Children Age 3 Must Go to School, French President Macron Says

Children in France will now be obligated to begin school at the age of three instead of six, French President Emmanuel Macron announced Tuesday, as part of the leader's plan to reform the country's education system. The changes will go into effect in September 2019.

More than 97 percent of French children are already in school by age three, so the new policy won't represent a major change for most families. But the policy is meant to ensure that children from low-income families don't start their education at a disadvantage because they were enrolled in school later than others. Roughly 20,000 or 30,000 children in France start going to school after the age of three.

Macron said the new policy will help fight inequality both in mainland France and in overseas territories. In France's overseas territories, around 70 percent of three-year-olds are estimated to have started school. In Paris, the percentage is also slightly lower than the national average.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer (R) speak to pre-school children as they visit the Emelie pre-school in Paris on March 27, 2018. French President Emmanuel Macron announced on March 27 that school will become obligatory for all children from age three, instead of six, as part of his plans to shake up the education system. Christophe Ena/AFP/Getty Images

France has upheld social equality as one of the hallmarks of its education system, and the schools are free for all children. Kindergarten in France, meanwhile, has traditionally included an academic curriculum of writing, numeracy and occasionally foreign language instruction.

"Since its establishment in 1886, the French educational system has remained a stable, virtually unchanging public institution. Grounded in the principles of universalism, uniformity, and equality of opportunity, the educational system embodies the virtues of French republicanism," wrote Paola Mattei, a university lecturer in comparative social policy at St Antony's College, for the London School of Economics.

"The purpose of the French system and its policies is to enable pupils to overcome inherited disadvantage and poverty through the means of a state-based education," Mattei added.

The country didn't begin allowing 3-year-olds to enroll until 1989, however.