History of Education in France by Sammler, Steffen (2018)

The French Education System in the 20th and 21st Century

1910 -The Development of the French Education System Prior to the First World War

The military defeat suffered by France in 1870 at the hands of the troops of the North German Confederation provoked intense debate on the causes of France’s political and military weakness. Republican politicians in particular considered one of the main causes of the defeat by Prussia to be a lack of political and subject-specific education among a large part of the French population. With this in mind, they called for a right to education for all children, with compulsory and free-of-charge attendance at primary schools within a system predicated on the ideological neutrality of the content, providers and places of teaching and learning. In this way, French republicans defined principles which in the course of the twentieth century were extended to secondary school education and remain in force to this day. The education policymakers of the Third Republic were committed to ensuring that the state fulfilled its duty to provide access to education. From 1879 to 1886 they laid down the legal foundations for free-of-charge secular or ‘laicistic’ primary schools (in accordance with the principle of laïcité , or the separation of church and state) which all children between six and thirteen years of age were obliged to attend.Until the mid-twentieth century, compulsory primary school was a form of education which remained strictly separate, both in social and institutional terms, from secondary schools, which commanded fees. Since the end of the nineteenth century, more academically capable pupils, after finishing primary school, had been eligible to attend an école primaire supérieure (‘upper school’) after having completed their compulsory period of schooling. Attending this school, and thus progressing beyond the basic school-leaving certificate, was the standard prerequisite for entering the teachers’ college ( école normale ), which served to train primary school teachers. However, since primary schools did not provide education in ancient Greek and Latin, graduates of the écoles primaires supérieures were unable to continue their education in lycées , even if they had the financial means required.By contrast, fee-paying secondary schools had their own ‘substructure’ in the form of fee-paying elementary classes ( petit lycée ) which prepared pupils from the middle and upper classes for grammar school, which began with year six of schooling but which enabled only a small fraction of pupils in any one year to obtain a university entrance qualification (1 per cent in 1899).The pronounced differences in social composition, teaching and social status between primary and secondary schools were reflected in teacher training. At the age of sixteen, aspiring primary school teachers entered the national teacher training institutes ( écoles normales ), which provided separate training for male and female students, and graduated at the age of eighteen before embarking upon their teaching careers. Primary school teachers received practice-based training which contrasted with the academic education offered to grammar school teachers who, after gaining their higher education entry qualification and studying their subject or subjects at university, took the competitive examination for the recruitment of teachers ( agrégation , in which the sexes were again separated), before commencing their teaching careers as members of the academic elite. Whereas primary school teachers were, until 1990, called institutrices or instituteurs , the title of professeur awarded to grammar school teachers clearly indicated that they were considered to belong to the same professional class as university teachers. Prior to the educational reform of 1902, grammar school education emphasised the teaching of classical languages and prioritised ancient and medieval over modern history. Teachers in state schools, particularly primary school teachers, based their teaching on the principles of the Enlightenment and of the revolution of 1789 and on positivism, while teachers in private faith schools rejected the political and academic principles of the Republic and thus drew criticism from republican education policymakers. History teaching in state schools propagated a patriotic worldview, inspired by the values of laïcité and scientific and industrial progress, which since the turn of the century had visualised France as a modern republic which had overcome its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 and regained its position on the world stage as the political, economic and cultural centre of a powerful colonial empire.The egalitarian rhetoric employed by the political elites of the Third Republic stood in stark contrast to the realities of life and education in both the home country and the colonies, whose local population had to put up with a two-class system which pervaded both curricular content and the training of primary school teachers. At the same time, the political antagonism between primary and secondary schools, and those who represented them, made it impossible to diversify the range of subjects taught at schools and to expand technical education. Primary school teachers were among the most vocal critics of the imbalance between the ideals propagated in the republican educational discourse and the reality of the situation. Their social status and low income made them effectively ‘alien elements’ in French middle-class society. Many of them combined militant laicism with the promotion of socialist ideas. They attempted to ally themselves with anarcho-syndicalism or with the socialist workers’ movement, and were known for their high rate of unionisation.

