Europe

French children go back to school amid controversy over reforms

After a two-month holiday, more than 12 million French children go back to school on Monday amid controversy over the Macron government’s reforms to the famous baccalaureate exam.

For the third consecutive year, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has put in place its “return to music” programme, which encourages schools to welcome the children back with “singing and concerts”.

The idea is that this will alleviate some of the anxiety children often feel as return to school. “My son started to stress out a week ago, wondering who his new teacher will be and which of his mates will be in his class,” one parent, Laure from Paris, told AFP.

This year children are not just going back to a new teacher and to a different class, but also to a reformed education system. Some of the changes pushed through by Macron’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer are broadly popular – such as lowering the start of compulsory education to three years of age, and further reducing class sizes in schools in disadvantaged areas.

However, the reform of the baccalaureate – the compulsory exam at the end of secondary school and before university – has attracted some controversy.

This year, schoolchildren will now take classes designed for the reformed baccalaureate that will be taken from 2021 onwards. The new exam will replace the broad subject areas pupils currently choose from – science, literature or social sciences – with more specific courses. “This is the twentieth time I’m going back to teach after the summer holiday, and for the first time I feel like I’m leaping into the unknown,” Lionel Mendouse, a history and geography teacher in Päris, told AFP.

With some activists criticising the new exam as “elitist”, several teaching unions have filed notice for possible strikes in September.

“Elitism is not a bad word,” French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe told journalists, in defence of the reforms. The new baccalaureate will “better prepare not just the so-called elite but all students, making them freer, more mature and stronger intellectually”.

‘Two years of tension’

But it seems that the French government think teaching unions’ complaints on the issue of pay might have some merit. With an average salary of €2,400 per month, many public sector teachers argue that they are badly paid compared to those who do similar jobs.

In effect, their salaries have declined considerably over the past decade, thanks to a pay freeze instituted in 2010, which has led to a 15 percent decline in real terms. In response, Blanquier said that he is open to “dialogue” on the issue.

The SE-UNSA, one of France’s biggest teaching unions, praised Blanquer’s move as welcome respite after “two years of tension” – but its secretary-general Stéphane Crochet cautioned that there is “a lot of ambiguity” in the government’s stance on teachers’ pay.

Crochet also cautioned that the Macron government’s much-vaunted proposed reforms to the French pension system will adversely affect teachers. “Pensions are the burning issue right now,” he said.

Currently, public sector workers receive a pension equal to 75 percent of their salary for the last six months of their career – excluding bonuses. In the proposed new system, their pension would determined by their pay during their entire time in work. But even Macron’s commissioner for pension reform, Jean-Paul Delovoye, has pointed out this will “penalise” people “like teachers” who “receive little in the way of bonuses”.

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