Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer says nursery school – la maternelle – is “potentially the most powerful tool for equality and social progress”.
School has been obligatory since 1882, first from six to 13, then to 14 in 1936, and 16 in 1959. Children will now be obliged to start earlier than any European country, with the exception of Hungary.
However, 97.6% of children in mainland France already start nursery at three, official statistics show.
The new age is therefore partly symbolic. It is estimated to affect 26,000 children who will start earlier than they would have otherwise.
The Elysée says it also wants maternelle to be recognised as “real school”, with a focus on language and personal fulfilment, not just a sort of creche or a preparation for elementary school.
We spoke to two education experts with differing views on the change.
Gilles Demarquet, president of APEL, a large parents’ association body for Catholic private schools
At end of the day, it is something that concerns only a very small number of pupils, and mostly pupils who are in the French overseas departments and territories and in disadvantaged areas.
Until now, schooling has been compulsory at age six, but there are a lot of things that are played out before age six, in terms of socialisation and language learning.
And for a child who is already behind when he or she arrives in CP [start of elementary school] because he or she has foreign parents who do not speak French, it is difficult.
Starting school at three will maximise the chances of success.
It will help children learn easily and avoid them being put in a difficult position where they could be behind compared to others.
Here we are really talking about issues of inequality between pupils because if not everyone arrives with the same knowledge in CP, inequalities between pupils are likely to get worse.
For the 97% of children already in school at the age of three, the law will not change anything.
The only thing that can change is the obligation of attendance. However, it is set to remain flexible to follow the children’s rhythms.
If a three-year-old child takes a nap all afternoon, it is advisable to let him take a nap at home.
The child’s rhythm must be respected because each child is unique. Two children of the same age do not necessarily work the same way.
There will inevitably be places where there will be more children in school, especially places where children have not been in school so far. We will have to create new staff positions there.
One of the other effects of the law may be the need for more ATSEM teaching auxiliaries, who help teachers to take care of the children.
If we take in more children, we will also need more supervision support.
We should also bear in mind that it is not school as such that is compulsory. It is education that is compulsory.
Parents can choose to educate their children at home if they wish to, as some already do in primary school.
Claude Lelièvre, education historian and professor emeritus at Paris-Descartes University, part of the historic Sorbonne
The law’s true objectives are unclear.
First, there is a difference between compulsory school and compulsory attendance.
The new law says that school is compulsory for children from the age of three but it does not demand that children physically attend school, which is where there is a misunderstanding.
In the same way, education is already compulsory from the age of six to 16, whether that is in a state school, a private school or at home, taught by the family.
Historically, nursery school in France has always been educational but not instructive, the difference being that instruction requires a set of benchmarks by which the child’s progress can be measured.
With this law, there is a compulsory educational instruction that has to be given, and this instruction must be clearly defined.
Defining what qualifies as education for a very young child is problematic. It means defining what types of knowledge a child should have by a certain age.
In doing so, what a child should know is reduced to a precise number of very specific, shared criteria. Educational instruction at primary school or collège secondary school is normal but not when it concerns pre-elementary pupils.
The first tier of education should not be a matter of knowledge.
The law hides another truth: that the educational framework may become more rigid. If the law is put in place to tug nursery education towards instruction, then this should be stated.
What will change is not school attendance but the nature of nursery school education, which has always been a place that nourishes and supports children.
Currently, nearly all children attend nursery school in France. So what does the new law actually change for those who already send their children to nursery?
In terms of equality and access to education, it changes nothing. However, nurseries under private contracts can now force municipalities to finance them. It’s a gift on a silver platter to the private sector.
It is an announcement that gives the appearance of doing something good but the reality is unclear. The only tangible outcome is that private sector nurseries will have more money.