Controversial education reform bill goes before French Senate

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer’s school reform bill, nicknamed the law for "putting trust back into schools", will be put to a vote in the French Senate on Tuesday. But school unions say they are concerned by aspects of the sweeping bill.

Chrisophe Archambault, AFP | A banner reads, 'No to the reform Blaquer (referring to the French Education Minister)' as teachers demonstrate during a nationwide strike in Paris on November 12, 2018.

Blanquer’s “trust back into schools” bill was passed by the National Assembly in February and goes before senators on Tuesday.

However, many teachers and parents are voicing serious concerns about key elements of the draft bill. The main primary school unions – SNUipp and FSU, UNSA and Sud – are calling on teachers, parents and local elected officials to demonstrate against it on May 18.

Compulsory education from the age of 3 years, teachers’ duty to set an example, teacher training – the Blanquer bill covers many aspects of national education.

“This bill focuses on administration rather than education,” said Francette Popineau, co-secretary general of the SNUipp-FSU union in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“The bill does not resolve the problem of social inequality and exclusion. In fact, it’s creating new ones.”

Compulsory kindergarten

One of the key points of the Blanquer bill is compulsory school attendance from the age of 3 years. Currently, children in France only have to attend school from the age of 6, when primary school (École élémentaire) begins. However, most children already attend nursery school (maternelle) from the age of 3.

While unions are happy with this change, they are unconvinced that there are the financial means to implement it. The FSU union views it as “a gift to private schools”. “If kindergarten becomes compulsory, private schools will automatically receive funding from local authorities, but public schools will not receive as much funding,” said Popineau.

When the bill was first drawn up, the most contentious issue was the possible abolishment of the role of school principal – which unions feared was a crafty way to reduce the number of civil servants. Blanquer responded to the criticism with a column in French daily Le Parisien, where he said the bill did not “threaten the situation between schools and their principals” and that this measure would not be imposed throughout France.

“Far from it,” said Blanquer in the piece in late March. “If this measure were imposed everywhere in France, I would completely understand the outcry, but that is not the case at all. It will probably involve just a few dozen schools.”

Teachers lead by example

Article 1 of the draft law also stipulates that teachers have a duty to be "exemplary" role models for their pupils. But unions see this as a challenge to freedom of expression.

“Teachers should keep their opinions to themselves – that's normal,” said Popineau.

“But a teacher should also be able to speak out about problems in the system without fear of reprisals. Some teachers could feel intimated by this new measure.” However, the government responded to this criticism by saying that this measure only applies within the context of a current law that guarantees civil servants freedom of expression.

One very divisive point is teacher training. The new law will allow students hesitating to continue long-term studies for financial reasons to become trainee teachers through a so-called pre-professionnalisation scheme. These students will be recruited during their studies and would spend two half-days every week in a college or school.

Unions fear that these education assistants would be “used to replace absent or missing staff”.

“It’s like asking an apprentice to take control of an aircraft after just watching what the pilot does a few times. Would you be willing to board his plane? The same is true for schools,” said Popineau.

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