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Teachers wage war against 'modernisation' of French school system

Protesters hold a banner reading "Against the Blanquer bill; For a real ambition for school" during a demo on 4 April, 2019, in Paris.
Protesters hold a banner reading "Against the Blanquer bill; For a real ambition for school" during a demo on 4 April, 2019, in Paris. FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP

French teachers are set for more strikes after the Easter holidays in defiance of the so-called “Blanquer law” – a modernisation of the national school system designed by Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer to make education less elitist, but which critics say will worsen conditions and upend the standardised system that France has long held dear.

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One of the biggest education shakeups since school became compulsory and free in the 19th century revolves around l'école de la confiance – bringing trust back into schools. “From kindergarten to university, we’re changing everything,” President Emmanuel Macron has said.

With major reforms to high schools (lycées) and the baccalaureate exam already pushed through parliament, this new law restructures the system from nursery through to middle school. The changes will ensure all pupils are given the same opportunities, regardless of a child’s social class or background.

Classes will be smaller; academic results will be better; the study of foreign and classical languages – especially Latin and Greek – will be favoured; and teachers will be encouraged to work together on topics across different themes in interdisciplinary classes (the traditional French model in middle school is one teacher, one subject). Schools can even take charge of setting part of the curriculum themselves.

Both French and European flags will be hung in all classrooms – where mobile phones will be banned – and all children will need to learn the words to the Marseillaise, the French national anthem.

Teachers are worried about the law’s requirement that they be 'exemplary' models for pupils - arguing it threatens freedom of expression.

Blanquer himself has boasted the reforms will mark the biggest boost to social justice he’s ever seen – but teachers and parents aren’t convinced, and they’re persisting with country-wide strikes. In a joint statement, seven unions said the Blanquer law would "radically upset" the functioning of schools.

Education 'mixed up in politics'

“We need a national education framework that is supported more by research into learning methods – and less by politics,” says Francette Popineau, general secretary of SNUIPP, the main French union supporting primary school teachers.

“Today the two are being confused. Politicians are getting involved in pedagogy and we’re seeing the limits of this – because being a good minister does not mean you’ll make a good teacher.”

Among the most contentious measures is the grouping of nursery schools (for ages 3 to 6), primary schools (ages 7 to 10) and middle schools (ages 11 to 15) under a single administrative entity to create "public institutions of fundamental knowledge", or EPSFs – which are to be run by the principal of the middle school in question.

Unions worry the loss of head teachers at nursery and primary schools will damage the close relationship these schools have with parents. Add to that the fear that some nursery and primary schools will be forced to close in rural communities, requiring children to travel out of their local area to get to school.

Both French and European flags will be hung in all classrooms – where mobile phones will be banned – and all children will need to learn the words to the Marseillaise, the French national anthem.

“We need an education policy that helps the poorest families and those furthest away from schools,” says Popineau. “It’s extremely important to have schools that are inclusive, but this law does not offer any solutions for ensuring that.”

Teachers must be 'exemplary'

Teachers are also worried about the law’s requirement that they be "exemplary" models for pupils, arguing it threatens freedom of expression and could expose them to disciplinary action. Then there’s the provision that allows trainee teachers to step into the role of their fully qualified counterparts.

Renaud Carpy of the parents’ advocacy group FCPE, the Fédération des Conseils de Parents d’Elève, says this is particularly worrying. “The law will allow students in their fourth year of university – who have not been trained and who have not sat an exam to become a teacher – to replace teachers in schools for up to eight hours per week,” he says.

“This is a huge concern because already there aren’t enough fully trained teachers, and we’re having trouble replacing those who are sick. This is just an easy money-saving measure for the government because the trainee teachers will of course be paid much less.”

French school teachers, from the "Stylos Rouges" (Red Pens) mouvement, demonstrate against French Education minister Blanquer's law as part of a protest against the French government's reforms in Paris, March 19, 2019.
French school teachers, from the "Stylos Rouges" (Red Pens) mouvement, demonstrate against French Education minister Blanquer's law as part of a protest against the French government's reforms in Paris, March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Compulsory schooling for 3-year-olds

Under the reform, nursery school will become compulsory for all children from age three. Given that 98 percent of 3-year-olds in France already go to school, the law won’t make much difference in terms of attendance. However it will mean that private nursery schools which follow the French curriculum and are under contract will suddenly be entitled to state funding – another sore point for protesters.

“This measure will ensure private schools are gifted a lot of money because the Debré law, voted in 1959, says the government has to pay the salaries of teachers and classroom assistants in private schools,” says Carpy.

And the SNUIPP estimates the extra cost for already cash-strapped towns, once the Blanquer law is passed, will be as high as 150 million euros per year. “Making nursery school mandatory means that more private nursery schools will open, soliciting more financing from the towns,” says Popineau.

“The state says it will compensate the towns, but the math has not been done. We’re worried that private schools will suck the money out of public schools, because the budget won’t be flexible enough – and we’ll therefore see a degradation in the quality of our public schools.”

So far, opposition to the Blanquer law has been in the form of street protests, teacher walk-outs and parents “occupying” schools – with some being forced to close completely following random école morte days during which teachers and pupils stay home. The next national call to action by French unions is set for 9 May.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.
French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. Bertrand GUAY / AFP

While concessions have been made to placate the Yellow Vests – who complain of a lack of public services in rural areas – the government appears intent on pushing through its changes to education, a sector that President Macron has put at the heart of France’s economic transformation. Education, he says, is the “struggle of our century”.

On the other side, Popineau is adamant the strikes will continue until Blanquer steps up consultations with teachers and agrees to make sufficient concessions. “The government really needs to listen, to hear and to answer the concerns of schools,” she says. “This law invents new problems without responding to existing difficulties, which are left unresolved.

“Our schools rely heavily on teachers who are highly motivated and who give their all to ensure things work well – but who are unfortunately feeling more and more alone.”

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