The multiplicity of childcare options on offer to parents means that they can choose the arrangement which suits them best. Indeed, over the last twenty years, the range of childcare options has diversified. Concurrently, direct financial assistance to encourage childcare at home has greatly increased. The availability of care and such assistance are all the more necessary since there are more working women in France than in any other country in the European Union: 80% of women aged between 25 and 50 work, and 70% of them full time.
There are two forms of collective care facilities:
— the first cares for children from the age of 2½ months to 3 years, sometimes up to 6 years. This kind of care basically consists of childminding and early-learning activities, and is provided in crèches and day nurseries.
— the second, under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, is provided for children aged between 2 and 6 years in nursery schools.
Age-wise, there is some overlap of provision here, since in France it is compulsory only to attend school from the age of 6. Hence although pre-school children can be in the education system from the age of 2½, some remain outside it until they are 6.
Infants are usually cared for in the home by one of their parents. This is made possible by the existence of three kinds of parental leave:
— maternity leave (introduced in 1909, this has since undergone numerous changes): the mother receives 100% of her salary for a period of 6 weeks prior to the birth of her baby and for a further 10 weeks afterwards;
— paternity leave introduced in 2002: the father is given 11 days’ leave on full pay so that he, like the child’s mother, can spend time with his newborn baby during the first weeks of his/her life.
— parental leave introduced in 1997: this is available to parents who have been employees of a company for at least one year. The father and/or the mother can take a maximum of three years’ unpaid leave (full-time or part-time). At the end of this period of leave, their employer is obliged to take them back under the same terms as before.
After this initial period, parents of children aged from 2 months to 3 years (and in exceptional cases up to 6 years) have at their disposal State-subsidized individual or collective care. Of the 4.36 million children aged 6 years or younger, only the 300,000 to 350,000 cared for at home by parents, unregistered childminders or domestic staff are not in receipt of State-subsidized childcare.
Assistantes maternelles, often known as nourrices (childminders), look after in their own homes between one and three children, aged between 2½ months and 3 years. They can be independent or attached to a crèche. In order to practise, the childminder must be agréée par les services de la protection maternelle et infantile (registered by the local departmental mother and childcare services). They are registered for a period of five years. The parents are the direct employers and cannot pay the childminder less than the statutory minimum [2.25 x hourly minimum wage + holiday pay, etc.].
- Minicrèche: a crèche caring for no more than 20 children (25 with special permission).
This takes place in crèches and day nurseries. These establishments are either run by municipal councils, private organizations or voluntary bodies, or are set up by companies for their employees (see table 1). They are financed by those who manage them, parents and also Family Allowance Funds (caisses d’allocations familiales – CAF), which are responsible for paying out benefits to families and childcare establishments in each department.
Although there are no regulations governing the manner in which the children’s days are organized, it is compulsory for crèches, nurseries, etc. to draw up a “projet d’établissement” (prospectus). On display in its premises, this gives information about its facilities, staff/child ratio, early-learning activities and welfare provision, etc., as well as the care it offers children with disabilities or chronic illnesses. A decree of 1 August 2000 allows establishments which wish to do so to adapt their timetables to help families better reconcile family and working life, and has led to the emergence of so-called “multi-accueil” establishments which are open from 6.30 a.m. until 7.00 p.m. or even longer, offering parents an à la carte choice of care options tailored to their needs (day nursery, crèche, etc).
Their fees vary in accordance with different criteria: status of the crèche (run by the municipal council or a voluntary-sector organization, by parents or in a childminder’s home), household income and number of children. In August 2005, the parental contribution represented on average a quarter of the real price. Use of crèches is uneven across France. Commonly used in the Paris region, provision is still limited in rural areas. In 2005, there were almost 145 000 places estimated in France, with different systems:
— Crèches care for the children aged between 2½ months and 3 years of families living in the commune [the smallest administrative subdivision in France] or the children of the company’s employees. The staff are headed by a qualified nursery nurse who supervises the assistants and carers. The parents’ financial contribution varies according to the regions and their salaries. The Family Allowance Fund has proposed a scale ranging between 8% and 12% of the family’s income. These crèches vary in size, catering for between twenty and sixty children. They are run by local authorities or by voluntary organizations and are generally open from Monday to Friday between 7.30 a.m. and 7.00 p.m. Special crèches known as “crèches de garde” (“duty crèches”) exist for children who need to be looked after outside these hours. It should be stated that local authority crèches have few places: mothers generally pre-register for a place at the beginning of their pregnancy.
— Crèches parentales (crèches run by parents) are minicrèches (the number of children cannot exceed 25). These are run by parents and are subject to the same requirements as local authority crèches in terms of operational and safety standards. They cater for children from 2 months to 3 years. The parents both manage the crèches and look after the children. At least one parent is present at all times. Childcare specialists provide these parents with training and supervision. As in the case of local authority crèches, families may benefit from a tax reduction and the price they pay depends on the parents’ income and the scales set by the Family Allowance Fund. Once the child has reached his/her third birthday the family is no longer entitled to receive any crèche-based benefits.
