French teachers walk out over elite class axe

THE French government is proposing ending elite language programmes and giving individual schools more say in how pupils spend their time, fearing the education system and France’s future is threatened by unequal opportunity.

Manuel Valls said mastering foreign language was crucial. Picture: Getty

The planned overhaul by the Socialist-led government of president François Hollande came after an international study ranked France’s among the developed world’s most unequal school systems, with performance highly dependent upon pupils’ socioeconomic status.

But the plan for middle schools (catering for children aged ten to 14) has drawn criticism from both left-leaning teachers’ unions and conservatives.

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Middle-school teachers walked out on strike yesterday after the government indicated it wanted to cut the respected bilingual programme which enrols about 15 per cent of top pupils in favour or expanding foreign language classes to a wider range of younger children.

Pupils would start learning their first foreign language in the equivalent of first grade and their second around age 12. But conservatives have fixed on a new required theme for middle school history classes, titled A world dominated by Europe: Colonial empires, commercial exchanges and slave trades. A seemingly more positive take on the period, titled Society and culture in the age of enlightenment is optional.

Latin and Greek will be downgraded – currently 20 per cent of middle school pupils learn the classics – but will still be optional one hour a week. The number of hours in class – 26 a week – will not change under the plan.

Around 230 members of the National Assembly have signed a petition demanding the government withdraws the bill and it was backed up by 20,000 signatures from the public.

Teachers are divided, fearing the plan will pit them against each other and pupils will be the ones who pay for the discord.

“It will create a battle between teachers,” Jean-Remi Girard, a French teacher, told France Television.

But the government is under pressure to fix the system after a 2012 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study found its education system showed gaping disparities between rich and poor children, notably in mathematics. Among the 39 countries in the PISA study, only Taiwan showed more inequality in maths results.

“How can we accept that our educational system can’t promote all talents, that so many middle schoolers do not master basics, do not master foreign languages?” prime minister Manuel Valls wrote in the Libération newspaper. “In the current world – a globalised world, a world of exchanges – this is sending our children, and therefore our country, toward a dead-end.”