Growing pains for a French education system rooted in tradition


School children work in their classroom at the Primary School Les Ormeaux in Montereau-Fault-Yonne near Paris, France.


Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

In a primary school in a run-down neighborhood south of Paris, a teacher asks his first-year class how to spell words in a text on dinosaurs.

The enthusiastic six- and seven-year-olds eagerly raise their hands and answer correctly. All 10 are brimming with confidence after a full year with about half as many pupils in their class as in most French primary schools.

"No kid is left behind," teacher Sebastien Ducoroy said after the lesson at Les Ormeaux school in the town of Montereau-Fault-Yonne.

The school is one of about 4,000 in deprived areas where the size of classes has been cut under reforms intended by President Emmanuel Macron to reduce inequality in education and prepare students better for the job market.

Education is the latest battleground in a campaign by Macron to remake France from its core, shaking up politics and revitalizing the economy to make it more competitive globally.

The reforms range from directives such as making school compulsory from the age of three instead of six and banning mobile phones in class, to encouraging the study of Latin and Greek and foreign languages.

But public attention has focused mainly on the smaller primary school classes, and on plans to overhaul the baccalaureat, the school-leaving exam introduced by Napoleon in 1808, and introduce an element of selection for universities. More scope to specialize is promised in areas such as computer science and coding, to match the needs of the digital world.

"From kindergarten to university, we're changing everything," Macron, 40, said in a television interview in April.

The plans have angered some French people. They see the reforms as an assault on a system that has long offered a nationally standardized curriculum under which every French citizen would be taught the same things .

But Macron, who is married to his former teacher, wants to update the system to meet the needs of modern France better.

Pupils' chances of escaping their socio-economic background are smaller in France than in any of the other 71 countries surveyed, according to an analysis by policy think-tank OECD in a global education study.

This does not chime with the national motto of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) posted in every French school, or with Macron's vision of French society.

Macron also wants to help employers who often complain they cannot find workers with the right skills even though the unemployment rate remains high at 9.2 percent.


Macron appears confident of forcing through what he calls the biggest changes in education since school became free and compulsory in France in the 19th century.

The reforms sailed through parliament, and protests have been more subdued than some French expected in a country where student strikes sparked widespread civil unrest in 1968.

At Les Ormeaux school, the reduction in classroom numbers has gone down well. Teacher Ducoroy, 42, was skeptical at first but said first-year pupils had learnt to read and write faster than in previous years.

Collecting her twin sons at the school gate, Fouzia Drief, 45, said she appreciated the amount of attention the boys received in small class.

"The teachers are able to take good care of them," she said.

An opinion poll carried out among primary school teachers by the FSU, France's biggest teachers union, also showed broad support for reducing the number of pupils in first-year classes in poor neighborhoods.

The reduction in numbers will be progressively extended to more first- and second-year classes to affect about 320,000 children, or about 15-20 percent of pupils of that age, in the 2019-2020 school year, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told Reuters.

"If you want to fight social inequalities, you must first of all fight against inequalities in the field of education, starting with the youngest ages," he said, describing the aim as giving pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds "a good start."

Opponents question whether the aims can be achieved.

"I'm really not sure all these reforms will contribute to fighting inequalities because they focus on (only) a few sectors (of society)," said Bernadette Groison, secretary general of the FSU. "Learning difficulties must be tackled throughout school."

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