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The French government is trying to remodel the school system

This is a guest post by Cyril Rolling

Education was one of the most important fields Francois Hollande, the French President, wanted to reform when he entered office. Vincent Peillon, Minister for Education, has already changed some fundamental rules. And he is still trying to convince people who are currently opposing him.

Vincent Peillon is a former teacher. He graduated from La Sorbonne – a Parisian University – where he studied philosophy. Many years later, and after some political adventures, he worked for the French National Centre for Scientific Reseach (CNRS) on secularism and republican philosophy. There he had the opportunity  to meet many professors working for French grandes écoles, that is to say for higher education establishments outside the mainstream framework of the public universities system.

The students are chosen on the results of an entrance examination. And to sit for these competitive examinations, pupils have to prepare by studying in a preparatory class for two years after Baccalaureate. In December, Peillon claimed that he planned to modify the preparatory class teachers’ status. To summarise, he wanted professors to devote more time to their classes by giving up some hours they currently dedicate to research. The project has now been shelved because of demonstrations led by well known preparatory classes but it can also be explained by the pressure that was most definitely applied on the Minister by lobbyists and former workmates.

However, Peillon has managed to implement some educational reforms affecting younger pupils and their teachers. French pupils under 11 years old now have lessons 5 days a week (previously they only attended 4 days a week) but with the same number of hours overall.  The aim is to institutionalize new workshops offering out-of-school activities within school but organised by external professionals. The Government believes this innovation avoids these activities being reserved for pupils whose parents can pay for them. It’s more a political decision than a demand addressed by teachers who didn’t – and still don’t – consider this reform as something necessary.

Many parents’ associations deplore the new organisation. They denounce the fact that pupils are no longer to be led by teachers during the hours now removed from the school day. Concerning the younger ones, parents are concerned because they are now more dependent on child-care centre services. It is a major worry, particularly since, according to a study published in 2012 by the National Union of Family Association, France needs 400 000 more nursery places. Teachers’ associations also oppose the Government action.

The next start of the school year, in September 2014, will be a major event as all schools have to adopt this new routine when only about 22% of pupils are already concerned: the majority of mayors decide not to apply the reform straightaway taking advantage of the option offered by the law to postpone it to September 2014. Currently only 22% of pupils are following the new regime, and the start of the next school year, in September 2014, will prove a challenging time for many teachers and parents.

In my opinion, it is not a necessity to reform our school system right now.  It will cost a great deal and we are now supposed to reduce public spending. It seems more opportune to pay attention to the French economy, to cure it, and then to reform other fields. With regard to the school system, teachers’ skills need attention more urgently than the way we organize school days. Nowadays there is a real lack of students who want to become a teacher. It’s easier to pass the exam since there are fewer candidates and more jobs.

In my opinion the major reason why students don’t want to become teachers is that this is now a devalued job in France. In the past, French teachers were seen as emblematic characters. My grandfather told me “when I was young, there were 3 important local persons: the mayor, the priest and my teacher”. One century ago, Republican used teachers and schools to fight the old royalist residues. They succeeded. But today teachers are no longer seen as role models.

HP admin adds: The issue of loss of professionalism and authority is also perhaps relevant within a UK context, and readers may wish to compare some of the French initiatives with recent moves in the UK, such as the Labour suggestion that state school teachers should be licensed. Those with an interest in HE might find this article describing the UK’s ‘broken academic system’ of interest.