By Maeva Chargros
On February 5, 2019, a small secondary school hosting around 250 students was shut down for 24 hours. This was exceptional for multiple reasons: rarely do all teachers of a school in France choose to strike, and rarely do they receive a massive and unanimous support from the parents of the students, as well as from the local authorities. On this cold winter day, though, the junior high school Papire Masson was empty and teachers, parents and the mayor of the little town of St-Germain-Laval, Alain Berouda, gathered in front of its doors. Known only by the few hundreds of people who actually need it, this secondary school recently learned that despite welcoming three more students and being part of the “inclusive education” framework, it would receive 58 hours less than the previous years from September 2019 onward. This very local situation has, unfortunately, repercussions at both national and European levels, besides directly impacting the lives of about 250 students between 11 and 15 years old.
The decision of allocating less hours to a high school that has among the best results of the Loire department at the national exam called “Brevet des écoles” (equivalent of GCSEs in the British system) can seem slightly puzzling at first sight. It becomes absolutely incomprehensible when realising that this secondary school has already the lowest number of hours allocated among schools with similar numbers of students in the department. The regional education authority of the Lyon (Académie de Lyon) area probably just made a regrettable mistake that will be rectified after the planned meeting between the regional school inspector, Mr Batailler, and representatives of the Papire Masson secondary school on February 19, 2019. At least, this is what teachers, parents and students altogether are hoping for, given what such a disastrous change would entail: a total of five teachers would not come back to teach in September 2019; two classes of 4th and 3rd grades (UK equivalent: Years 9 and 10) would disappear, leading to an increase of 50% of the number of students per class; projects involving students of all levels would have to be terminated; teachers would have to travel from one school to another across the entire department or even regional area. These are just a few examples of substantial consequences that can be explained in tangible ways. Less easy to observe is the impact on the quality of teaching, the ability of teachers to properly include and involve in their lessons students with disabilities coming from a nearby specialised institution, the difficulties to maintain this school’s overall excellent results at the national exam and to ensure all students get equal chances in their orientation choices. The latter is a chronic feature of the education management system in France; it recently sparked the interest of a high school student, Marie Ferté, who competed at the Concours de Plaidoiries in Caen (Normandy, France).
Indeed, the Papire Masson school is far from being an isolated case. The ongoing social crisis in France shows how rural and ‘disadvantaged’ areas are constantly disrespected by national authorities. The decision to significantly decrease the allocated number of hours in secondary schools comes from “above”, namely, it is included in the overall strategy of the government. The latter is desperately trying to reduce its global budget, given that the national debt has been under scrutiny by the European Commission since the 2008 crisis. Nevertheless, one could ask: is it really worth saving a few hundred – or even thousands – of euros when it comes down to sabotaging the education of hundreds of children? Reducing the number of fixed positions in a high school means teachers have to travel more – and their travel expenses must be covered by the government. Lowering the level of teaching quality leads to lowering the level of students themselves, who will then be less qualified workers in the future since their orientation was disrupted by budget cuts. Such a decision has long-term consequences that the French government does not seem to take into account in its latest reforms, unfortunately. This behaviour concerns education, but also health care and environmental policies. It creates devastating inequalities all over the territory, between rural areas and big cities, between the different social classes, between the elites and the rest of the people. The French government must respect its obligations – including costly ones included in the Education Code and its own Constitution. Actually, the Cnesco (the national council in charge of evaluating the education system) repeatedly requested that the state comply with its recommendations: the inequalities in terms of education should and must be a top priority. Instead, teachers have to wait for weeks for an appointment with their inspector and they barely get any national media coverage.
Education is crucial for securing the future of our liberal democracies. Without education, ignorance turns into fear, which easily turns into hatred and violence when triggered “appropriately” by populist movements and “fake news” trolls.
At the Papire Masson secondary school, students are taught that Romeo can be whoever he wants, as long as he respects Juliet as his equal whatever her colour of skin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or even political opinions. During this crucial period of teenagerhood, these students get to communicate with German students around their age within an e-twinning project – a key step in the development of their civic life as French citizens, but also as European ones. They are taught to be creative and to write for the school’s newspaper, they discover astronomy, and they are made aware of this indispensable concept that is the duty to remember one’s past (“devoir de mémoire”). Such a commitment from the teachers, and such an involvement from the students, should be rewarded with at the very least some consideration from the regional educational authorities, not with unnecessary, counterproductive and ineffective budget cuts affecting these children’s future (and our democracy) in irreversible ways.
 Camille Zakar, « Touche pas à mon poste de professeur » (Le Pays Roannais, February 7, 2019).
 Specifically, the preamble of the French Constitution (“the State guarantees equal access to education to all children and adults”) and the articles L111-1 and L112-1 of the Education Code (education “must contribute to the equality of opportunities and to fight against social and territorial inequalities in terms of academic success and chances to succeed”; “to promote equality of opportunities, specific and adequate measures must allow the access of each citizen, according to their abilities and needs, to different types and levels of training and education”).
Pictures credit: banners at the Papire Masson secondary school, February 2019 (all rights reserved, published with the authorisation of the owner of the photos).