France

French president tells ministers to support controversial education reform

French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, 14 April 2015
French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, 14 April 2015 Reuters/Charles Platiau

French President Francois Hollande has called for ministers "across government" to support the reforms to middle schools proposed by Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

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The reform project aims to correct inequality in the system, but critics say it is risky and will ultimately dumb down students' education.

Hollande's call for unity among ministers Wednesday comes amid discord over the reform within his own party.

Several teachers' unions calling for a strike on 19 May have found support in former Socialist prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, also a former German language professor. He has called for partial rewriting of some texts in the reform package.

Meanwhile, French ministers opposed to the reform, which would include starting a second foreign language earlier, have requested a hearing by a national association defending Latin and Greek language education.

Vallaud-Belkacem originally proposed the removal of Latin and Greek languages to be replaced with one of eight interdisciplinary practical lessons, arguing that only 20 per cent of students in their fifth year   around age 12   opt for Latin. The department has since made concessions, adding "supplementary education" hours for the languages.

"Given the concerns of Latin and Greek teachers as well as parents, it is essential that this association that promotes the ancient languages in public schools, from primary school to higher education, are interviewed by deputies," the group of ministers, led by MP Annie Genevard from the UMP party, wrote Wednesday in a letter to the president of the National Assembly's education committee, Patrick Bloche.

Proposals of the controversial reform include bringing compulsory lessons in an extra foreign language forward by one year, to age 12; extending lunch breaks from one hour to 90 minutes; and giving middle schools, known as colleges, greater autonomy over schedules. It would also put an increased focus on smaller work groups.

The proposed reforms will go ahead at the beginning of the 2016 school year if approved by parliament.

Vallaud-Belkacem has said the reforms are needed because students are “bored” and that education officials need to “reawaken their appetite". She also argues that the current system has an elitist design that, while offering better classes for distinguished students, does not provide all students with the same education.

Critics say the move to add an extra foreign language will take time away from learning their first foreign language, and will also reduce time for bilingual classes key to language proficiency.

Vallaud-Belkacem says that because bilingual classes are not available in schools throughout France, they do not allow an equal playing field for the country's students.

The far-right has also waved a red flag over the fact that students must follow a module on the history of Islamic civilisation, while the history of medieval Christianity will only be optional. The role of the Church, however, is mentioned in many of the courses on the history of France.

The reform would also make a course on the Enlightenment period optional, but like Christianity, students still study the Renaissance and history in the 16th to 18th centuries in which the Enlightenment period will be discussed.

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