Why French School Curriculum and Timetable Reforms Forced Teachers Onto the Streets

French teachers went on strike on May 19 to voice their disapproval of two major reforms that have been proposed by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the French education minister. The two reforms are very different: one centres on changes to the history and language curriculum and the other on schools’ autonomy to manage the organisation of teaching. Yet both have sparked criticisms from teachers, unions and French intellectuals.

Reforming secondary education has emerged as a recent priority in France. The most recent results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which rank countries around the world based on tests of 15-year-olds and released last December, highlight increasing inequalities in achievement between low and high achievers in France. More disturbing is the fact that, among OECD countries, France is one of the countries where a pupil’s social background is one of the strongest predictors of his or her subsequent achievement.

To solve these structural difficulties, in March 2015 Vallaud-Belkacem announced two reforms of lower secondary education, known in France as collège, which takes children from Grade 6 to 9, between 11 and 15-years-old (the numbers of grades descend in France as children progress through school: Grade 6 is called sixieme but Grade 7 is cinquième and Grade 8 is quatrième).
Curriculum changes under scrutiny

The first controversial reform proposed by the French ministry of education is a rewrite of the secondary school curriculum in most subjects that would come into force in September 2016. This project was presented by the Conseil supérieur des programmes, which oversees the French curriculum, on April 13.

A wave of criticism followed, particularly regarding the history curriculum. The reform plans to distinguish between some of the compulsory parts of the curriculum and the content that would be freely chosen by teachers. Some historians and right-wing intellectuals strongly condemned the fact that in Grade 7, the module “Islam: emergence, growth, society and cultures” would become compulsory, while the module on Christianity during the Middle Ages would be discretionary.

Though this fact is correct, most opponents to the reform omit to say that a compulsory module on the emergence of Christianity is taught in Grade 6, as is the module on the emergence of Judaism. Discussions on the first curriculum draft are still ongoing, and teachers have until June 12 to give their opinion.
More autonomy for headteachers

Despite the strong debate generated by the curriculum reforms, it was not the main reason for teachers taking to the streets. The reason given by the teachers’ unions for the strike referred to a broader reform affecting the organisation of collèges.

A key element of this part of the reform would consist of giving more autonomy to schools to allocate teaching time. From September 2016, 20% of teaching time would be managed locally by headteachers, who could decide how to allocate time between working in small groups, cross-subject teaching or individualised tutoring sessions. Unions have waved the flag at giving more power to headteachers to impose their decisions on teachers. At the moment, headteachers decide teachers’ timetables – what time each teacher teaches, and in which room – but they have no freedom to affect how the teaching hours are allocated between different activities, which is decided by the ministry of education.

The second key element of the reform is the creation of eight interdisciplinary teaching modules, in Grades 7 to 9. For three hours a week, these modules would aim to teach abstract notions in a more concrete way – for instance a module on sustainable development would cover physics, biology and technology. Such reforms echo those that are ongoing in Finland to give students more time for interdisciplinary learning.

But for teachers, most of who are highly attached to the subject they teach, introducing such modules would be synonymous with fewer hours of fundamental teaching. With students free to choose their own modules from Grade 7 onwards, unions have raised fears of a growing competition between teachers to attract students.

The most polemic part of these interdisciplinary modules is related to language education. Latin and Greek languages, judged as too elitist, would be replaced by an interdisciplinary module on the “language and cultures of antiquity” that students could complement with an optional language course.

Most importantly, the reform plans to significantly restrict the possibility of a student learning two languages from Grade 6. Under the current system, a minority of gifted pupils take advantage of this option, although the majority wait until Grade 8 to learn a second language.
German teachers have been particularly incensed by the proposed reforms. Yoan Valat/EPA

Under the new proposals, students will take a second language in Grade 7 in an effort to reduce inequalities between pupils. Most criticisms have been expressed by German teachers fearing that further suppression of bilingual classes in Grade 6 would reduce the pool of students wishing to learn Goethe’s language.

The French education system has long had a reputation for being unreformable – mainly because teachers’ unions negotiate from a strong position to protect teachers’ interests. In 2014 for instance, unions managed to postpone a reform aimed at spreading teaching hours more equally over the week in primary schools for a year.

In his defence of the current reforms, French prime minister Manuel Valls emphasised the reforms were aimed at reducing inequality. If students’ unions were powerful enough to balance the lobbying of teachers’ unions, students’ interest might be more considered in reforms.