1925 - The French Education System between the Wars

After the First World War, the German education system, with its high standard of practical and technical training, became the model for a radical reform project devised by a group of teachers which founded the Compagnons de l’Université Nouvelle in 1917; the inspiration provided by Germany in this regard was to dominate the debate on the modernisation of the French education system between the wars. The Compagnons de l’Université Nouvelle criticised the excessive centralism of the French education system and the insurmountable barriers between the paths through education pursued by those who went only to primary schools and those who accessed secondary education. They further advocated the abolition of the division of the French education system into primary and secondary schools and campaigned for a system based on a single free-of-charge school ( école unique ) catering for all pupils from the age of six to eighteen. At the same time, the Compagnons explicitly recognised that there were differences between the intellectual and practical abilities and capabilities of individual pupils, arguing for an orientation stage during the final three years of schooling for the purpose of identifying pupils’ strengths and directing them towards their future careers. However, they insisted that the selection process should ensure a high degree of equality of opportunity, for which the école unique appeared to them to provide the optimum conditions. The reformers did not succeed, in the period between the wars, in putting this aim into practice and in bringing together the hitherto separate primary and secondary forms of education. They suffered a defeat in 1923, when the conservative education minister Léon Bérard abolished the neohumanist (modern) sections of grammar schools which had been introduced in 1902, and reintroduced the compulsory teaching of classical languages for all pupils. This reform also led to an increase in the teaching of ancient history and the medieval period at the expense of modern history.In subsequent years, reformers from the ranks of the Radical Party and the Socialist Party, known as the French Section of the Workers’ International (S.F.I.O.), achieved a degree of success in modernising secondary school education. After a left-wing coalition between radicals and socialists came to power in 1924, these reformers reintroduced the neohumanist (modern) sections and, in 1925, standardised secondary school education for girls and boys, which paved the way for the gradual achievement of equality between male and female secondary school teachers in terms of their training, remuneration, and obligations.From the mid-1920s onwards, radical education policymakers succeeded in creating an initial breach in the principle of compulsory fees for secondary schools by merging courses from upper primary school level with those of the collèges , secondary schools run by towns and cities. In 1930 and 1931, fees for the first two years of secondary schools were abolished, and in 1933 attendance at all levels of secondary school became free of charge, which, by the end of the 1930s, caused the numbers of pupils attending secondary schools to double on those recorded at the turn of the century. Yet it fell to the education policymakers of the Popular Front government to prepare the fundamental reforms of the French education system which had been repeatedly demanded by union representatives and politicians from the Radical Party, the S.F.I.O. and the French Communist Party (P.C.F.) for submission to parliamentary vote and to partially implement them.In 1936, the Popular Front government made schooling compulsory for all pupils up to the age of fourteen and produced draft legislation which stipulated a single education system for pupils up to the new legal school leaving age, yet which did not call the existence of private schools into question. The government plans provided for pupils, after five years at primary school, to enter a four-year initial stage of secondary education as a preparatory path to two different sets of career prospects. Those pupils deciding to pursue vocational training were to leave secondary school after those four years, while those opting for an academic education were to take university entrance qualifications a total period of seven years. While socialist and communist education policymakers considered that the legislation did not go far enough, advocates of private schools were critical of the introduction of an orientation stage for all pupils, claiming that it amounted to an attempt to ‘Sovietise’ the French education system, and unions representing the interests of teachers from primary and secondary schools feared that the reforms would lead to a reduction in their professional status and autonomy.

