Education & Family

Toddlers 'cry for a month in French nurseries'

French classroom
Image caption Mr Leitch said tennis balls were attached to chairs to limit the noise

A nursery workers' leader has unleashed a stinging attack on France's more formal early years education system which has been praised by a minister.

Pre-School Learning Alliance chief Neil Leitch described how chairs had been fitted with tennis balls to stop fidgeting toddlers sandwiched into desks from making a noise.

He also said many children "cry for a month" after joining such nurseries.

Childcare minister Liz Truss has praised the teacher-led French model.

And she suggested that more nursery sessions, where two and three-year-olds experience a more formalised approach with teachers leading the learning, could be adopted in England.

'Fidgeting'

She also criticised what she described as "chaotic settings" where children were allowed to run wild.

Mrs Truss told early years managers that they need not feel obliged to run their nurseries in such a way that children can go in and out of doors, choosing the activities that they want to engage in, as is the case in the vast majority of settings.

But Mr Leitch told his organisation's conference in Birmingham:

"Well I went to France, and I saw 25 children sit around tables, fidgeting so much that staff had fitted tennis balls to the legs of the chairs to stop any noise. I switched off from observing the teacher and watched the effects of the constant teacher-led activity on the children.

"I watched them sit in their chairs and twiddle their fingers and then they would start playing with their clothes. As the time went on the little boys began prodding each other as their attention waned.

"Three-year-olds that had times allocated in the day to use the toilet and three-year-olds that could be in the class from 08.00 to 12.30 with a 15-minute play break, and when they did go outside, no bikes, no balls, no sandpit - nothing.

"But then I guess they were simply relieved to breathe fresh air."

'I was captivated'

He added that the government had not passed on French nursery staff's concerns about "countless children that cry for a month when they join the class in September".

Mr Leitch said he felt uncomfortable criticising another country's childcare system, but he "could not stand by and be lectured on how awful we are in England compared to our French neighbours".

He added: "Because given what's best for the child, for me there is no comparison."

When Mrs Truss made the comments in April, she said of the French model: "There is a strong focus on structured learning, led by a qualified professional. I saw a teacher lead eight two-year-olds in putting together a series of plastic discs for a good 20 minutes. I was captivated - and so were they."

The Department for Education followed up the minister's comments, saying it was a "myth" that free-flow play was compulsory, adding that there was no reason why structured teacher sessions could not also be the norm.

'Numbers'

It added it was important for parents to have a choice of different approaches in early years settings - so they could choose what worked best for their child.

The Department is yet to respond to the comments in Mr Leitch's speech.

But his speech comes just days after the plan to increase the number of children qualified nursery staff could look after, was dropped by the government.

Mr Leitch said the higher ratios per staff member that French nurseries adopt were unpopular with staff there.

He said: "I spoke with four teachers separately and when asked what would they change about the French system... every single one said ratios. They could not cope with numbers."

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