— Crèches familiales (crèches in childminders’ homes) are a compromise between a crèche and a childminder. These crèches consist of a network of childminders (see above) who look after in their own homes one or more children aged between 2½ months and 3 years. These childminders are paid directly by the town council (with the cost being divided between the family, town council and Family Allowance Funds). Group activities (jardins d’enfants) are organized on a regular basis so that the children can get together for early-learning activities. In 2005, there were 62,000 places in crèches in childminders’ homes.
Private or public day nurseries cater for children from 2 to 6 years of age on a part-time or occasional basis. The staff consists of a nursery nurse, a nurse or a qualified carer and nursery assistants. The price is calculated according to parental income and the number of hours the child spends at the nursery. In 2005, there were 57 000 estiamted places in day nurseries.
Direct childcare benefits
At national level, a substantial amount of money is devoted to the care of young children: the Caisse nationale d’allocations familiales (CNAF – national family allowance fund) devoted more than EUR 5.5 billion to childcare in 1999. Not only has the range of childcare options been expanding, but the State also helped increase the number of children benefiting from childcare through the funds it allocated to the “Fonds d’investissement à la petite enfance” (“Investment Fund for Young Children”) – EUR 228 million in 2002. The grants distributed by this fund enable nurseries and crèches to offer more places, provided that disabled children also benefit.
— Aide familiale pour l’emploi d’une assistante maternelle agréée (AFEAMA – family allowance for the employment of a registered childminder. Allocated by the Family Allowance Fund, this unmeanstested benefit is paid directly to families. The recipients’ average monthly income is EUR 2,644.
— Allocation parentale d’éducation (APE – parental education and upbringing allowance). It gives financial assistance to parents who have previously worked but have decided to stay at home to care for their children.
— Allocation de garde d’enfants à domicile (AGED – allowance for looking after children at home): this provides help towards the cost of employing someone at home who is responsible, amongst other things, for looking after the children.
Nursery schools have always been one of the most original aspects of the French educational system. They date back to the eighteenth century when a French Lutheran pastor, Jean Frédéric Oberlin, struck by the poverty and degradation of children in rural areas of the Vosges, opened at his own expense “écoles à tricoter” (“knitting schools”). Oberlin attempted to teach young children morality, good habits, and scriptural stories. He prepared children for school and taught older children to sew and knit. Subsequently, the early 1800s saw the opening of “salles d’asile” (places of refuge). They looked after the children of poor families, girls and boys, aged between 2 and 7, while their parents worked. From 1860 onwards, the “nursery schools” were recognized as childcare institutions of a social and charitable nature, and very quickly began to develop an educational and pedagogical dimension. At the beginning of the twentieth century, nursery school pupils still came mainly from the poorer parts of towns. From 1945, pupil numbers grew rapidly, with nursery schools taking children from all social strata.
Today, almost 100% of 3-6 year olds (age at which compulsory schooling starts in France) and almost 35% of two-year olds attend nursery school, i.e. nearly 1.8 million children. The majority of two-year olds in nursery schools come from the most disadvantaged areas. Children normally start primary school at 6, but some can be admitted from the age of 5.
The building, equipment, maintenance and running of nursery schools are the responsibility of the communes, which also supply the ancillary staff. Although nursery school attendance is optional, the schools are an integral part of the educational system. Public nursery schools are secular and charge no fees. Only 15% of children between 2 and 6 years of age attend private schools. Their organization is governed by regulations which are for the most part the same as those for primary schools.
Class (homeroom) teachers are primary school teachers who are “generalists”, not specializing in any one subject. They are paid by the State and assisted by staff recruited and paid by the commune.
Since they are usually the first place of education for children outside the home, nursery schools teach children to socialize by helping them to build relationships with others (both children and adults) and then so that they can achieve the greatest possible success in their school careers.
Nursery schools in France have three classes for the different age groups. The timetable is not regulated as at primary school: it respects children’s needs and biological rhythms. Their teaching is essentially based on play and divided into five main areas of activity:
— mastering language. Mastering language (spoken, written, pictures and sounds) is the precondition for all learning. Nursery school is therefore the school not just of words, of communication, but also of awareness of how language functions. Nursery school also contributes to the learning of foreign or regional languages: in the top class, it prepares children to learn a new language;
— living together. Every child is taught how to share activities and space with others, to discover the rules of living in society and form relationships with both adults and their peers. Development of children’s full potential forms their character and allows them progressively to become independent;
— moving and expressing themselves with their bodies. Nursery school helps children develop their sensory and motor skills. By offering them the possibility of exploring increasingly complex environments and activities (games of skill, rhythm, dance, etc.) the teacher helps the children develop skills as they grow;
— discovering the world. Teachers introduce pupils to the world and the arts through access to objects, living organisms, natural and human environments. They help the children talk about their experiences and share them with others;
— imagining, feeling, creating. Artistic activities – painting, modelling, photography, singing, instrumental music, etc. – give children contact with different kinds of materials, introduce them to different techniques and develop their creative imagination.
Nursery school teachers also play an important role in the screening for and prevention of disabilities, notably dysphasia (difficulties with the spoken language) and dyslexia (difficulties with the written language). The aim is to spot potential problems, use every means to resolve them and enlist the cooperation of other children’s services.