1940 - The French Education System under the Vichy Regime

The Vichy government held the egalitarian and universalist workers’ and intellectuals’ movements of the inter-war period responsible for France’s military defeat at the hands of Germany, claiming they had undermined national patriotism and the traditional order and opposing their ideas by propagating a militant patriotism rooted in conservative social mores expressed in the motto ‘work, family, fatherland’ ( travail , famille , patrie ).The regime either annulled the educational reforms introduced by the Popular Front government or redefined them, as in the case of compulsory physical education, according to its ideological principles. In October 1940 the government banned Jews from the teaching profession; even Jules Isaac, the inspector general of the French education system and a respected author of textbooks, was a victim of this law. Along with Jewish teachers and practising Freemasons, the new authorities directed particular suspicion towards a proportion of primary school teachers who, following the First World War, had called for the internationalisation of curricula and for the promotion of international understanding in education. This suspicion culminated in the dissolution of the primary school teacher training colleges ( écoles normales ) by the Vichy government in September 1940 and the banning of teachers’ unions a month later.At the same time, the regime permitted members of religious orders to resume their teaching activities and, in 1941, allowed teachers at faith schools to take the entrance examination required for those entering service in state schools.The Vichy government reintroduced the teaching of ‘duties to God’ ( devoirs envers Dieu ) into primary schools, promoted religious education in secondary schools, and incorporated private schools and their pupils into the system of state funding for education, while also partially reintroducing fees for secondary schools and called for the classical education offered in grammar schools to be strengthened as a distinct alternative to ‘neohumanist’ courses.Under its education minister Jérôme Carcopino, the Vichy government also took steps to end the traditional distinction between primary and secondary school education. This measure was intended to destroy the republican spirit of primary schools as well as strengthening the neohumanist (modern) and vocational sectors of the French education system. To this end, the more advanced classes of primary school (the école primaire supérieure ) were transformed into middle schools ( collèges ) with a neohumanist (modern) specialisation. A new entrance examination for teachers in collèges was also introduced; later, during the Fourth Republic, this examination became fully established alongside the agrégation as a second entry examination qualifying teachers to teach in secondary schools, acquiring the name Certificat d’aptitude au professorat de l’enseignement du second degré , or ‘Certificate of aptitude for teaching in secondary education’ (CAPES).However, it appears that only a fraction of the French population accepted the repressive measures taken by the Vichy government against the key components of republican education, the regime’s concerted effort to give faith schools preferential treatment to state education, and its attempts to introduce elite schools along the lines of those in existence in the National Socialist regime, whose purpose was to be to secure a fitting role for the new French elite in a fascist Europe under German rule. At the end of the Vichy regime, a large majority (77 per cent) of the French population opposed state funding and promotion of faith schools, thus boosting the authority of the republicans, who had prepared the ground for the development of a new education system while in the Resistance and in exile.

1955 - The French Education System in the Fourth Republic

The ideas of the Popular Front government and the Resistance concerning educational reform were taken up in 1944 by the provisional government of the ‘Free French’, whose plan d’Alger represented a preliminary draft for the reform of the French education system. In the same year, on the basis of these recommendations, the government set up a commission which was initially coordinated by the physicist Paul Langevin then, after his death, by the psychologist Henri Wallon. In 1947, the commission issued a comprehensive plan for the reform of the French education system. The proposals called for an école unique for all pupils from the age of six to eighteen, which latter was to be the new legal school leaving age, and placed considerable emphasis on history and civic education for all stages of schooling. A phase of elementary education was to be followed by an orientation stage for pupils aged eleven to fifteen, with core subjects in which all pupils were to be taught together and a system of elective subjects; this phase was to prepare pupils for their subsequent education and assist in decision-making on its future course. The third phase of education was to give pupils a choice between either embarking upon an apprenticeship, undertaking more theoretically grounded vocational training, or choosing to pursue academic education. The introduction of comprehensive schooling was to be accompanied by reforms to teacher training; trainee teachers were to embark on their courses after their university entrance examinations and undergo a combination of practical and theoretical training offered at a teacher training college ( école normale ) and at university.The polarisation of political factions during the Fourth Republic, which caused the breakdown of the initial unity among the Resistance movement, made it impossible to implement the reform project drawn up by the Langevin-Wallon Commission; it was the education policymakers of the Fifth Republic who were to put its plans for structural modernisation into practice.

