The truancy officer is back. A couple of weeks ago, the French Education Minister, Xavier Darcos, announced of 5000 new truancy « mediators).

Forget the image of a frock-coated, top-hatted Victorian style « child catcher, » the modern « truancy officers » are young, happy snappy, baseball cap-wearing types, whose job i twill be to « reason » with the kids and liaise between parents, teachers, school authorities and the truants themselves, to undertsand why kids are « bunking off » school.

From primary through to secondary (high school) level, there are just over 10 million kids in French state schools with another 2 million in private schools. Government stistics show that 2% of them regularly « miss school » or play truant. For a kid to be defined as a truant, he or she has to miss four half days of the school in one calendar month. Parents are notified by letter if their kids are missing school.

Unlike in Britian, where repeated truancy of their offspring can land the parents in prison, in France there doesn’t appear to be national policy on « punishing » parents. Some local education authorities, or even individual schools, will liaise with social services and see to it that parents get welfare benefits docked or stopped corresponding to the time that their kids have been missing school. In other establishments, the procedure is to suspend the kids from school for the time that they have been missing, this however is a last resort. In most cases, parents and kids alike will get three written warnings before any « drastic » action is taken.

Rather than miss a whole day of school, it is common practise for kids to « bunk off » lessons they don’t like. In French secondary schools (Lycées) it is relatively easy to « bunk off ». kids have the right to come and go as they please, and because of timetabling difficulties, it is common for pupils to have gaps in their lessons. An hour here, two hours there – time which is their own, in which they generally leave the school to go to a local café, or sit around in a local shopping mall, or quite simply go home. French schools are porous. In the larger eestablishments, there may be as many as 2000 pupils. It is therefore difficult to control individual comings and goings. However, the register is taken at the start of each lesson, so absences are noted, but little is done to make sure that the puils are actually in class and not trailing round nearby streets or idling around the local shopping mall.

And why do kids play truant or miss lessons ? Perhaps because they are just fed up with school. In France, schools are places that dispense knowledge, they are buildings where learning happens. Schools are definitely not « communities » as they are in the British or American sense. There are very few lunchtie or after school clubs in schools, mind you there are many establishments, where a common lunchbreak for the whole school still exists – in manyu schools now, the canteen will be open from 11am to 2pm, and students will take lunch on « roll-in, roll-out » basis. It is not uncommon for many students to have lessons from 11 til 2 and have no lunch at all.

In this very collective society, it is surprising that there are few, if any, extracurricular activites within the school day and on school premises that might encourage kids to stay withon their particular establishments and even forge links with their schools that are more than simply educational. In France school is just a collection of buildings where you go to do something you don’t especially like.

It has to be said that teachers are not over encouraged to do anything other than teach (which is already hard enough). There are occasional teachers who may start some kind of club, but they never get any « consideration » for it. Promotion on length of service rather than merit. From personal experience, I know that teacchers who do make some sort of effort to start a club, earn the mistrust of other colleagues. Some are even openly hostile to such initiatives.

Teachers who organise clubs, do it in their own time and unpaid. Other teachers do not want this to become the norm. In French secondary schools, teachers come to school for the hours they teach. They are not obliged to stay in the establishment for a required number of hours. You go in, you teach and you go home. A full time teaching post is eighteen contact hours. All preparation is done at home.

Schools in general are rarely conduscive to constructive work of any kind. The kids certainly don’t want to be there, and the teachers, don’t want to stay behind and prepare lessons in uncomforable staff rooms that are more like station booking halls than somewhere you might want to relax between lessons. You miht think it is different from one school to another – not really, most of the current schools are establishments hat were all built to one standardised design back in the late sixties. From Calais to Calvi – your school will always look the same

From primary through to secondary level, French schools are mere education factories.

Hopefully, those 5000 new truancy officers might be encouraged to start up activities in school that might turn these education factories into what the French call "lieux de vie" or places of life. School is about education, education is about learning life and they say that schooldays are the happiest of our lives.