France's education minister has sparked uproar by proposing to to cut summer holidays from eight to six weeks to prevent the country's children falling further behind in international league tables.
© Reuters
Vincent Peillon has further inflamed the teaching profession by announcing his intention to lop two weeks off France's long summer holidays
Paris - Reforming "le mammout" (mammoth) as France's huge, unwieldy, state education sector, is known, has been the bane of both Left and Right governments, with militant teachers' unions notoriously prepared to go on strike over even modest timetable changes.

Industrial action was matter of course last month when Vincent Peillon, education minister in President François Hollande's socialist government, announced he wanted to end the four-day week in primary schools to include a half day on Wednesday, which is currently totally off.

Now, he has further inflamed the teaching profession by announcing his intention to lop two weeks off France's long summer holidays.

French pupils currently spend among the longest daily number of hours in class in the world, while the number of days spent in school is among the lowest in all countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Primary school lessons start at 8.30am and finish at 4.30pm. Pupils cram an ambitious national curriculum into an average of just 144 days per year, compared to 190 in Britain and an OECD average of 187 days. German primary pupils spend 208 days annually in school.

"Unique to France, this extreme concentration in teaching time is unsuitable and harmful to learning. It is a source of fatigue and educational difficulties," Mr Peillon's ministry has insisted, pointing to medical studies.

The gruelling tempo has led to France losing ground in international league tables such as Progress in International Reading Literacy, in which it comes 29th out of 45 countries in the literacy of ten-year-olds compared to 11th for Britain.

Under the proposals, French primary pupils will see the number of days in school increase to 190 on average per year, with classes ending an hour earlier at 3.30pm. Children will stay in school an extra hour, not to follow classes, but to do their homework. The longer number of days will later be rolled out to secondary schools.

Teaching unions say the reform is a way of paying them less to do more and to bring in lower-paid helpers to oversee the extra days in school.

"We must be able of having six weeks of holiday. It's enough," Mr Peillon told BFM TV on Sunday.

Slicing a break that runs from early July to early September was not to the liking of Bernadette Groison, head of France's biggest teaching federation, FSU. She warned: "If you significantly extend teaching time, you'll have to be able to tell teachers they'll get something in exchange. Anyone can understand that no employee would accept his timetable being changed without looking at working conditions."

Didier Arino, head of tourism industry lobby group Pro Tourisme warned that concentrating the entire holiday's summer holidays into a shorter period would have "dramatic" economic consquences.

But Christian Forestier, who led a think tank on school reform under the previous Right-wing government, welcomed the idea. He said: "Nowhere on the planet do primary pupils have six or seven hours of class per day and only go to school 144 days a year like our little kids."

France's biggest parent's union, FCPE, also welcomed the proposal.