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How Young Is Too Young to Go to School?

November 30, 2017
Sarah Carr
Slate Magazine

PARIS—Abdelali Kerrach has eagerly awaited the day his younger daughter can start school since just about the day she was born. That’s because he wants her to get a strong—and notably early—start to her education at École Albert Camus, a small, friendly building near his home in the Parisian suburb of Trappes.

A few years ago, Kerrach, a Moroccan immigrant, enrolled his older daughter there as a 2-year-old. Kerrach now credits that early beginning with helping the girl become a stronger, more disciplined student as she progresses through her “école maternelle,” as school is known for children ages 6 and younger in France.

“I’m afraid of her not succeeding in school,” said Kerrach, of his older daughter; he adds that his wife speaks Moroccan Arabic, not French, to the girls at home. (Like most of the people interviewed for this article, Kerrach spoke to me in French, through a translator.) An early start is “a real answer to the question of school success,” particularly for families where French is not the first language, Kerrach added.

In a growing number of communities across France, officials agree. In recent years, the country has decided that boosting the number of 2-year-olds enrolled in école maternelle—with a particular eye toward struggling families who live in the equivalent of U.S. public housing or come from immigrant communities—is one of the surest paths to promoting educational equity. In France, nearly all youngsters already start school at the age of 3, so the latest shift is really about moving up the starting line by a year for the kids who need it the most. “We prefer to give an advantage to the most deprived children,” said Gilles Pétreault, an expert in early childhood education whose official title is general inspector of state education for the France Ministry of National Education.

Since 2012, when the government exhorted more écoles maternelles to open their doors to 2-year-olds, the rate of participation in France’s “priority education networks”—networks of schools that serve heavily low-income, immigrant communities that are targeted for extra social support—has steadily risen. Half of the country’s 96 mainland “departments”—geographic regions akin to counties or school districts—have reached the goal of enrolling 30 percent of 2-year-olds from the priority networks. (The government does not have comparison figures from 2012 to show the precise rate of growth.)

In the United States, by contrast, the percentage of 2-year-olds enrolled in educationally focused preschool programs is negligible, and about a third ofAmerican 3-year-olds attend such programs (nearly 100 percent of French 3-year-olds do).