Non-state preschool education

An American in Paris crunches the numbers. Universal pre-K is a long tradition in France, and one that Non-state preschool education parents might envy.

In this series, an American in Paris pits the French welfare state against the U. Read all the entries in the series here. I started the New Year in Paris with a mission: to enroll my daughter in école maternelle, France’s universal preschool program. This required a visit to our local city hall.

As I walked across the park that sits between it and my apartment, I felt a little emotional—Sophia had just turned 2 in November, and now in just a few months she’d be headed off to school? But I had no second thoughts about sending her to maternelle in the fall. Though school isn’t mandatory in France until age 6, all 3-year-olds are guaranteed a place in maternelle, and over 95 percent of French 3-to-5-year-olds attend. It’s the one part of France’s educational system that everyone seems to agree is great. It’s also remarkably cost-efficient: France paid 12. 8 billion euros in 2007 to educate just over 2.

Universal preschool has become a hot topic in the U. Barack Obama to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to conservative Oklahoma legislators coming out in favor of some form of public pre-K education. France has been all over this for nearly two centuries. The first écoles maternelles began here in the 1830s, initially intended as a combination of child care and schooling for the children of poor families. Gradually they grew into a fundamental building block of the French education system. The three-year curriculum is designed to move kids from the free play of the early years toward the more structured world of elementary school. Much of maternelle focuses on language, and on achieving a level of fluency for all children regardless of background.

Dominique Fortier, a maternelle teacher in the Paris suburb of Asnières, sees this as a major equalizing force. Also, French schools are not explicitly funded by property taxes, as they are in many parts of the U. French 3-year-olds are expected to do many things by themselves: go to the bathroom, put on shoes, carry their lunch tray in the cafeteria. News and World Report ranking system for the maternelles in my neighborhood, so I’ll know which ones are definitively the best for my daughter. I feel both ashamed of this impulse and also frustrated that there’s no way to really find out.

I’m happy about this, because French maternelle classes are big—25 to 32 children, often with only one teacher. A strong emphasis is placed on children being autonome, or independent, and 3-year-olds must be able to do many things by themselves: go to the bathroom, put on shoes, carry their lunch tray in the cantine. The flip side of this enforced independence is also an explicit teaching of the concept la vie ensemble: learning to live with others. Some of this may be a function of class size, some of it part of a general philosophy that places less emphasis on the individual and their needs. In general, I like that kids in France are taught this kind of social awareness, but it can go too far. There’s not a lot of coloring outside the lines in France, both literally and figuratively. This hints at the one area where France seems to struggle: special education.