France: Is the long-eroded status of teachers about to improve?
The status of teachers has been severely eroded in France over the last 10 years. This erosion accelerated noticeably during the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. Instead of being considered a necessary investment for society, the education system was presented as a costly burden.
During this time, teaching posts were considered one of the key areas for budget savings. From 2007 to 2012, some 80,000 teaching posts were eliminated in France while, at the same time, the number of pupils remained virtually stable.
Liberal approach to education as a business
This vast reduction in teacher number was accompanied by changes in the very concept of what education should be. Until then, regardless of political changes in government, education was considered a universal right. As such, it had to be accessible to all young people, whatever their origin. To achieve this, education had to be a public service, in other words, the responsibility of the State. In 2007, a new liberal, managerial concept of education emerged. This new approach sought to model the functioning of the education system along the lines of the business world: competition, profitability, evaluations ... forgetting that education cannot be treated like a tradable commodity.
This change of model was accompanied, for both ideological and budgetary reasons, by the destruction of the initial vocational training for teachers. At the same time, measures to provide specialised assistance for pupils with learning difficulties were to a large extent removed in primary schools.
Furthermore, relations between teachers and their hierarchy became tense. This situation was linked to the deterioration in teaching conditions and a highly prescriptive model of human resource management.
Change of attitude towards teachers
Not only did working conditions deteriorate badly, but there was also an absence of respect and consideration for teachers in the speeches of the political majority. Their professionalism was denied and teachers were viewed not as education specialists but merely as the implementers of an education policy that was, at best, questionable. For the SE-UNSA, the union of primary and secondary school teachers, this period was one of a succession of multiple trade union battles to try to curb a policy that went against the interests of both pupils and teachers.
Added to the professional malaise among teaching staff was a justified sense of a loss of social status. Contrary to announcements made during the 2007 presidential campaign, the reduction in the number of jobs did not lead to higher pay for teachers. On the contrary, their purchasing power fell and the anticipated pay rise did not happen, even though the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recognised that French teachers’ salaries were among the lowest of its member countries.
Teachers’ involvement in reform essential
This deterioration in working conditions, initial training, the social image of the teaching profession, and low pay has resulted in a lack of interest in the teaching profession among today’s students. For the last two years, competitive exams for secondary school teachers no longer attract entrants and many posts remain vacant. This situation has become particularly worrying.
A new majority has just come to power in France with a radically different education policy. The respect due to teachers has already been expressed to large extent. This is important, but it is not enough. The question of salaries remains. Finally, the involvement of teaching staff in the different reforms that have been announced is essential. In France, as elsewhere, teachers cannot be considered as the mere implementers of education policies. They are the designers, the teaching specialists, and the people who are unstinting in their time and energy for their pupils. A society that respects its teachers and its schools is a society that prepares its future well.
By Christian Chevalier, General Secretary of the S yndicat des Enseignants(SE), affiliated to the Union nationale des syndicats autonomes-Education(UNSA-Education/France)