1975 - The French Education System in the Age of Reform

When Charles de Gaulle, the first president of the Fifth Republic (1959-1969), took office, he promised to turn France into a modern society with an economy powered by industry and the service sector, a development to which it would be essential to raise the educational level of broad sections of society. A more educated population would meet businesses’ increased demand for qualified workers as well as corresponding to young people’s own desire for better education, fuelled by the country’s demographic boom.At the same time, the constitution of the Fifth Republic created favourable conditions for the achievement of these aims by increasing the powers of the executive in relation to parliament and making it possible to introduce school reforms without the approval of parliament by passing by-laws.In 1959 the government raised the school leaving age to sixteen and in 1963 introduced a new type of school, the collèges d’enseignement secondaire , which represented an important step towards the creation of a comprehensive secondary school system. This reform, eventually achieved in 1975 by the education minister René Haby, reduced the duration of standard grammar schools to the tenth to twelfth years of schooling, and introduced the collège unique , a comprehensive middle school, which was compulsory for all pupils from years six to nine. The collège unique , following the practice of British and German comprehensive schools, did not stream pupils according to their performance in different subjects; education policymakers of the Fifth Republic considered that distinctions between pupils according to performance at an early age amounted to a form of selection, which contradicted the principle of comprehensive education for all pupils. Once pupils had completed four years of secondary schooling at a collège , they could progress to the second stage of secondary education, choosing between taking a general final examination or one focusing on applied science and technology. Those pupils who decided not to continue their schooling until the university entrance qualification were awarded a vocational qualification, the brevet d’études professionnelles (BEP).During this period, the French government under de Gaulle set up a legal framework for the resolution of the issues around privately funded faith schools which had overshadowed debates over education policy since the time of the Third Republic. The legislation was a response to a change of mood in the population as shown by the fact that, ten years after the end of the Second World War, half of all French people were in favour of state funding for private schools. The Gaullist education minister Michel Debré introduced a reform which ensured that private schools would receive state support. In return, these schools had to prove that there was public demand for a private educational institution, and comply with state control on the basis of a contract of association ( contrat associatif ). The majority of private schools agreed to this measure. As an alternative to the contract of association, private schools were given the option of cooperating with the state on the basis of a contrat simple , which came with a lower level of funding attached than did the contract of association, but enabled schools to retain greater freedoms. During the 1970s, this legislation evolved to increase the level of state funding for private schools while granting them greater autonomy. This policy won considerable support among the French public, 77 per cent of whom were in favour of state funding for private schools.The reforms of the 1970s were designed to establish a connection between structural modernisation and the renewal of curricula and teaching methods; their intent was to prepare the French education system for the challenges of academic, economic and cultural globalisation. To this end, education minister René Haby proposed that social and scientific subjects taught in schools should be combined in subject groups which would enable pupils in the first stage of secondary education to receive a problem-oriented introduction to experimental sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) and social sciences (history, geography, social studies). However, the attempt to integrate humanities and social science subjects after the example of the subject “social studies” taught in English-speaking countries was thwarted by history and geography teachers intent on defending the independence of their subjects and the civic education centred around the French “republican catechism” ( catéchisme républicain ) against the liberal reformers.The coalition of socialists and communists which took office in 1981 promised to implement the legal principle of equality and to continue the modernisation of secondary schooling commenced by the Haby reforms of 1975 in such a way as to ensure that the desired increase in social mobility and overcoming of social barriers in education could realistically be attained. This promise was a response to the realisation that the comprehensive structure of education which had been ushered in by the collège unique was not sufficient alone to improve educational opportunity for all. Drawing inspiration from the model of positive discrimination applied in English-speaking countries, the coalition set up regional priority education zones or zones d’éducation prioritaires (ZEP), which became effective from 1981 onwards and were designed to create regional points of focus on funding and support for education in areas of social deprivation. The regional priority education zones were part of a policy of decentralisation which gave regional or département authorities greater decision-making powers in education policymaking.At the same time, education policymakers in the left-wing coalition made schools more autonomous, encouraging them to develop distinctive profiles via projects known as projets d’établissement and communicate them to the public.Education policymakers called for more extensive training for teachers in teaching methodology, which they argued would enable them to realise the new educational objectives and make use of their increased scope for shaping their practice in schools. From 1990/91 onwards, academic training of teachers in teaching methods was carried out at teacher training colleges ( Instituts Universitaires de Formation de Maîtres , I.U.F.M.). The introduction of academic training for primary school teachers and the provision of professorships in education studies and teaching methodology at teacher training colleges boosted the professionalism in evidence in the teaching practice of teachers in all types of schools. The reform of teacher training for primary school teachers, which made it more academic in nature, gave rise to a new occupational title for this group of teachers, professeurs des écoles , which put an end to the old division between primary school teachers or instituteurs and secondary school teachers or professeurs .These measures marked the end of a process of change in the self-image of teachers which had begun in the 1950s. Political debate around the values considered to form the foundations of the French republican polity was increasingly replaced by the teaching of knowledge which could find application in a modern service- and industry-driven economy. The fundamental transformation in the way in which French teachers regarded themselves, which had begun in the 1970s, became particularly apparent from the 1980s onwards in the shape of a decline in the traditionally widespread involvement in socialist politics and union affiliation among teachers in France.Education policymakers in the left-wing coalition became particularly strikingly aware of this change in ideas on education where it found expression in the form of the resistance offered by proponents of private education to plans to reduce the financial and administrative autonomy of private schools and to integrate them more closely into the state school system. Parents who, in 1984, had succeeded in opposing the reform of the socialist education minister Alain Savary and by defending their right to choose the school which their children should attend, approved of private schools not least because they offered a ‘second chance’ to children who had failed to achieve success in the state education system.Alain Savary’s successor as education minister was Jean-Pierre Chèvenement, who reacted to the new idea of education by re-emphasising it as primarily the imparting of knowledge and turning away from the educational innovations which had found their way into education policy in the wake of the unrest of 1968 and which had also left their mark on history teaching. In contrast to the curriculum reforms of the 1950s and 1970s, those of the 1980s led to a greater emphasis on the traditional canon of subjects and an approach to history centred on the French nation.Chèvenement nonetheless succeeded in introducing a new advanced secondary level examination which pupils could take in conjunction with vocational training ( baccalauréat professionnel ). He also promised to enable 80 per cent of each age group to take advanced secondary examinations by the year 2000, and to take a new approach to education by giving it a positive image in the eyes of the French population.A further indication of this change of perspective was the increasing internationalisation of school education. In 1981, selected primary and secondary schools were equipped with ‘international sections’, which gave French pupils, alongside classmates from other European countries, a bilingual education delivered by international teaching staff. The internationalisation of schooling for the elite contrasted with the increasing segregation of pupils in the ‘priority education zones’. The French public became particularly aware of this social and cultural segregation when the so-called ‘Islamic veil affair’ entered the headlines in 1989. The ensuing debate around the relationship between the religious freedom of the individual and the ideological neutrality of schools offered, following the final decision of the Conseil d’Étate, an opportunity to adopt a more tolerant approach to religious convictions in schools.

