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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Pourquoi les enseignants reprennent encore la rue

by Laurent Mouloud

Why the Teachers are Demonstrating in the Streets Again.

Translated Monday 30 November 2009, by Gene Zbikowski

Job cuts, reforms of teacher training and high schools, job insecurity and school districting changes are the main reasons.

Are they back at it? That remains to be seen. In any case, one thing is certain: following a few months of relative calm, the mood in the national education system and in higher education is worsening by the hour. For the first time since the beginning of classes, a strike call has been issued to teachers for Tuesday, November 24, by three teachers unions: the FSU, the FERC-CGT and SUD Education. They have been joined by the high school student organizations FIDL and UNL, as well as by UNEF, Sauvons l’Université and Sauvons la recherche. Demonstrations are to take place across France. In the French capital, the protest march will begin at 2:30 p.m. at Port-Royal (in the 14th arrondissement) and will head for Saint-François-Xavier (in the 7th arrondissement). Whatever its size, this demonstration “shall make it possible to launch future protests,” explained Gérard Aschieri, the general secretary of the FSU. Here is a quick review of the subjects of discontent, which are continuing to pile up on the desk of education minister Luc Chatel.


A huge amount of damage at every level.

From the moment that he took the job, Luc Chatel ended the relative hope that sprang from the departure of Xavier Darcos as minister of education. No, Chatel had no intention of reconsidering the dogma of not replacing one out of every two retiring civil servants. Consequently, the planned budget for 2010, which the French parliament is presently debating, still provides for 16,000 job cuts in education. These come on top of the 13,500 cuts in 2009, which were preceded by 11,200 cuts in 2008... In total, since 2002, nearly 62,000 jobs have been axed in the elementary schools and the junior and senior high schools. This has pushed the FSU and the FERC-CGT to demand “hiring to fill needs.”

Because, in the schools, the repercussions of this “unprecedented impoverishment of the public school system,” in the words of the SNUIPP-FSU, the biggest primary school teachers union, are being felt more and more sharply. To attempt to maintain roughly the same teacher-pupil ratio from one day to *** First day of protest


The same anger in every teachers union!

The reform of teacher training was at the heart of last spring’s university protests, before it was prudently withdrawn. The reform, which aims to recruit teachers at the level of five years of post-high school education, the master 2 level, has again become an incendiary topic. At issue are the decisions announced two weeks ago by Luc Chatel and the minister of higher education, Valérie Pécresse. They decided that competitive exams will center only on the master 2 year of study, that exams will focus more on disciplinary know-how than on pedagogic practices, and that masters programs will be too general... The choices made by the two ministers have literally (re)-ignited the powder barrel. At the ministry of higher education, they insist that the present project is “a middle road, which makes it possible to reconcile the often highly different concerns that have been expressed.” But it is a “middle road” which, has pleased neither any teachers union, nor even the conciliatory Conference of University Presidents (CPU), which on Thursday Nov. 19 requested that the two ministers “reconsider the proposed plans.”

Some points are particularly irritating. First, there is the absence of any real social aid to students, whereas eligibility for taking the teachers competitive exam is being put off for an additional year. “These measures do not provide for recruiting people from different social classes to be the teachers of the future,” the FSU, FERC-CGT, and SUD teachers unions and UNEF indignantly pointed out in a joint communiqué published yesterday, in which they decried the reform as “unacceptable!” Another hot point: Luc Chatel and Valérie Pécresse have not uttered a single word as to the future of the University Institutes for the Training of Teachers (IUFM), which are set to disappear. This is an arbitrary decision which the IUFM directors can only deplore: “Teaching is a trade which has to be learnt,” they repeated last Wednesday, “and this can in no case be reduced to a few sessions of practical training.”


The high school students have not been fooled.

The high school reform was announced with all the oratory usual on such occasions, but will its adoption be uncontested? Nothing is less certain. Received with relative goodwill by several teachers unions, like the SGEN-CFDT and the SE-UNSA, the measures unveiled last week by Luc Chatel have not, on the other hand, gained the approval of the SNES-FSU. Last Thursday, the SNES-FSU, the biggest secondary school teachers union, even called on staff to strike today and to “reject” the latest draft of the reform.

