- education - France - Islamic veil - Muslims
France's first private Muslim school tops the ranks
Averroès High School in Lille has been in the spotlight for a decade. Ten years ago, it was France's first private Muslim school to follow the national curriculum. Now, it's one of the country's top-rated schools.
The classes may be a source of envy for many a harried high school teacher trying to instil discipline and impart knowledge to a roomful of teenagers interested in anything but spending their days in a classroom.
At the Lycée Averroès (Averroès High School) in the northern French city of Lille, the students – boys and girls, some of the latter veiled – assiduously concentrate on their classwork under the supervision of their teachers.
Over the past few days, the students’ concentration has not waned despite the presence of news cameras and crew at the back of some of the classrooms.
Averroès has been attracting a fair amount of attention in France after the private Muslim school ranked at the top of the regional list of quality schools and was among the top three on the national list.
While most French students are enrolled in state schools, around 15 percent of children in France attend some form of private school.
In theory, all public schools should provide the same quality of education. But as every French parent knows, that is not strictly true. The annual school ranking systems have long featured some of the better-known public high schools from across the country.
Over the past few years, private schools – either Catholic, Jewish or secular, with varying levels of state funding - have increasingly made their way to the top high-school rankings.
Averroès High School’s top ranking has raised eyebrows across France in part because it’s a private Muslim school that has been providing quality education to its students.
Home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, France has often been criticised in the international press for what many see as the country’s uncompromising commitment to laïcité - or secularism. A 2004 law banning the explicit display of religious affiliations in public schools was widely criticised in the international community, as well as by some minority groups inside France, although the vast majority of French people supported the ban.
Given France’s complex history of communal relations with its Muslim population, the success of the Averroès school has provided some welcome good news.
It’s something Averroès High School staff have grown used to over the past decade.
Thirty-four journalists for 11 students
In 2003, when the school opened, it was the first private Muslim school in France to follow the national curriculum. “On our first day, there were 34 journalists, including one from Japan – compared to only 11 students and 19 teachers,” said Amar Lasfar, rector of the Lille mosque and president of the Averroès school, in an interview with the leading French daily, Le Monde.
Ten years later, France’s first private Muslim school has grown to include more than 330 students and has left its old premises at the Lille mosque for a new building that can accommodate up to 600 students.
It’s a commendable rise for a school that has only been “sous contrat” (under contract) with the state since 2008. Under the French system, private schools are either “sous contrat” – with the government paying teachers’ salaries and the school following the national curriculum – or “hors contrat” - not funded by the government and therefore not obligated to follow any particular curriculum.
When asked about the secret to the school’s success, Lasfar is categorical: “Have faith – not necessarily religious faith, but believe in the project,” he told Le Monde.
At Averroès High School, students' parents appear to believe in the project as much as the staff, with volunteer parents running the school cafeteria, for instance.
While most of the students are Muslim, the school is open to non-Muslims as well.
As for the students, the advantages of the school are numerous. Averroès graduates list the small class size, the studious atmosphere and the staff’s commitment to quality education as the school's best features.
They also said they happened to have a lot of fun while they were at school.