Page last updated at 17:04 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Trials of French teacher training

French protest
French teachers and students have rallied against planned reforms
More top-flight graduates must be attracted into teaching in England, the Tories say, and the status of the profession must be raised. They would consider moves to accept only the brightest. But would it work?

Hugh Schofield examines the French system, where a gruelling state-controlled test awaits those wanting to teach.

Isabelle Koper remembers her 1996 concours - competition - as a veritable trial by fire.

Like thousands of other hopefuls from across France, she was aiming for the prestigious agrégation - the top-flight certificate awarded to the very best of those who qualify to teach in a French secondary school.

"First of all there were the written tests," she said.

"The dissertation on French literature took seven hours, and so did the dissertation on comparative literature.

"I had to compare works by James Joyce and Thomas Mann.

"After that there were exams on grammar, medieval French, translation from Latin, and a foreign language - English in my case.

"And that was the easy part."

Isabelle, who now teaches at a lycée (school for 15-18s) in the Paris suburb of Savigny-sur-Orge, was one of 1,500 in her year sitting for the agrégation in French literature.

After the written tests, they were whittled down to 300.

The people who train the teachers are highly paid and totally out of touch
Isabelle Koper, teacher

"Then we moved to the orals. First I was given a text and had six hours to prepare a 40-minute presentation before a seven-member jury.

"After that there were three more viva voces of similar length. It was the most gruelling experience I have ever had," she says.

When the orals were marked, the 300 had been reduced further to just 180 successful candidates.

These highly gifted, intensively-educated experts were then inculcated into the ranks of the "fonction publique" or civil service.

As servants of the state, they were dispatched - with no say in the matter - to postings around the country.

Fortified by an enviable expertise in early French grammar and the poetry of proto-Surrealist Gérard de Nerval, Isabelle found herself with a class of unruly second-generation immigrants in a Priority Education Zone (ZEP) in the Paris banlieues (suburbs).

Classroom realities

The French education system has a justified reputation for élitism.

Becoming a teacher - just like becoming any other kind of fonctionnaire - requires taking part in a public competition aimed at picking out the Republic's ablest.

The tests for would-be teachers at primary and middle-school level are easier than the agrégation - but the principle is the same.

The question is whether the concours system - and the training that leads up to it - is really suited to the needs of a fast-changing and increasingly diverse society.

Nicolas Sarkozy
President Sarkozy wants to make changes in the education sector
In recent weeks the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched plans to reform the whole structure of teacher training.

Currently candidates begin after achieving a first-level university degree (licence), and normally then spend two years attached to an Institut Universitaire des Formation des Maîtres (IUFM) including one year of work experience in a school.

The education ministry wants instead to create a five-year master's degree programme, including within it some practical classroom time.

This would take place within universities, rather than in the IUFMs, whose fate is uncertain.

For the government, the advantage for teachers is that they will begin their careers with a higher university qualification and thus command better pay.

But teaching unions are deeply opposed. They fear that trainees will have less exposure to the realities of the classroom, and that the IUFMs - which they regard as the centre-piece of the system - will disappear.

'Out of touch'

"If the government takes away the final year of work-experience, it will be depriving teachers of an essential part of their training.

"It will be like giving a driving licence to someone who's never held a steering-wheel," said Emmanuel Mercier, national secretary of the biggest teaching union, SNES.

Isabelle Koper for her part is no fan of the IUFMs, who she believes perpetuate an ideologically-driven and corrosive concept of education.

"The people who train the teachers are highly paid and totally out of touch," she said.

"They use abominable jargon - pupils have to be called apprenants or learners - and they promote this pedago-demago philosophy in which the teacher is supposed to be best mates with his class," she says.

The recent hit film Entre Les Murs - in which a lycée teacher finds himself powerless in the face of a class of 15-year-olds - is a perfect illustration, according to Koper.

But she agrees with the unions that abolishing the year of work experience will only make it harder for teaching débutants.

"The problem with the concours system is that it turns out highly intelligent academics who may have no vocation to be teachers. These people can find themselves at 23 being spat on in the banlieues by pupils who are bigger than they are.

"Most of them make it through in the end, but it is no joke."

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