From Early Childhood to Preschool Education in France- Gilles Pétreault

In France, education for 0 to 6 years old children is fragmented and uncoordinated and hence the transition from early childhood arrangements to preschool settings at 3 years of age is a challenging step. Early Childhood Education (0-3 years) is mainly paid by parents supported by a complex family benefits system. Until the age of three, parents usually choose one of the three options: a creche or daycare centre, a registered childminder, or thirdly remaining with the family itself. 

Preschool (“école maternelle”) is free, mandatory from the age of three and exists all over France. Schoolteachers paid by the State is the main workforce. Municipalities have responsibility for the premises, the school assistants and out of school time activities. Out of school time activities are partly paid by families according to their income and include lunch time, the cost of the lunch itself and activity centres organized during the holidays. Two separate ministries are responsible for policies involving, for each of them, more than two million children and hundreds of thousands of professionals. 

Supporting these young children as their lives and learning context change is a main issue at this important point in the children’s development. A new Action Plan for Preschool by the Ministry of Education recommends initiatives for increasing and improving transition from early childhood settings to mandatory preschool settings at 3 years of age. 

Some transitional strategies have existed for a long time at the onset of preschool education, beyond the traditional short conversations when arriving in the morning. For example, the building of a strong relationship with parents, at the very beginning of their contact with the more formal preschool setting and the statutory education system, with information meetings for parents and personal interviews. Official recommendations for welcoming the younger than 3 years olds is particularly relevant for a large majority of children who have very little or no experience in a larger group. Mums or dads are encouraged to stay with their child in the room during the first weeks, participating in activities in small groups. Other strategies adapt the usual preschool arrangement, for example progressive entry to begin with a few children together, part-time attendance, and provision of a supervised space where children can choose to withdraw from the group when they feel the need. Joint training sessions for educators and assistants encourage and explain transitional arrangements and encourage best practice for a smooth transition to preschool. 

Similarly, coordinated activities and practices involving the Early Childhood sector with the Preschool sector should also prepare for preschool entry. However, there are strong challenges for professionals and even more for children. For example, premises are almost everywhere separate, children live in different areas and the relative rarity of nurseries only provide for 13% of the 0-3 years old as preschools enrol all children at 3 years, creating structural difficulties. Hence wide differences in workforce status and conditions combined with a lack of local coordination and the absence of a specific frame or finance present significant challenges to joint transition programmes which only the two ministries responsible can address.  

Despite official recommendations, few changes take place. Where local decision makers and stakeholders have a strong will and very good relations, people do succeed in organising training sessions for both nurseries and preschool staff which has a positive effect for smoothing transition. 

Educational continuity is particularly important for the 19% of toddlers fostered by childminders. They move from a very personalised situation to a large group organisation in a preschool setting. Recent advice from the Economic, Social and Environmental Council proposing a “Public Early Childhood Service” recommends building the childhood education sector on local authorities (municipalities coordinated with departments). Some programmes already exist, which group childminders, particularly in rural areas, and have the potential to create and develop functional links with preschool provision in the same area to establish effective transition for children. 

Finally, strategies to help transition to preschool are needed for the 64% of children educated in their families, where almost all parents and their children only become aware of the demands of the preschool setting when meeting the headteacher during enrolment or, for most of them, on the first day of the school year. Strategies to help transition could include increasing the existing but rare initiatives by Social Centres and changes to regulations to encourage parents and children to visit their future preschool before summer holidays, with good enough reception conditions. Local coordination to collect relevant information about families and children and initiate activities would be necessary. Existing initiatives and strategies for promoting smooth transition and educational continuity are to be welcomed and the huge amount of energy expended by some local stakeholders to improve transition is recognized and valued. However, to address this issue for all young children, there is a need for adapting structures and regulations, for developing shared transition programmes, including provision. It requires radical review and change through cooperation by the two ministries. If, to quote from an OECD report on this topic, the focus ought to be on “making schools ready for children, not children ready for school”, a lot of work, both in Early Childhood sector and in the Preschool sector, appears to lie ahead.

1- More statistics to be found in the following documents (in French): 

2-  Note de service du 10-1-2023, https://www.education.gouv.fr/bo/23/Hebdo2/MENE2300949N.htm . In 2021, 9,8 % of the 2 to 3 years old attend a preschool (cf. RERS, p. 67). A special program mainly implemented in priority education areas involves 17 % of the children. 

3- Cf. ONAPE, op. cit. pp. 46-47.

4-  Cf. Conseil économique, social et environnemental, Vers un service public d’accueil de la petite enfance, mars 2022, p. 39. https://www.lecese.fr/sites/default/files/pdf/Avis/2022/2022_04_sp_accueil_enfance.pdf

5-  « Relais petite enfance » (RPE), previously « Relais assistantes maternelles » (RAM).

6-

 Cf. OECD (2017), Starting Strong V. Transitions from Early Childhood Education and Care to Primary Education, OECD Publishing, Paris. 

https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/starting-strong-v_9789264276253-en#page16

 

Gilles Pétreault is currently vice-president of the OMEP-France, representative of the OMEP-World to UNESCO and Honorary National Education State Inspector. 

Previously he was Head of Departmental State Education Services and has experience as Head of an in-service training centre for teachers, as Education Inspector with various responsibilities and as schoolteacher, in several areas in France. 

Holder of a doctorate in French Literature, he worked in the field of French teaching and mastery of French language, Preschool Education and Elementary School in various subjects. He also engaged in studies in pupils’ academic careers and inclusion for children with special education needs. Other interest include school organization, teachers’ and education inspectors’ recruitment and training.

As an expert in Preschool Education, he both coordinated and participated in reports to the Minister of Education and contributed to the training of the Education inspectors. Representative of the Education Ministry to the OECD Early Childhood Education and Care Network for seven years, Gilles Pétreault was also involved in several international studies or projects (European Union programme for Improvement of Preschool Education in Serbia [IMPRES]; European Commission Workgroup; Eurydice Key data on early childhood and care; and the Unesco French National Commission).

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