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French teachers sceptical about government plan to boost pay

French Education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem leaves the Elysée Palace in Paris, France, May 30, 2016.
French Education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem leaves the Elysée Palace in Paris, France, May 30, 2016. Reuters/Charles Platiau

France's Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem met several teachers' unions on Wednesday to present her plans to boost teachers' pay. She is proposing to spend one billion euros by 2020 to make teaching more competitive, especially for new recruits. But the proposals have received a lukewarm response. And the opposition has even accused the government of trying to bribe teachers before next year's election.

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A step in the right direction. This is the general feeling among unions after the education minister unveiled plans to boost their members' pay after a near 30-year freeze.

"It was absolutely necessary to raise teachers' salaries, they're lagging behind when you compare them with other OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries," Jean-Rémi Girard, the vice-president of SNALC, a right-leaning teachers' union told RFI.

"But this new boost won't enable teachers to catch up with their peers," he lamented.

French teachers are among the worst paid in Europe for the profession, and this is especially true for those working in primary education, explains Eric Charbonnier, an analyst at the OECD: "They earn around 24,000 euros per year, whereas they should be getting on average about 27,000 euros."

Teachers' salaries have a direct influence on recruitment. The lower the wage, the lower the appeal for new recruits, which is especially problematic in education priority zones or (ZEP), where dropout rates are high and the best teachers are needed.

But for some, money isn't the only issue. "Teachers have more problems than just the salary, we have too many students per class, and I think people will be more tempted to join the teaching profession once the conditions are improved, not just as far as salaries are concerned," Alix, an English teacher in Rhône-Alpes, south east France, told RFI.

Working conditions are conspicuously absent from the proposed reform. 

Education experts argue that this focus on money has so far failed to yield the desired results. Schools in ZEP areas for instance are allocated extra financial resources to reverse falling standards, but haven't turned around the dropout rate.

And, critics say the education minister hasn't actually revealed where she intends to find the extra one billion euros.

Christmas in May

If you asked the President of the French Senate, Gérard Larcher, he might reply 'from Father Christmas'. Larcher hit out at Najat Vallaud-Belkacem in French daily Le Monde on Wednesday, accusing her of using the one-billion investment plan as an electoral stunt to woo the Socialists' traditional voters.

"It's true that elections are coming up around the corner," Alix agrees, but wants to look beyond the politics.

"What I can tell as an English teacher is that when you teach a language, your main job is to make your students speak. But if you have 30 students in front of you during one hour, you're lucky if you get each student to speak one sentence. You cannot improve and progress in a language if you utter 3 sentences in a week!"

Behind Alix's frustration, is a sentiment that the Education minister is not listening to teachers' concerns. Not long ago they protested against measures to reform middle-schools, that consisted of reducing teaching in Latin and ancient Greek. A move that pushed one in three teachers to strike.

Strike action isn't on the cards here, but grievances remain.

Essentially, the government wants to reform the way how teachers are evaluated by replacing annual and quarterly assessments with just four meetings at the end of a forty-year period.

"This re-evaluation plan may increase pay, but it removes any incentive to excel in your work," says Cedric, who teaches in France's over-seas territories.

Evaluation is a sticky business

"Four meetings in a 40+ career is not enough," reckons Jean-Rémi Girard of the SNALC union.

"Everyone will advance at the same speed, whether they're good or not," regrets Cedric.

"Teachers that out-perform will not get promoted when they should but at arbitrary times during their career," agrees Alix.

The terms of evaluation are the sticking point. Right now a general inspector and the head master take turns in assessing teachers' performance. But in the new reform, no one has yet been chosen.

"Teachers want to be evaluated on how good they are, and the risk is that we end up with a system based on submission and not on merit," says Girard.

He's worried that staff will become puppets for the government: "They will be more concerned about pleasing the hierarchy and the minister than doing their job."

For now the government and unions have agreed to set up working groups to establish what constitutes objective criteria.

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