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France launches new classes on 'moral and civic' education

Hugo Mathy, AFP | An empty classroom at the Robespierre School in Epinay-sur-Seine

France is looking to mould its younger generation into responsible members of society with new civics lessons in primary and secondary classrooms aimed at defending the French Republic’s values.

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Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem announced the plans for the new classes, which are aimed at instilling the values of liberty, equality and fraternity – in accordance with France's national motto – as well as justice, mutual respect and the absence of discrimination beginning with the 2015-2016 academic year.

It will also seek to emphasise France’s deeply held belief in secularism.

Teachers protested against the decision, saying they would not have enough time to prepare the new lessons and demanding the initiative be pushed back by a year.

But the education ministry dismissed their complaints, saying it couldn’t wait. The government was propelled, in part, by the January shootings targeting Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly known for its controversial depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. The attacks prompted widespread debate in France over its secular traditions and how far the right to free speech should be extended.

The new course in Moral and Civic Education (l’Enseignement moral et civique) replaces the country’s previous civics programme and will be taught in all primary and secondary school classrooms. Its curriculum comprises four main themes: Sensitivity (understanding your feelings and those of others), Rules and Rights (understanding your legal rights and the rules of society), Critical Thinking (making rational decisions) and Social Responsibility (learning to become a responsible member of society).

The main goal of the course is to teach children to become active and responsible members of society by the time they turn 16, when education is no longer compulsory in France.

But Peter Gumbel, author of the book “French School Without Tears”, said he believed it would make little difference.

“The real point is that it’s a symbol of a much bigger problem, which is the lack of a sense of community in French schools,” Gumbel told FRANCE 24.

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