f you think Wednesday's child is full of woe, as the old nursery rhyme has it, try Wednesday's parents.
Parents like Eric and Isabelle Nizard, who are angry over a sinister social experiment being conducted on their 9-year-old son, Sacha. It's the latest innovation in French public education: Their child must now attend school on Wednesdays.
Beginning in September, hump day is no longer an official day off, a traditional oasis in the middle of the week for primary school students to rest from the rigors of academic pursuit. Instead, French children — who, like their parents, already enjoy longer lunch breaks and summer vacations than their counterparts in many other countries — have to show up for class Monday through Friday.
The Nizards complain that Sacha has lost his bearings, and that their leisurely Tuesday evenings, when the family could go out to dinner or Sacha could watch TV without worrying about class the next morning, have been sabotaged. His guitar lessons, formerly on Wednesdays, are now sandwiched into his Friday lunch period.
"We weren't asked for our opinion. This was imposed upon us," said Isabelle Nizard, 41, a dark-haired woman full of indignation and expressive gestures. "They changed the course of our life without asking us for our opinion!"
The new schedule has unleashed protests from teachers and petitions from parents. Caught flat-footed, the deeply unpopular government of President Francois Hollande, who pledged the reform during his election campaign last year, is struggling to defend it.
Isabelle Nizard of Paris is angry about the French government's decision to stop giving elementary school students Wednesdays off. “They changed the course of our life without asking us for our opinion!” she says. (Henry Chu / Los Angeles Times)
Although the brouhaha may seem to outsiders like a classic case of French whine, officials say it centers on a serious issue. Because French students had Wednesdays off, as well as a relatively short school year, educators were forced to pack more hours into each remaining school day in order to achieve an annual amount of instruction time comparable to other developed nations.
In other words, fewer school days mean much longer ones. Children as young as 6 often remain in class until late in the afternoon, as skies darken and parents get off work.
Adding Wednesday to the mix is supposed to alleviate that burden, at a time when the declining performance of French students is becoming a source of heavy concern. About a quarter of the country's primary schools have already adjusted their calendars, with the rest expected to follow suit next year.
That French schoolchildren have had Wednesdays off is a quirk of history.
When France instituted universal public education in the late 19th century, the government granted a weekly day off for children to attend catechism by the Roman Catholic Church. Many schools threw open their doors on Saturday mornings to make up for the lost teaching time, but in 2008, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy's administration decided that a four-day school week was sufficient.
Vincent Peillon, France's education minister, says he feels "great serenity" over a reform that is clearly in the best interest of the nation's young. But that personal uplift has been challenged by public vituperation over how chaotically the shift has been implemented, even from parents who acknowledge that the old system was flawed.
"In theory, everyone agrees on the fundamental principle that kids are overloaded. Everybody agrees that the day is too compressed and that something needs to be changed," said Peter Gumbel, a professor at Sciences Po university here and the author of a bestselling book on problems in the French education system. "However, as soon as you start to change anything, everybody starts screaming."
In Paris, parents are fuming that instead of five days of equal length, the city's new school schedule is a crazy quilt, with no consecutive days ending at the same time.
And moms and dads who have artfully arranged their French 35-hour workweeks to spend Wednesdays with their tots feel shafted.
"We have this midweek day off which helps the kids relax, to establish their own rhythm, to stay up a little longer [on Tuesdays] with us," said Eric Nizard, Sacha's father. "The day after, there is no stress, no push in the morning to wake up to go to school."
They changed the course of our life without asking us for our opinion!"
Although some children do attend catechism, today's highly secular parents have found Wednesdays useful not for religious instruction but for their kids' music lessons, sports practice and other non-academic pursuits that get short shrift in the highly regimented French education system. Businesses have sprung up to cater to the Wednesday whims of middle-class families, offering such get-ahead programs for youngsters as English classes.
Isabelle Nizard helped put together a petition from her affluent neighborhood in the 16th arrondissement demanding that the mayor of Paris scrap the schedule revamp. It hasn't succeeded.
Instead, the parents group she leads and others across France are now urging members to pull their kids out of school next Wednesday in protest. Unions representing teachers and other campus staff have called for a national strike the following day.
Restructuring the school calendar has become one of the myriad issues that officials are looking at in their effort to arrest France's slide in international education rankings over the last decade.
By the time they turn 15, nearly 40% of French students have had to repeat a grade — triple the average rate of most industrialized countries. More than 15% drop out or finish school without a diploma.
"They've had a big shock here," professor Gumbel said. "They used to think they had the best education system in the world."
The extra-long school day can widen the gap between youngsters who perform well and those who don't, particularly those from less privileged households.
"For one-third of the pupils, it's not a problem," said Eric Charbonnier, an education analyst with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "But for the ones who have serious difficulties, it's really a problem.... You have a long school day, you don't understand what the teacher is telling you and, in the evening, parents work and can't help with your studies. So you continue to increase inequities between these pupils and the others."
Charbonnier and other experts say that modifying the school calendar is just one piece of a larger puzzle that should also include reform of instruction methods, with less emphasis on rote learning, and better training and evaluation of teachers.
Yet the slightest change can cause a major ruckus in a land where school administrators, teachers and even parents all form powerful organizations. Education may lay claim to the biggest chunk of the public purse, but the education minister's job is fraught with political peril. Peillon is France's 30th since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958, according to Gumbel. (By contrast, there have been only eight presidents.)
"You go through education ministers faster than you go through toilet paper in this country," Gumbel said. "The issue of the school hours is by far the least important element of the school system. But it's an indicator of how difficult it is to change anything."
Students enter La Ronce school in Ville d'Avray, west of Paris. Primary school students in France have traditionally had Wednesdays off, as well as long lunches and vacations, but their classes often go well into the late afternoon to make up some of the lost time for teaching. (Christophe Ena / Associated Press)
Hollande, already saddled with the lowest approval ratings of any French president of the last half-century, has come under fire from opposition politicians eager to turn the issue into a vote-getter in next year's municipal elections.
"It's exactly the sort of reform that is surely paved with good intentions but which, in practice, ransacks and pillages the French school," opposition leader Jean-Francois Cope declared last month. "It is led with a billy club, without consultation."
Cope's party has reportedly sent out a million fliers calling on the government to ditch the reform. Peillon refuses to budge, but acknowledges that improvements might be necessary.
Whatever the reform's merits, the government enacted it too hastily and should have taken the time to consult all parties to come up with an orderly transition, said Valerie Marty, the president of France's largest parents association. Instead, the country is filled with mothers and fathers angry that their lives, and the futures of their children, are being tampered with.
"In wanting to do well, in the end they have done it very, very badly," Marty said of the government. The school calendar is "the most boiling-hot subject in France. Changing an hour here or there takes on great proportions.... Everyone knows that."
Special correspondent Tracy McNicoll contributed to this report.