Embarking on a trip of discovery - at six

Personally Speaking `French children seem more confident about leaving home'
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M y niece, Catherine, has just set off with all her French classmates for a week 250 miles from home. She has been excited for months and left on the bus, without tears from any of the pupils. Her parents received a call from the school on the first night to say they had arrived safely at the pony camp. Catherine is six. She could have gone on the trip last year but her parents decided that she was too young. This year, she was determined to go.

Catherine's school trip is the norm in France and is known as the "Classe de decouverte" (the discovery class). Some children as young as four go on trips but the normal starting age is about eight. Each school has different policies but the programme, started in 1953, has been so popular that in 1982 the Minister of Education extended it to allow every child to take part at least once during primary school. If parents are unable to pay for the bus or train fare or room and board, financial assistance is available.

Discovery class is not just a holiday for the children. The trips are important milestones in growing up in France. School continues but they study, sleep and eat elsewhere. If the class goes to the country, it is called a "classe verte", or "green class". A trip to the seaside is a "classe de mer" but the most popular is the "classe de neige" or "ski class". Students from rural areas are treated to a glimpse of urban life in "classe de ville" or "city class". The children sleep up to six to a room, shower and eat together. They follow their normal strict French curriculum, not even missing one session of dictee (dictation) or maths. What is different is that the teacher adds lots of field trips to help the children understand the area. Catherine, for example, will have to care for the pony she rides at the camp. She will visit a farm and learn how cheese is made.

Foreigners who have children at French schools are sometimes hesitant to send their young children away for a week or longer. However, everyone I speak to says their children love these trips and have very fond memories of them. The teachers plan the trips exhaustively so that they can pack in as much as possible. Since the class uses the experience as a reference during the remainder of the year, children who stay at home are at a distinct disadvantage.

Children have always left home for periods of time in the UK but the whole involvement of and backing by the French schools and the education department is what makes the scheme so impressive. You can spot these groups of schoolchildren when they are visiting Paris, and see groups of children leaving from various railway stations, and they always seem to be having a good time.

I have not met one parent, foreign or French, who had anything but praise for the scheme. French children always seem more confident about leaving home because of this experience of going away with their school mates. They seem to be more mature in this respect, which is why I think, perhaps unfairly, that so many exchanges with French families do not work out. French parents and teenagers are probably not very sensitive to the tears of a fifteen-year-old away from home for the first time on an exchange - it's a difficult transition phase that they somehow manage better.

Should we be looking at sending our young children away at such an early age in the UK? When I first heard of the idea, I was quite shocked, feeling that children need to be with their families when they are so young. But I have been so impressed at how well organised these trips are that I have changed my mind. With the strong support of parents and schools, I think they are a good thing - although I am pleased my son will not be going on his first "discovery class" until he is eight and a halfn