France's teachers strike against Socialist 'treachery'

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The Independent Online
Half of the secondary school teachers in France went on strike yesterday to protest against reforms in the Western world's most unwieldy education system. John Lichfield, who has children at a French school, takes the side of the education minister, Claude Allegre.

Charlie, aged nearly eight, has just started to learn geometry by heart. The definition of "a line", he intones, is something which goes in one direction for ever; unless you put a capital A at one end and a capital B at the other and then it is not a line at all but only a part of a line.

Turning to his French grammar book, we learn, among other things, that "the ducks have left the region". In his project work - a great innovation in primary schools in France - he and his classmates have been preoccupied, in stupefying horticultural detail, with the "life-cycle of the haricot bean".

On Monday, there was no school: the teachers had declared a "day of concertation", a distressingly regular occurrence, when the teachers, as far as we can make out, talk among themselves.

I should add that Charlie loves his school; the discipline, the curriculum, based on a rote-learning more unbending than I experienced in England in the Fifties, appeals to a juvenile sense of order which we had not previously suspected in him. For parents, the system, based on marks out of 10, is reassuringly easy to follow. However, the total absence of creativity, or independent thinking, something which marks French education right up to university level, is startling and disturbing.

Among those that it disturbs is Claude Allegre, the son of teachers, a former university professor, and now minister for education in the Socialist-led government of Lionel Jospin. Mr Allegre came to office last June with a promise to "take the fat off the mammoth" of the French education system.

He wanted to devolve the legendary central power of the education ministry - one of the largest civilian employers in Europe with 1,500,000 staff - to allow more decision-making and hiring at local and school level. That would mean altering the age-old system under which teachers were allocated to schools throughout France by committees in Paris (on which the main teaching unions were heavily represented). He criticised the absenteeism of teachers and (hooray, for Mr Allegre) their practice of awarding themselves study days in term time.

He also started an inquiry into the curriculum which he described (perfectly) as "too ambitious and not demanding enough". Every French education minister tinkers with the school curriculum but there has been no fundamental change in approach, so it is said, since the 1880s.

Mr Allegre said that he wanted to move towards a more orderly progression of learning. His researches, to the horror of the teachers, included asking children in French lycees (16- to 18- year-olds) for their opinions.

The whole Allegre programme is seen by many teachers and, crucially, by the unions as a treacherous attack on their status and privileges: treacherous because teachers tend overwhelmingly to vote for the Socialist party and its allies.

Yesterday's strike - supported by 50 per cent of secondary teachers, not quite as many as the union leaders had hoped for - was the first barrage in what may prove to be a long war. It was aimed at different parts of the Allegre programme according to which union was involved. The largest teaching union, the SNES, is mostly incensed by the plan to decentralise hiring and firing of staff (which would remove much of the union's power).

But the dispute is seen, on both sides, as a battle to preserve acquired rights: a classic example of the mobilisation of the French forces of immobilism. It remains to be seen whether Mr Allegre, unlike his timid predecessors, will stick to his guns