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School age matters in France

As thousands of children across France head to maternelle for the first time this month, Samantha David asks if compulsory education from age three is necessary

This rentrée, as children all over France head back to school, they will be joined by 26,000 children who would otherwise have stayed at home. 

This is because, from this September, maternelle is obligatory in France for all children aged three and up. 

The idea is that maternelle prepares children for school life; teaches them to ask before going to the toilet, to walk neatly in a crocodile line, to hang their coats on the right peg.

They learn to fit in and not to hang on mummy’s apron strings. They learn to lie on the floor and make an ‘S’ shape like a ‘serpent’. They learn not to throw food in the canteen and – if you’re lucky – how to defend themselves from older kids with tougher attitudes.

Those children who don’t go to school, so the story goes, are sitting at home drinking coke in front of the telly.

Their parents don’t prioritise education, their educational attainment will never catch up; they will grow up to fail their exams, and join the lists of the long-term unemployed.

In this scenario, forcing their parents to send them to school is a good thing, a step forward. It means giving all children an equal chance.

I’m not sure.

Around 97.7% of three-year-olds are already in maternelle so in one way nothing much will change; only a small number of children will be affected.

But in another way, lots of things will change. In the past, maternelle was a choice. Parents could opt to keep their little ones at home, send them part-time, or take them out of school whenever they liked.

Not all parents are feckless idiots, not all three-year-olds spend their time at home goggle-eyed on a sofa. Some parents teach their kids multiple languages and take them abroad where they absorb a second culture, a parallel approach to life.

Visits from family, trips back to see friends and relations, these are all important to children with dual cultures and mixed identities. 

This is vital. Imagine if attendance is strictly enforced and suddenly it isn’t possible to take your three-year-old back to the UK during the school term. It’s not a matter of wanting a cheaper holiday, it’s a matter of ensuring that inherited cultures are passed on.

And it is not just French residents with a UK background. What about French residents with family in North Africa? Or anywhere else, for that matter.       

And a key point - not all parents are feckless, not all time off maternelle is wasted.

Three-year-olds tire easily. I used to keep my daughter home when she looked a bit ‘peaky’, or when I was doing something interesting (visiting a museum, having lunch with non-French speaking friends, watching the dog give birth).

Sometimes I kept her home simply because I wanted to make pizza with her, or go swimming in the lake, or lie in bed inventing fairy tales.

Instead of going to maternelle, sometimes we made shadow puppets, we went scrumping, sometimes she made duvet dens, or Cornflake cookies. I spent hours reading to her, and later she book-wormed her way through every children’s classic going.

And, in case you’re wondering how this affected her chances, she is tri-lingual, got her Bac L in France, and graduated with a Masters from Glasgow – even though her attendance at maternelle was thoroughly patchy.

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