As part of the reform of the Pact for Excellence in Teaching, all the learning content for children from the first year of pre-primary education to the third year of secondary education has been reviewed to define a new common core based on eight areas of learning, and knowledge and skills adapted to the 21st century, gradually replacing the core skills that had been used since 1997.
One of the key aims in strengthening the quality of pre-primary education through the reform of the pact was to provide pre-primary education with a common and compulsory learning framework for all children. Since the start of the school year in September 2020, a new guide for pre-primary education has been in use, the Initial Skills Reference Guide. It sets out the skills that each child should have acquired at the end of a common pathway in pre-primary education. This reference guide applies to all 3 years of the pre-primary stage and is binding on all schools providing pre-primary education.
The Initial Skills Reference Guide was designed by a group made up of representatives of the General Inspectorate Service, educational advisers of the organising authorities, members of school leadership and teaching staff, representatives of the Directorate-General for the Steering of the Education System and academic experts.
It is worth noting that, in the French Community, the reference frameworks are adopted by Parliament and, as such, constitute official contracts with society: they specify what society considers everyone should learn at the various stages of schooling. Curricula, on the other hand, are the responsibility of the organising authorities. They must be in line with the reference guides and must be approved by the government. The curricula deal with teaching methods, which are defined autonomously by the organising authorities. Provided that the requirements of the Childcare Quality Code regarding the timetables and school days are respected, each organising authority has the freedom to arrange its own timetable and, subject to approval by the government with a view to ensuring a uniform level of studies, to draw up its own programmes. Checks on the level of studies include, in particular, verification that they are in accordance with the reference guides.
Since 2019, a new means of governance of the education system has been in place, under which each school is required to draw up a steering plan. This is drawn up by the educational team, based on a collective agreement, and with a view to contributing to the improvement of seven key indicators in terms of the quality of the education system (children’s results, reduction in the number of children repeating grades, school environment, etc.). At the end of a discussion process between the school and the General Administration of Education, the steering plan proposed by the school becomes the school’s contract of objectives for a period of 6 years. The contract of objectives specifies the school’s key objectives and the priority actions it intends to implement. It is evaluated each year by the school and is subject to an intermediate evaluation by the General Administration of Education after 3 years.
Pre-primary classes are included in this process and some of a school’s objectives and actions may be particularly relevant to them.
Every school also has a school plan that presents the educational and pedagogical priorities of the educational team.
Areas of learning and development
The priority of the Initial Skills Reference Guide is the psychomotor, intellectual, artistic, social and emotional development of the child. It sets out, in detail, learning objectives in certain areas, namely :
- the development of autonomy, creativity and thinking ;
- mastery of the school language and culture ;
- approach to reading and various areas of artistic learning ;
- tools for experimenting, structuring, categorising and exploring the world.
The guide defines ‘what’ and ‘when’ to learn in pre-primary education in the seven areas of the common core. It presents, in a progressive manner, without hierarchical classification, the various components relevant to this stage of education, while avoiding referring to a specific age group. Indeed, pre-primary education must respect the stages of the child’s overall development. It is therefore undesirable to subject children to formal learning too early. A progression is presented, but without specifically referring to any particular age group.
One of the areas of learning is that of familiarising the child with their status as a pupil and with school culture, a process that will vary depending on the sociocultural background of the family, its degree of congruity with school rules and the child’s prior attendance in a childcare setting. This is a key issue in preventing the transformation of social inequalities into educational inequalities.
Within the context of the new reference guides, foreign language learning is being strengthened. Since September 2020, children in pre-primary education have one period per week of ‘language awareness’. This period aims to introduce children to the diversity of languages. Therefore, it is not limited to the languages traditionally taught in schools in the French Community. In addition to its linguistic dimension, language awareness also aims to introduce children to other cultures and to contribute to building a more tolerant and open society.
Although the pedagogical approaches are the responsibility of the organising authorities, the Initial Skills Reference Guide sets out a number of methodological recommendations aimed at the target audience for this legal document. The importance of play as an essential learning method for the child’s development is highlighted. Play activities designed, prepared and supervised by the teacher promote interest, active engagement, intrinsic motivation, autonomy and attention in learners. The teacher thus encourages exploration, stimulates overall development and provides a meaningful context for learning. Furthermore, for play to contribute to learning, it is essential that the teacher helps the children to become aware of and structure the knowledge and skills being built.
The learning contexts must also be based on the methods that the child practises naturally: experimentation, training and imitation as modes of appropriation and memorisation, as well as questioning in the context of problem-solving.
Psychomotor skills and the relationship to the body as well as artistic and cultural activities are also essential for the development of the child, as they are the basis for action and expression and for the development of creativity and imagination.
Learning needs that are more directly related to the intellectual development of the child should also be given priority. The development of the first tools for experimentation, structuring and categorisation, the exploration of the natural world and gaining an understanding of relationships involving time and space are considered important. In this context, several facilities are set up in learning environments to focus on different cognitive areas. These include the library, which allows the children to work on oral and written language; the mathematics corner, where the child, by manipulating appropriate materials, receives an education in the field of numbers, operators, fractions, etc.; and the sciences corner, where children can carry out experiments and observe the lives of plants or certain animals.
It is also recommended that schools consider the possibility of relevant use of digital tools, in particular with a view to providing more personalised approaches capable of enabling children to develop a wide range of skills.
The diversity of learning offered in an interdisciplinary manner from the start of pre-primary education aims to provide a solid basis for subsequent learning.
Since the start of the 2020 school year, the document Language Awareness – Progress markers and teaching resources from the first pre-primary year to the second primary school year (Éveil aux Langues – Balises de progression et ressources pédagogiques de M1 à P2) has provided teachers with help in implementing language learning. The document includes a learning path, teaching methods and teaching resources, as well as several links to websites containing activities suitable for children of various ages and with different interests.
For children aged 2.5–5 years, the Initial Skills Reference Guide specifies the objectives and benchmarks relating to the stages of the child’s development, which makes it possible to identify individual and collective needs. Positive evaluation is based on careful observation during which the teacher assesses the child’s overall development by seeking to identify his or her progress; the teacher keeps track of these observations.
Particular attention is paid to the positive diagnostic approach, as prescribed, for example, in the ‘Décolâge!’ project, which aims to highlight children’s strengths (without hiding their weaknesses) in order to establish a positive learning environment in which children gain self-confidence, and which is intended to promote children’s success.
Since the decree of 14 July 2015, making children repeat the third year of pre-primary education is still possible, but only for exceptional reasons and taking into account the opinion of the headteacher and the psycho-medical-social centre. The educational team is required to implement differentiation practices and formative assessment throughout the core curriculum in order to enable children to progress at their own pace in the various learning areas, starting in pre-primary education.
In order to support the success of all children, the new core curriculum provides, for children with persistent difficulties, for the implementation of differentiated and personalised support measures, the implementation and monitoring of which must be carried out using a specific tool for each child: the ‘pupil accompaniment file’ (‘dossier d’accompagnement de l’élève’).
Transition to primary school
The Initial Skills Reference Guide aims to ensure a smooth transition between pre-primary and primary education. The new reference guides have established good coordination between the pre-primary and primary levels.
More generally, the current reform aimed at strengthening the quality of pre-primary education is giving in-depth consideration to the transitions both between childcare settings and pre-primary education and between pre-primary and primary education.
Furthermore, it should be remembered that schools delivering pre-primary and primary education specify, in the school plan, the methods they implement to facilitate the transition between pre-primary and primary education.