The values of the French school system

With national educational expenditure standing at 7% of its GDP, France is among the top OECD countries in terms of national support to education. The government contributes the lion’s share owing to the choices made by Franceover one century ago: to provide a democratic education that is available and free to all, from nursery school through to university [1].

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Schooling has a key role in French society, even provoking, as of late (between September 2003 and March 2004), a major public debate. At the centre of this debate: the fundamental role of the école républicaine, or Republican school. Many others issues were raised: Can the school system still guarantee equal rights and promote social advancement? How can the school system continue to enforce the main principles on which it was built, in particular the notion of secularism? How relevant are its teaching methods and pedagogical content? This vast quantity of issues regarding the educational system may seem surprising when viewed by outsiders. But in France, the French Republic and the school system are intimately linked. France’s president, Jacques Chirac, evoked this fundamental notion at a Council of Ministers in September 2003, stating: “The school system is the cement of our nation”.

The French nation was forged through its educational system, which helped establish the French Republic. By recognizing the people as the sole source of national sovereignty, the French Revolution, born of the Age of Enlightment, invoked the right to education for all French citizens. This introduced significant changes in France, effectively ending Church control over education. The affirmation of the sovereignty of the people made necessary the establishment of a Republican school system to teach French people how to exercise their citizenship. Schools thus became instrumental in the forging of the French nation, particularly by introducing a single language, French, and a key principle, secularism.

It bears recalling that France, at the time, was a rural country where different form of patois were spoken and in which one third of the population did not speak French. The secularisation of the French school system (which permits the establishment of private religious schools) reached its apex in 1905, when the Law for the Separation de Church and State was passed in France. This is a fundamental notion that guarantees the respect of Human Rights - in particular, the freedom and equality of all citizens, and thus, the respect of democracy. The Greek word for people is“laos”, and laïcité - the French word for “secularism” - etymologically means the “unity of the people”: a founding principle of democracy, if there ever was one, and a burning question in today’s modern societies, confronted with the challenges of technology and globalisation, and afflicted by various communitarian digressions.

The 19th-century saw the revival of the main principles advocated by philosopher Montesquieu and the works of thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau and French encyclopaedist Condorcet. The trend was initiated by Hippolyte Carnot, named Minister of Public Instruction in 1848, who linked the principle of compulsory education to the notion of enlightened citizenship. Carnot believed that “no citizen, in the context of the newly instituted government, that is to say, the French Republic and universal suffrage [2], can be exempt - without causing damage to the public interest - from an exercise recognised as necessary for his full participation and personal implication in the nation’s sovereignty”. He subsequently introduced a bill that made primary education compulsory for all children.

One generation later, his principle of compulsory education for both sexes was implemented by Jules Ferry. A lawyer, journalist, deputy and even mayor of Paris after the French defeat in Sedan in 1870, Jules Ferry spearheaded an exemplary political battle to promote “educating the people”. In April 1870, a few months before the proclamation of the Third Republic, he declared: “I have made a vow to myself: of all the necessities of the current era, of all the issues, I have decided to choose one to which I will devote all of my intelligence, all of my heart and soul, as well as my physical and moral health: educating the people”. He held his promise. The laws passed between 1881 and 1884 institute compulsory education
 [3], free primary education and the notion of secularism. And what a promise this turned out to be, since in the France of today, more than a century later, these values remain sovereign. They are also fiercely defended, as witnessed by the recent public debates, in particular those concerning the wearing of religious signs in schools, which led to the passing of a law banning this practice [4]. Nursery schools are also free in France, doubtlessly a unique specificity of the French education system. While nursery school is optional, some 95% of children ages 3 and almost all children ages four and five attend.

A means of social advancement for the past century and especially during the thirty-year boom period after WWII, the French school system is currently criticised as being an ineffective social integrator. Poor school performance remains highest in neighbourhoods with large numbers of children of foreign origin, compared to those in more fortunate neighbourhoods - and this despite the creation of specialised structures, such as the “Priority Education Zones” in 1981. Yet people are prone to idealise the past and forget, for example, that the Italians, Spaniards and Poles integrating into France in the early 20th century experienced their share of difficulties and xenophobic incidents. People also tend to forget that society’s development has had a strong impact on schools. The soaring numbers of secondary school students between 1960 and 1980, the increased demand for qualifications (undiminished since the economic crisis of 1973), and new socio-economic constraints are but a few of the issues that oppose advocates of the Republicand educationalists. While the former support the traditional transmission of knowledge, the latter are more intent on adapting instruction to the students’ level. Here, the issue of the school system’s social mandate takes precedence over the notion of values. Transcending the public debates and the school system’s inescapable necessity to adapt to today’s society, the fundamental principles of secularism and free schooling instituted over a century ago by Jules Ferry remain sound principles.

Written by Mélina Gazsi
taken from Actualité en France (magazine of the ministry of Foreign Affairs)

[1State education is free, except for university registration fees, which are among the lowest for industrialised country, ranging from 150 to 300 euros according to the level of studies, and which include the cost of student social security.

[2It was not until 1944 that women in France were included in universal suffrage.

[3At the time, schooling was mandatory for all children ages 6 to 13. During the Fifth Republic, an order dated 6 January 1959 and signed by the head of the French government, Charles de Gaulle, and by the Minister of National Education, Jean Berthoin, raised the age of mandatory attendance age from 14 to 16.

[4The Law of 15 March 2004 stipulates that “the wearing of signs or dress by which pupils overtly manifest a religious affiliation” is prohibited in State primary and secondary schools throughout France.