1995 - The French Education System in the 1990s

Competition between reform projects respectively initiated by France’s socialist and liberal parties largely dominated the development of the French education system in the 1990s. Such initiatives were a response to the new challenges facing the French education system as a result of political and economic changes brought about by the end of the Cold War and the consolidation of the European unification process.Education policymakers reinforced the European dimension of the French education system and continued to drive the shift in financial and administrative powers in the field of school education from Paris to administrative bodies at regional and département level, a development which had got underway in the 1980s.The unions responded to these new challenges in 1992 by dissolving the influential Fédération de l’éducation nationale (FEN), a federation of education unions which had represented the interests of employees of the French education system across all parties since the end of the Second World War. The dissolution of the FEN led to a multiplication and diversification of the groups representing the interests of employees in the education sector; the 1990s were characterised in this regard by competition between the two organisations Fédération syndicale unitaire (FSU) and the Union nationale des syndicats autonomes (UNSA Éducation).Education policymakers from the socialist and conservative/liberal campy were in agreement that the French education system needed to improve its capacity to perform. They attempted to reduce the dropout rate and to improve pupils’ language and intercultural skills as well as, in particular, their competence in mathematics and the sciences. Liberal education policy viewed strong support for private educational initiatives as being the optimum route to achieving these aims. In 1994 the liberal education minister François Bayrou took measures to this end by attempting to substantially increase the level of state subsidies available for investments made by private schools. The political controversy surrounding a proposal to revise the loi Falloux , which capped state funding for private schools, nonetheless demonstrated that French society was able and willing to defend the compromise which had been established in 1959 between the state and private education sectors against both the placing of excessive restrictions on and one-sided privileging of the private sector by state education policy. Opponents of the planned reform of the loi Falloux won the support of the French constitutional court, which rejected the revision on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The reaction of the public and the constitutional court to these plans led liberal education policymakers to pay more attention, in the ensuing period, to the reform of state education at collège and lycée level. They divided collège teaching into three levels (observation, middle and orientation levels) and reduced the number of options available in the general advanced secondary examination to three specialisations: L (humanities), ES (economic and social studies) and S (maths and sciences). These reforms were designed to improve pupils’ skills in core subjects while offering them the opportunity to specialise in subjects corresponding to their abilities and interests.In contrast to their conservative and liberal competitors, socialist politicians in the arena of education policy placed more emphasis on action on the part of the state aimed at overcoming the inequality faced by pupils coming from different backgrounds. They attempted to boost the effectivity of regional priority education zones more effective by offering different types of support which were attuned to specific target groups. At the same time, they sought to encourage pupils to play an active role in their education by means of revamped in citizenship education curricula and the opportunity to become involved in decision-making school councils at upper secondary level.French education policymakers responded to the Maastricht treaty of 1992, which furthered the process of European unification, by increasing the importance of European institutions of school-based education. In the year of Maastricht, the French government introduced European sections at secondary schools; 1994 saw the launch of the AbiBac, an upper-secondary level examination by which pupils could obtain both the French Baccalauréat and the German Abitur .National curriculum commissions developed new curricula for humanities and social science subjects at collèges and lycées which considerably rised the number of topics relating to European issues. Curriculum reforms increased pupils’ engagement with the competition between democracy and dictatorship in European societies of the twentieth century and encouraged critical reflection on the authoritarian regimes which had arisen in their own nation’s history, in particular the Vichy regime.

