French teachers march against school reforms

Demonstrators carry placards saying ‘Bring back our Latin and Greek’

French secondary school teachers take part in a demonstration against  curriculum reforms in Paris. Photograph: Yoan Valat

French secondary school teachers take part in a demonstration against curriculum reforms in Paris. Photograph: Yoan Valat


Tens of thousands of French teachers marched in Paris, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Rennes, Strasbourg and Toulouse on Tuesday, demanding a repeal of the reform of the collège – the equivalent of the Irish junior cert cycle – undertaken by the education minister.

The strike was called by seven unions, which claimed that half of all middle school teachers boycotted classes. The education ministry said it was closer to one-fourth. Demonstrators carried placards saying “Bring back our Latin and Greek” and “I am a Latinist”.

The reform initially foresaw an end to the teaching of ancient languages, which were judged “elitist”.

Faced with an outcry, education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem revised the plan to include “interdisciplinary studies” on the “languages and cultures of antiquity”.

Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show the French education system to be among the most inegalitarian among developed nations. It caters for good students, but leaves the weak behind.

Prime minister Manuel Valls wrote in the newspaper Libération: “How can we accept that every year 150,000 youths leave the school system without diplomas or qualifications?”

More than one-third of drop-outs are from working-class families, Valls said. The present system, he wrote, “produces failure, exclusion and despair”.

Social advancement

Reforms of the French education system are always controversial. Teachers and the French right bitterly opposed the reform of school hours, which has re-established primary school classes on Wednesday mornings since last autumn.

The present reform is to take effect in the autumn of 2016. It will be followed by the equally difficult “school map reform”, which will seek to mix children of different social and economic backgrounds.

Teachers are usually a loyal socialist constituency, but they have again found themselves de facto allies of the right, which accuses Vallaud-Belkacem of “dumbing down” France’s middle schools in what the renegade socialist politician Jean-Pierre Chevenement calls “egalitarian levelling”.

The right is also spreading the lie that a concurrent revamping of the history curriculum favours the teaching of Islam to the detriment of the study of Christianity.

The conservative UMP and the extreme right-wing National Front accuse Vallaud- Belkacem of emphasising “repentance” through the teaching of such subjects as the slave trade and colonisation.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president and UMP leader, has singled out the education minister for criticism.

“In the frantic contest for mediocrity, [justice minister] Christiane Taubira is being overtaken by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem,” Sarkozy said.

His remark prompted accusations of racism. Taubira is from French Guyana and Vallaud-Belkacem was born in Morocco.

Teaching jobs

But Sarkozy did not change the way in which subjects are taught.

Until now, the study of German, English and Latin represented an elite track for French 11- to 13-year-olds. The reform will do away with bilingual classes, taken by 16 per cent of students, and is intended to extend the teaching of a foreign language to all students from age 12.

It is unclear who will teach the extra language classes.

Teachers also object to the plan to allocate 20 per cent of school time for “inter-disciplinary studies”, whose content will be determined by school principals.