Teach on Wednesdays? C'est un scandale!

Teachers in France are on strike against a longer academic week that includes classes on Wednesdays – a controversy a bit puzzling to the Monitor's Paris bureau chief.

Claude Paris/AP
School teachers and parents of schoolchildren hold a banner reading "Change School, Yes, but not without us" as they demonstrate against changes to their children's school week in Marseille, southern France, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013.

“Just wait,” an American colleague and mother told me in Paris, when I told her of my plans for childcare this year.

“I don't need any,” I told her, thanks to the amazing all-day preschooling called maternelle that France offers its youngest. I felt particularly righteous about that declaration since France just began to send children to school on Wednesday mornings, after a no-Wednesday norm that dates back to the 19th century.

“But the strikes,” she said knowingly. “They happen All. The. Time.”

And indeed, two months into the school year, it's begun – and specifically over the issue of turning Wednesday into a school day. I picked up my daughter from maternelle yesterday and took note of a big piece of pink construction paper taped to the wooden door. “School closed tomorrow,” we were told in thick black marker. “Teacher's strike.”

French teachers are on the streets today – and children in the parks – fighting against a schedule that they say is exhausting to children, exhausting for teachers, and exhausting to after-school workers, precisely because of the fatigued state of the children they now must deal with. Parents complain that the extracurriculars on offer aren't adequate, or appropriate for certain ages, and that, in general, la rentree, or the return to the school year, has been chaos.

The strikes are not limited to today. On Tuesday, we got our daughter at 11:30 a.m., because the teaching assistants were on strike; According to Radio France International, 75 percent of Paris schools were affected by teacher-assistant strikes Tuesday.

On Wednesday, parents protested and some teachers went on strike. (It didn't affect our school, but I wasn't sure whether we'd need a Plan B until she was actually dropped off.)

And mayors in 55 towns have said they refuse to implement the reform by next school year, when all schools are obligated to be on the same schedule – as of today about a fifth of the nation's school children are in school Wednesday mornings.

The reform is intended to save France's school children from having their academic week crammed into four long, arduous school days, without after-school curriculars built in. With the reform and the introduction of half-day school on Wednesday, the learning day is shorter on Tuesdays and Fridays, with the option of free extracurriculars like basketball, or dance, or movement afterwards.

In prior decades, many students attended schools for a half day on Saturdays for catechism, but they always had Wednesdays off. It was the day they rested, or spent with stay-at-home parents, or took their piano lessons. But in 2008, Saturdays were scrapped – in part, I have been told, because of lobbying from the tourism industry. It was this year that Wednesday was added into the mix.

As an American, I am not sure I see the problem. The current schedule is pretty much what my school day looked like growing up in the public schools of Pittsburgh (except that Wednesday was a full day, of course, not a half day like here). I usually was home later anyway because I always played soccer or did theater or any number of after-school activities.

(And full disclosure, I currently pick up my daughter after half a day anyway, so all of this differentiation between what constitutes "the school day" and "the after-school day," whether it's confusing or too tiring, doesn't directly impact us.)

But it's been highly controversial here. A poll published in Le Monde showed that more than half of the French are against President François Hollande's school reform. In a poll by CSA for BFM-TV, 54 percent of respondents say the government should abandon the reform, while 22 percent are for it, and 24 percent say it should be delayed until the wrinkles can be ironed out.

So far the government has not backed down, but I might need to start rethinking my childcare plan – whether Wednesdays get scrapped, or discontent over the whole notion grows.

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