The main sticking point is the new “autonomy” granted to high schools, which, if the reform passes, will be able to manage more than a third of their class hours. This is a measure that will ravish the big-wigs of the OECD but will not fail, according to the SNES-FSU, to deepen the equality gap between schools. Another criticism concerns the reduction of class hours in some subject matters, so as to fit into the school week two hours of “personal accompaniment”, to be performed by teachers. The verdict of the SNES is that “There is a lack of ambition in this reform, which answers neither the difficulties experienced by pupils nor the demand for democratization of the high schools.”

Will the high school students share this position? The government, which was forced to withdraw its initial version of the reform at the end of 2008, is knocking on wood, feverishly. But one thing is certain: the high school student organizations are more than a little skeptical about these new proposals. “How can one reform the high school system on a large scale while reducing the budget and the number of teachers?” the FIDL asks. For its part, UNL, the largest high school student organization, is calling today for “discussion meetings” on the reform and for “the students who want to, to join in the demonstrations” against job cuts. In short, stormy weather lies ahead for Luc Chatel.


Teachers are under pressure.

“We’re working on a just-in-time basis,” says a veteran elementary school teacher. Squeezed in a vice whose two ends are job cuts and the new tasks that must be assumed, these past few years have seen a severe worsening of working conditions for teachers. A study of 1500 junior and senior high schools, carried out by the SNES-FSU and published last month, is particularly damning on this chapter. Thus, a large majority (66.4%) of teachers consider their classes to be “overcrowded” and “too heterogeneous” for them to be able to teach all their students effectively. “The double talk which, on the one hand, affirms that everything is going well, and which on the other promises that by doing a little more, everything will go even better, has reached its limits,” is the analysis put forward by Roland Hubert, the co-general secretary of the SNES-FSU. In fact, the pressure is as high as it can go – according to the study, “90%” of the homeroom teachers admit, for example, that they cannot furnish an extra effort. At the same time, to make up for the job cuts, the national education service is drawing more and more on temporary teachers who are recruited at the unemployment agency and dropped as soon as they have done their 200 hours yearly service. [If they were kept on the payroll longer, the government would have to offer them a permanent job – translator’s note.]

One last point exasperates the teaching profession – despite Nicolas Sarkozy’s promises, the discussions on a wage raise are not making any progress. At present, with a same-level diploma, teachers still earn 35% less than other civil servants. In October, Luc Chatel proposed, with royal grandeur, a wage increase “which shall not be lower than 100 euros a month.” This is not going to revolutionize a teacher’s standard of living, when the starting salary for an elementary school teacher is 1,338 euros a month, net. A sign of the times is the fact that, according to a recent CSA opinion poll conducted for the SNIUPP, 82% of starting teachers feel that they ply a trade that is “generally looked down on by most of society.” The figure was 59% when the same question was asked in 2001.


Reinforcement of a two-tier education system.

It is becoming harder and harder for Luc Chatel to cover up the negative affects of making school districting less stringent. Inaugurated in 2007 by Xavier Darcos, this reform was supposed to favor a mix of social classes by opening the doors of schools with a good reputation to students from working class neighborhoods. Unfortunately – but unsurprisingly – the opposite has occurred. As the very official Cour des comptes (the French GAO) has confirmed, this reform, motivated purely by ideological considerations, has accentuated the process of turning the most disadvantaged schools into educational ghettos. Thus, of 254 junior high schools classed as “ambition: success” schools, 186 have lost “up to 10%” of their students, and generally those who have left are the best ones. The result is that the schools that are being avoided are having to deal with a higher concentration of disadvantaged pupils, with, in the long run, the perspective of becoming “educational ghettos”... Now that’s a real success!

Even though it runs counter to the deeply-held beliefs of many teachers, this widening of the equality gap – which the government finds ideologically acceptable – runs like a red thread through every level of the government’s education policy. At the end of October, the adoption of the Carle law reinforced the financing of private schools. Or again, for the past several months, there has been a manifest desire to attack the admission of very young children to public kindergartens, while creating private kindergartens for those who can afford them.

The government speaks out of both sides of its mouth on this issue, which exasperates the teachers unions. “They state, on the one hand, that these private kindergartens exist to increase the number of place available to two- and three-year-old children, but on the other hand they are cutting thousands of jobs in the public kindergartens!” Gilles Moindrot, the general secretary of the SNUIPP-FSU stressed recently. In fact, the number of two- and three-year-old children attending kindergarten has fallen from 35% in 2000 to 18.1% in 2007. This means that thousands of families, often poor families, are being forced to delay their child’s entry in kindergarten.

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