Homework In French Schools Hollande

If he manages to push his latest proposals through, French President François Hollande may find himself with a few more young supporters on his side.

Last week, Hollande reaffirmed his pledge to make education one of his main domestic priorities by outlining key strategic changes to revitalize France’s school system. It’s a sweeping package of changes meant to reform a system critics claim is outdated and inefficient, but for headline writers it boils down to one concept: the French President wants to outlaw homework. “Work should be done at school, rather than at home,” Hollande emphasized on Wednesday.

(MORE:French President Hollande Embarks on His Own Mission Impossible)

He also proposes reducing the average amount of time a student spends in class in each day, while stretching the school week from four days to four and a half. It’s a bid to bring the country more in line with international standards and to acknowledge some of the current system’s shortcomings. Even the homework isn’t just an empty populist gesture — it’s meant to reflect the fact that many of the lowest-performing students lack a positive support environment at home.

According to the Associated Press, French students endure some of the longest school days within developed nations:

Despite long summer breaks and the four-day school week, French elementary school students actually spend more hours per year in school than average – 847, compared with 774 among countries in OECD, a club of wealthy nations. But the time is compressed into fewer days each year. The French school day begins around 8:30 [a.m.] and ends at 4:30 p.m., even for the youngest, despite studies showing the ability of young children to learn deteriorates as the day goes on.

However, Hollande’s proposal faces a few challenges of its own: parents would have to learn how to adjust to the new school schedule and how best to care for their child during their suddenly free afternoons. Extracurricular activities would potentially fill a gap, but would increase pressure on already strained educational and state budgets.

(MORE:France Needs $43 Billion to Meet Debt Targets — but Rejects Austérité)

“It’s completely unrealistic,” Valérie Marty, the president of France’s national parents’ organization, told the Associated Press. “They have to figure out who will take care of the children after school, who will finance it.”

Some of Hollande’s other suggestions: shortening students’ summer vacation, increasing the number of teachers by as many as 60,000 and targeting disadvantaged areas to bolster France’s school system. Given the additional pressure the President faces in reforming the domestic budget, it’s a tough act to pull off.

Hollande, who is currently in his first term after succeeding Nicolas Sarkozy in May, had vowed to make education a cornerstone of his presidency.

Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

As part of an effort to overhaul education in France, President Francois Hollande is proposing the elimination of homework. Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

As part of an effort to overhaul education in France, President Francois Hollande is proposing the elimination of homework.

Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

In the name of equality, the French government has proposed doing away with homework in elementary and junior high school. French President Francois Hollande argues that homework penalizes children with difficult home situations, but even the people whom the proposal is supposed to help disagree.

It's 5:30 p.m. and getting dark outside, as kids pour out of Gutenberg Elementary School in Paris 15th arrondissement. Parents and other caregivers wait outside to collect their children. Aissata Toure, 20, is here with her younger sister in tow. She's come to pick up her 7-year-old son. Toure says she's against Hollande's proposal to do away with homework.

"It's not a good idea at all because even at a young age, having individual work at home helps build maturity and responsibility," she says, "and if it's something they didn't quite get in school, the parents can help them. Homework is important for a kid's future."

Toure lives with her son, her little sister and her mother in public housing near the school. On the surface, it seems just the sort of family environment that might put a child at a disadvantage. Yet Toure says she sits down with her son every night, even though she's in law school and has her own studies.

"Poor people want homework because they know that school is very important, and the only chance — the only possibility — they have to give their children a better life is if their children succeed at school," says Emmanuel Davidenkoff, editor-in-chief of L'Etudiant, a magazine and website devoted to French school and education.

An Educational Divide

Davidenkoff says the Socialist government doesn't seem to understand the concerns of the working and middle class and in the name of equality, got it all wrong.

President Francois Hollande argues that homework puts poor children at a disadvantage, but others argue the extra work is needed to help those students succeed. Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

President Francois Hollande argues that homework puts poor children at a disadvantage, but others argue the extra work is needed to help those students succeed.

Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

"Mostly, wealthy people don't want homework because when the kids are at home, they make sports or dance or music. They go to the museums, to the theater. So they have this access to culture, which is very important," he says. "In poor families, they don't have that, so the only link they have with culture and school is homework."

Elisabeth Zeboulon sits in her office over the playground. Today, she's the principal at a private, bilingual school in Paris, but she spent most of her career in French public schools. Zeboulon says the centralized French education system doesn't leave much room for trying different teaching methods.

"The kids are very different from one place to another, from one school to another, and we don't have much way of adapting," she says. "And whenever they start saying, 'Well in this place we could do this, in that place we could do that,' then you have a lot of people coming up and saying, 'Look, it's not equal.' "

Infusing Happiness

Cutting homework is just part of an effort aimed at making primary and secondary school a happier, more relaxed place for children. The school week will be lengthened — currently, French children have Wednesdays off — but the school day will be shortened. Kids get out so late here there's no time for extracurricular activities. Basically, French school is a grind, says Peter Gumbel, author of a scathing book on the education system in France.

"There's an enormous amount of pressure, and it's no fun whatsoever. There's no sport or very little sport, very little art, very little music. Kids don't have a good time at all," he says. "And it's not about building self-confidence and encouraging them to go out and discover the world. It's much more about, sit down and we'll fill your empty heads with our rather dull and old-fashioned knowledge."

There's another big reason the French government is making changing school policy a top priority, Gumbel says.

"The French are discovering — to their horror — that their performance internationally has been declining over the last 10 years. The French actually are performing [worse] than the Americans in reading and science," he says.

This is a huge shock, Gumbel says, to a country that long considered itself an education pioneer.

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