mathematics later on. For example, they will learn the difference between straight lines and curves for writing. We might ask children to stand straight and take a photo and show them they have made an ‘I’.

“They will then make that form with  playdough, with paint, with building bricks and so on with other letters. We will give them games with tweezers to pick up small objects and explain we are making their hands strong so they can write more easily later.

“Language is very important and we read stories and then discuss them.

“During the morning there is one playtime. Then there is lunch and afterwards a siesta for the youngest, which lasts from around 13.30-15.15. At that time GS will do other activities, maybe science. After the siesta there are gentle activities until it is home time.”

Staff and pupils at Marcillac-Saint-Quentin, have just moved into a new building and have introduced the flexible seating method, with different areas in the classroom and even some bouncy balls to sit on so the children do not have to sit in the same place all day.

Mrs Merly welcomes the government’s decision: “Maternelle is very important. Many children do not have parents who read them bedtime stories and as it has been shown that vocabulary is crucial for success in school later on. It is important that all children have access to learning language early.”

When we asked readers for their experiences of école maternelle, the majority said it had been good for their children, though there was concern that school so young would not suit everybody, especially those with conditions such as autism.

Suzanne Clarke, from the Charente, came to France 20 years ago when her four children were under six: “We were the only English family but the school was fantastic and understanding about the siesta as my son was a poor sleeper.

“It was very good for their language and they were fluent in six months. It meant they learnt to be in a social situation early and as my husband and I were working on our farm it meant we were happy as we knew the children were safe.”

Michaela Brennan, from Carcassonne, sent her daughter to school in September 2017 just after her third birthday. She says she thinks she is better off at school than at home: “My sister in the UK cannot understand sending children to school so young but I think Caitline is learning far more than if she was with me.

“She is learning to be with other kids and loves having new friends. She eats in the canteen and tries different foods that she would say ‘no’ to at home.

“Before she went, she could understand French but would not speak. After two to three weeks she did. She has been on wonderful trips including the cinema, a zoo and picking apples in an orchard.

“The siesta has not been a problem because she is a big sleeper, but children who don’t want to sleep do not have to and can play quietly in another room.

“She has even started learning to write her own name. And when she comes home from school we have lots to talk about.”

A government spokesperson told Connexion there were no plans to increase teacher numbers at present, despite concerns over class sizes, but it should not be necessary as numbers of children at school are set to decrease significantly over the next three years.

She also said a law would have to be passed to make schooling at three obligatory, but it was very unlikely to be opposed as schooling at a young age is already socially acceptable in France.

Resident or second-home owner in France?
Benefit from our daily digest of headlines and how-to's to help you make the most of life in France
By joining the newsletter, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy
See more popular articles
The Connexion Help Guides
Brexit and Beyond for Britons in France*
Featured Help Guide
What the Brexit deal means for UK residents of France, second homeowners and visitors in 2021 and after
Get news, views and information from France
You have 2 free subscriber articles left
Subscribe now to read unlimited articles and exclusive content
Already a subscriber? Log in now