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JULY 2003

Unrest in Education in France: Teachers on Strike
by Sarah Elzas

Paris, France
Special To Education Update

Recently, thousands of people, mostly teachers, marched through the center of Paris from Bastille to the Assemblée Nationale to protest, among other things, the decentralization of part of the French national education system. This was not the first time teachers had taken to the streets this year, nor even the first time that month. Teachers all over France had been on strike for several weeks, some since March when the education minister, Luc Ferry, announced the government’s planned education reforms. Education in France is centralized, managed by the minister and his office, with input from other ministries, such as culture, agriculture or employment. Teachers must take a national entrance exam, and if they pass, they become part of the Education Nationale, an institution that includes not only teachers, but all school personnel as well, from guidance counselors to maintenance staff. They join the vast fonction publique (public service sector) that provides nearly 30% of French jobs. Nationalized degree requirements that are taught by teachers from all over the country in theory guarantee that every student in France receives the same education. But today, many people, teachers and politicians alike, are unhappy with how the system currently functions; they just disagree over how it should be fixed.

To explain his proposed reforms, Ferry published a book in April, entitled “A letter to all who love school”, in which he set out, in 134 pages, ten problems which he says can be fixed by decentralizing the non-teaching members of the Education Nationale. “We will experiment with giving more management autonomy to school establishments, which should allow them to make changes…and be held accountable,” he writes. “This autonomy could be the key to all the other reforms.”

What exactly does decentralization mean, and why does the idea make thousands of teachers across the country so angry?

In 1984, a decentralization plan gave ‘local communities’ the autonomy to build and maintain school buildings, something that until then had been done with direct oversight from the centralized ministry. These communities consist of France’s 26 regions, 100 departments, 36,700 communes (the smallest territorial divisions) as well as overseas territories.

The current plan, presented in March of this year, suggests extending this decentralization to personnel, mostly to the approximately 100,000 technical staff, called TOS, who include orientation, cafeteria, housing as well as maintenance workers. Until negotiations in June exempted them from the plan, school heath and social workers as well as guidance counselors were also set to be decentralized.

For those on strike, decentralizing any personnel is tantamount to privatizing what should stay public sector jobs and would jeopardize the whole education system. Communities could contract out decentralized jobs to private companies, which would change work conditions and work hours. This would disrupt what some people say is an important continuity of adults in school environments.

“Particularly in difficult schools, it’s not just the teachers, but a team of adults who each have a pedagogic role in the school and come together to make a collective,” explained Tristan, a young physics teacher in a high school in a northern Paris suburb who was marching and did not want to give his last name.

Indeed, the French Legislative Education Code states that even non-teaching staff “are members of the education community. They work directly within the mission of education as a public service.”

Another argument against decentralizing the TOS is that it could lead to complete decentralization of the education system.

“Right now, school is the same everywhere,” said Alain, a colleague of Tristan’s who was also marching. “If we let the TOS become decentralized, education might become limited to regional needs.” And this would negate the fundamental of the French system: a national system that guarantees the same education for all students, whether they are in Paris, rural Normandy or in Corsica.

While the teachers themselves are not directly affected by the proposed reforms, they were striking anyway, out of solidarity for their colleagues with more precarious work situations, and also out of a fear of what the reforms could lead to. Of course, no one can predict where the proposed reforms will lead, or even in what form the plan will take when negotiations are finished and it is finally presented to Parliament next fall for a vote.

Ferry writes that he is committed to nationalized education. “National programs, exams and degrees guarantee justice, and the possibility even of a common world.” Yet, along with arguing for decentralizing the staff, he hints at decentralizing academics. He writes that schools need to be given “tools and means, within a national education policy, to exercise their prerogatives.” With a national curriculum already in place, this implies further decentralization.

“We don’t want to end up with an American system,” said Marie-Claude, a middle school history teacher in Paris’ 13th arrondissement. When pressed to elaborate, she explained: “It’s a system without public servants, without national diplomas or even national health care.” For her and many of her colleagues, changes in the education system are a first step down a slippery slope.#

This is the first of a two-part series on the French education system. Next month: The changing face of French students and teachers. Sarah Elzas is a former assistant editor at Education Update and is currently living and working in Paris.




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