2007 - The French Education System in the First Decade of the Twenty-first Century

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, French education policy underwent a series of reforms with the aim of adapting education in France to the demands of a unified European education system, as defined by the governments of the EU member states in Bologna in 1998 and in Lisbon in 2000, and to international competition. To this end, policymakers continued to drive the policies of decentralisation and Europeanisation of the French education system in conjunction with that of promoting competition between state and private schools on the one hand and between individual collèges and lycées within the state education sector on the other.The reforms to the structure and content of education which led to the comprehensive reform project initiated by the education minister François Fillon ( loi d’orientation et de programme pour l’avenir de l‘école ) in 2005 gave rise to considerable protest on the part of pupils and teaching staff; their implementation in accordance with the government’s intentions failed, due largely to financial constraints.The Bologna process, embarked upon in 1998 with the aim of coordinating university education within Europe more effectively, led to a reform of teacher training in France in 2005; these changes brought to an end the independence of teacher training colleges or Instituts Universitaires de Formation des Maîtres (IUFM) and provided for them to be successively integrated into planned university clusters ( pôles universitaires ). As a result, the educational focus which had formed the core of IUFM training took a back seat to teacher training geared towards specific subjects.In the context of international competition, education policy in France defended the values of the national education system while increasing efforts to improve pupils’ language and intercultural skills. In light of the debate on cultural globalisation, the French education minister François Fillon reasserted the authority of the secular French education system in the face of challenges from individual members of Muslim communities.At the same time, curriculum reforms of the first decade of the twenty-first century placed emphasis on teaching structured around specific topics, the comparison of cultures, and global history, aimed at transcending national boundaries and challenging Eurocentric perspectives. Yet these efforts to broaden the cultural horizons of teaching found themselves faced with attempts on the part of the French government to influence history and citizenship education by means of direct intervention, as exemplified by the law of 2005 requiring the teaching of the civilising achievements of the French colonial regime for indigenous populations.Our review of French education policy over the last century leaves us in no doubt that, in terms of the organisational and legislative frameworks, the promise of equality in school education for all pupils from pre-school age to the end of the first stage of secondary school has been fulfilled.In the decades following the introduction of a single first stage of secondary education in 1975, the realisation of formal equality ensured that the level of education of all pupils up to the upper-secondary level examination increased nationwide, a change from which pupils from backgrounds traditionally less associated with education have also been able to benefit.Nonetheless, these achievements in democratising secondary education have to a degree been qualified by the emergence of a multiplicity of new forms of social distinction between pupils in this period. These include an increase in competition between different schools within individual administrative districts; the social hierarchy which has dictated differing levels of value and significance attached to the Baccalauréat S (maths and sciences), L (humanities) and ES (economic and social studies); and the small proportion of working-class children among pupils attending the preparatory classes leading to the entrance examination for the nation’s elite private and state universities, the grandes écoles .All this considered, we may close by observing that, even in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the French education system still faces the formidable challenge of reconciling the ideal of high-quality education for all and the need for adequate differentiation of pupils according to ability in the light of societal changes.


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