The French education wars threaten anew

19th September 2005, Comments 0 comments

Parents are increasingly opting to send their children to Catholic schools. Hugh Schofield explains why and reports on how the flight from public schools has placed the State and the teacher's unions at loggerheads -- again -- over funding.

Education minister Gilles de Robien has stirred the ire of the teacher's unions

An uneasy 20-year-old compromise in the French education system is under threat because of a sudden increase in applications to private Catholic schools, which this year have been obliged to turn away tens of thousands of children.

The old demons of the country's religious-secular divide were startled awake last week when the education minister in the centre-right government Gilles de Robien openly called for more state resources for Catholic schools in order to take account of the burgeoning demand.

Furious teaching unions, left-wing politicians and parents' associations accused the minister of wishing to "re-ignite the education wars," of "threatening one of the pillars of the republic," and of "scandalously acting as an apologist for confessional schools".

And they vowed to force the government to back down if it tries to rebalance a careful status quo in place since the last great public-private confrontation, which brought millions onto the streets during the presidency of the socialist Francois Mitterrand.

The root of the tension is the surge in interest in the country's 8,500 Catholic schools and colleges, which every year educate an estimated two million pupils -- or 20 percent of the total.

The compromise

*sidebar1*Since 1959 these establishments have been linked by contract with the state, which means teachers' salaries and building maintenance are paid for by the government and fees are correspondingly low. A typical secondary school in Paris costs EUR 1,400 a year, and in the provinces they are cheaper.

Until recently demand was no more than steady. Most parents who chose the schools simply wanted a religious element in their children's education, while an age-old mistrust of the Catholic church and a belief in the secular 'republican' system meant that the vast majority kept a sniffy distance.

But in the last few years there have been profound social changes. Much-reported problems in the state system including low achievement in many poor areas and strikes by teachers and students have combined with a new sense of pragmatism among French families.

Opting out

*quote1*Parents who would never have dreamed of sending their children to a Catholic school are now happy to do so, and applications have sky-rocketed. This year the Catholic Education Secretariat-General (SGEC) estimated that it has had to turn away up to 50,000 children, with the biggest concentration in cities like Paris, Toulon and Montpellier.

"We are more and more part of ordinary people's thinking," said SGEC chief Paul Malartre, who estimates that today one in two French families sends a child at some point to a Catholic school. "There is a lot of what we call 'zapping' - with children swapping between the systems."

Many children 'zap' back and forth between private and public schools.

A recent study showed that for only a minority -- 39 percent -- of parents was the availability of Christian instruction a factor in their choice. More important was the belief that the schools have a 'good environment' and that they transmit moral values such as discipline, tolerance and respect.

Indeed Catholic schools are bound by law to offer the national curriculum and not to proselytise, which means that catechism classes are an optional extra. Only three percent of teachers are in religious orders, and there has been a big increase in the number of Muslim pupils.

"There are still some ancient prejudices out there: that the schools are run by priests, that they are elitist and bourgeois. To people who say that, I just reply: you are out of touch. Society has moved on," said Malartre.

But who pays?

*quote2*The success of the Catholic schools would be uncontroversial did it not automatically raise the incendiary question of finance. the SGEC says it is only fair that it gets a bigger slice of the country's educational cake to cope with the demand.

As part of an unwritten agreement dating back to the Mitterrand showdown in 1984 Catholic schools get 20 percent of teaching posts. The ratio is rigidly applied with the result that this year -- as part of overall cuts -- the SGEC lost 500 jobs, just as more children are trying to get into the system.

"We are at saturation level. All we can do is increase class sizes to the maximum and turn children away," said Malartre.

Education Minister Robien's promise of a "fair" share-out of resources may be a recognition of the growing popularity of Catholic schools, but it is also a red light to the fiercely secular teaching unions -- many of whose members still smart from Mitterrand's failure to close the private system.

For the French left, Catholic schools are a middle-class social refuge -- and talk of giving them financial succour is a gross betrayal of the country's secular vocation.

September 2005

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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