Parisian Teachers Protest Against Education Reform

Vincent Peillon: Minister of Education.Photo:

Vincent Peillon, Minister of Education.

PARIS. – A couple weeks ago, a series of advertisements filled the Paris metro. Their motto is cheerful, positive and full of hope: “who wants everyone to succeed?” Meanwhile, in the French capital, the overwhelming majority of the teachers in the Parisian elementary schools were in the streets on January 22 to protest against the reform of the school calendar called for by Education Minister Vincent Peillon.

This is not the first time a Ministry of Education has launched a campaign to attract new candidates to the education profession, but is never a sign of a healthy national education system. That was confirmed by this demonstration, a real success for the opponents to Peillon’s method, with 84% of the teachers on strike in the Parisian elementary school that day.

Peillon wants to shorten the length of the school day, unanimously condemned as too long for a good learning process. The school week would then extend from 4 to 4.5 days. So that the kids do not leave school earlier, the local communities would organize extracurricular activities in the afternoon.

One could wonder why the teachers are protesting, since they always voiced their opposition to a school day, week and year they viewed as too long in comparison to most countries in the world. The children currently have a school day of 6 hours on average, while the French school year is incomparably short: 144 days, compared to between 180-200 in similar countries. Some blame these bad learning conditions for the constant degrading of the general level of French education over the past few years.

Why are the teachers protesting? The first reproach they expressed towards Peillon lies in his method: he did not take enough time to speak with the members of the education system. According to Olivier Dartigolles, spokesman for the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), “the conditions of the debate are not gathered… The government would be well inspired to review its work, beginning to go around the table with all the concerned actors.”

It seemed however that the government had been really lenient with its reform: reducing the length of the summer holidays (currently more than 2 months long) is out of question, the length of the school day will be only slightly reduced, and François Hollande gave the mayor of the towns the option to apply the reform in Fall 2013 or 2014. Also, the 4.5 day school week means nothing else but returning to the previous system that had been in place in 2008.

Clearly, there had to be deeper reasons than a simple lack of discussion to justify the protests. The teachers are primarily concerned by the organization of the after-school activities by the local communities. The reform would not take into account the discrepancies between the municipalities on the French territory. Who would pay for them in the poorest areas? Who would be hired? Would those teachings become private in the end? Hervé Morin, representative and president of the Nouveau Centre (NC), a center-right party, accused Peillon’s reform of “taking absolutely no account of the diversity of the situations, connected to the characteristics of every territory and every school.”

Another question was raised: salary. Even with the same amount of hours, the teachers would have to spend one more day working, and there is no raise announced even though the French teachers are among the poorest in the OECD (Organisation for Economical Cooperation and Development.) Peillon is not clear about this subject, and seems to dodge the question. In an interview for the Journal du Dimanche, he said he was “fully aware that teachers are not well paid. It would be appropriate to pay them better, we will do it when we have the funds.” Later though, during another interview for BFM-TV, Peillon declared he was “ready… to open the great negotiation there never was” on this issue.

Poster from the Paris Metro. "Who wants to study with a free mind?"Photo: Marc Goetzmann

Poster from the Paris Metro. “Who wants to study with a free mind?”
Photo: Marc Goetzmann

Some will say that the French teachers are too accustomed to protest and cannot accept any reform. Others, including the Left and former Holland supporters, will say that they are disappointed. Indeed, the French school deserves better than petty dialogues and ideological stances. Those come, unfortunately, from both sides. One of the advertisements from the Ministry reads, “who wants to study with a free spirit?” One of the proposed government reforms would pay some students for their studies if they intended to become teachers, so the poster refers to a spirit free from money worries throughout the long studies needed to become a teacher. It seems though that teachers cannot even teach without concerns.

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