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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 May, 2003, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
France's teachers on strike again

By Hugh Schofield
in Paris

French teachers have embarked on their fourth national strike since the start of the school year in an atmosphere of increasingly bitter recrimination against the country's centre-right government.

Teachers during a protest last year
Teaching unions warn of mounting exasperation

To the grievances over funding and jobs that kick-started the movement last autumn are now added anxiety over pensions and opposition to the government's programme of decentralisation.

More generally, many in the educational establishment - a body closely aligned with the political left - are mistrustful of Education Minister Luc Ferry, a man deeply hostile to the child-centred teaching policies that have prevailed since May 1968.

Mr Ferry, a 52 year-old described in the French Who's Who as a "philosopher and man of letters", recently sent out a 200-page book entitled "Letter to those who love school" to each of the country's 800,000 teachers.

In it he accuses the left-wing brought in by the 1968 cultural revolution of undermining the proper role of schools. This, he says, should not be assuring the personal fulfilment of individual children, but the handing down of a body of knowledge and culture.

Lead balloon

The post-1968 philosophy has led to a collapse of authority, Mr Ferry charges, leading to the country's dismally high illiteracy rates and a growing climate of violence in many suburban schools.

French teachers see the school system as guarantor of the country's proud tradition of egalitarianism

And he also spells out his support for greater local autonomy in education - an extension of the government's wider plans to introduce regional devolution as a counterweight to the traditionally all-powerful central administration.

The minister wants the ideas to form the basis of a national debate on education ahead of a new law next year, and he believes that they will receive a warm response from parents - and many teachers.

But they have gone down like a lead balloon with the unions.

The French education ministry is the biggest employer in the country, and the unions have a long record of resisting change. Under the last government they forced the resignation of Claude Allegre, himself a Socialist.

Now they detect in Mr Ferry's rhetoric the aim of dismantling much that they hold dear.

The minister's first attack was to question the assumption that employment in the educational sector must always be on the increase.

As he pointed out, pupil numbers have declined even as teacher numbers have grown in the last 20 years, and yet standards have steadily fallen.

So last year he axed a multi-year teacher recruitment programme won by unions from the Socialists, and reduced the numbers of classroom supervisors.

Autonomy moves

But perhaps more threatening for many teachers are the proposals for decentralisation.

Protesters carry a banner denouncing education Minister Luc Ferry
Education Minister Luc Ferry is the target of teachers' wrath

Under these, about 100,000 education staff - maintenance workers, technicians, school doctors and counsellors - will be employed not by the ministry in Paris but by regional governments.

In addition Mr Ferry wants greater autonomy for schools, the right of local authorities to define school catchment areas, and powers for the regions to direct funding into specific types of vocational and professional training.

In some countries ideas such as these would be greedily welcomed.

But French teachers see the school system as guarantor of the country's proud tradition of egalitarianism.

They fear local powers would mean varying levels of provision - with rich areas outperforming the poor - an end to the goal of a truly uniform national system and the prospect of creeping privatisation.

When on top of all this are added the government's plans to reform the pension system, which would mean teachers having to work several more years along with other public sector staff, rage levels reach bursting-point.

"Only the minister seems unaware of the mounting exasperation in the world of education," said Denis Paget, secretary general of the Snes-FSU union.

French privatisation row explodes
26 Nov 02  |  Business
French teachers strike over jobs
17 Oct 02  |  Europe

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