Small Immediate Measures for Education before Broader Reforms

Vincent Peillon, New Education Minister.

During his campaign, François Hollande made education and young people a focus of his electoral platform. Recently, Vincent Peillon, Minister of Education for the government of PM Jean-Marc Ayrault announced a series of small immediate reforms and re-adjustments for the 2012-2013 academic year. According to the government, major education reforms are in the works, as well but will take more time to implement.

Peillon, formerly a philosophy teacher, has to face a new academic calendar this September that was put in place by previous right-wing government. The man who dubbed himself “minister of the pupils” has little room to maneuver and only a few re-adjustments will be possible for the coming year. However, the new government needed to achieve symbolic changes to Education policy and needed to do so quickly. The numerous reforms carried out by the Sarkozy administration were highly controversial and were one of the main targets of the Left over the past five years. As a result, Vincent Peillon’s first moves were long expected.

For instance, claiming that savings needed to be done, the previous government decided to replace one teacher or school administrator for every two who retired. Because education is the largest organization within the government, it was hit first by austerity measures. Over the years, different levels of the education system lost more and more of their teachers, causing some to believe that the schools are at a breaking point.

With few means, the minister of Education chose to focus on elementary school and allotted 1000 new teachers to this sector for the coming year. Every school district in the country will have new teachers, but the government chose to give priority to those in a more desperate need of teachers, for example Versailles and Créteil. Peillon also said that new teachers in elementary schools would not be new teacher but only teachers with enough experience to face the challenges of early eduation. The main idea beyond Peillon’s future policy will be to make elementary school “the school of confidence”, stressing the importance of the first year to tackle the main difficulties  that the youngest pupils could face.

Another measure was announced which will extend the midterm break in October from 10 to 15 days. Compared to the other trimesters of seven weeks of school alternated with two weeks of vacations, the first trimester only counted 10 days of vacations before Christmas holidays, which was considered as an exhausting rhythm for pupils.

To introduce this reform, the academic calendar will have to be slightly modified. This small reform announces other global changes in academic rhythms, which will be implemented next year (2013-2014). The major question remains regarding the school days per week in the elementary school. The minister wants to extend the week schedule from four to five days of school, to decrease instead the number of hours per day for children, but he still needs to negotiate these reforms with social partners, particularly the unions.

Peillon also asserted recently that he “was not hostile” to the introduction of continuous assessment of possible changes the status of the “baccalauréat”, the diploma which concludes high school and allows students to go to college.

Also regarding high school, the Minister pledged that he would fulfill one of Hollande’s electoral promises, the reintroduction of history classes for the pupils who chose to follow the science section (called “Bac S” for “scientific”), a course that had been made optional under the last government.

This series of small reforms is only the beginning for the Minister, the government and the new French President who intend to make education a symbol of “fairness,” the fairness that Hollande argued was the very definition of his perspective on politics.

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