Education International
Education International

France: teachers – the embodiment of a public education service

published 16 November 2012 updated 27 November 2012

National education provision in France is tripartite: the public service, which educates 84 per cent of pupils/students; private provision under contract with the State; and the private sector not under contract. Formal schooling, developed from the late 19th century, was secular in inspiration. The early educators embodied the vision of public service. It was an image that conferred high social status on teachers. The situation today is more mixed.

Three conceptual visions of the State and teacher training

Each paradigm of the State correlates to a blueprint of education and society whose teacher-training provision reflects the choices of educational model made. These State paradigms converge with bureaucratic or post-bureaucratic regulation regimes (Maroy, 2008).

The republican State

The State underpins the construction of a national community in the face of upheavals generated by industrial development; social inclusion seems to be capable of being achieved by educating the younger generations (Durkheim, 1986, 1989). Schools in the 19th century republic mirrored their society: the masses which had to be able to access education and the elite. This divide was reflected in two types of teacher. For primary education, lay teachers were trained in institutions that gave a structured form to a strong professional identity. The training institution was modelled on the school.

For secondary education, teacher training was very poor; the professional culture was based on the importance of the specialist knowledge to be transmitted. The bureaucratic model of the Ministry of National Education exemplifies this type of regime.

The educative State

This is the paradigm of democratisation based on pupil achievement and teachers’ professional development.

The educative State model emerges in the 1960s. It becomes reality with the common-school model in 1975 and the 1989 General Principles Act. Universal compulsory education is to prove a momentous change for the teaching profession.

This model, based on the vision of a qualification for all pupils, is the product of a State where decisions on the curriculum, recruitment, and teacher career management are highly centralised. Substantive, vocational teacher training is provided to primary and secondary teachers together by the same establishments. This becomes the key to democratisation because, ensuring universal achievement means promoting professional development and skills (Bourdoncle, 1993; Perrenoud, 1999). The professional model will become the norm for both primary and secondary, notwithstanding enduring differences in some aspects of the profession.

Teachers have significant freedom in their classroom teaching and a highly predictable career path. Professional knowledge and expertise receive recognition.

This democratising-professionalisation approach is still entrenched in institutional discourses and expectations, notwithstanding the challenges made to it by the passing of the 2005 Act.

The evaluative State

This is tied into a results-oriented approach and the quest for educational effectiveness through spreading good practices.

The evaluative State is tied into a new and more flexible regulatory model based on the autonomy of participants and institutions, decentralised decision-making, the increased role of users, diversification of training provision, more flexibility in catchment areas, and more freedom in the choice of school. However, the State does not withdraw entirely - it sets the objectives for the system and control of the curriculum, gives impetus to decision-making, and negotiates with local entities (Maroy, 2005).

In this model, developing a more efficient delivery system may take precedence over respect for community life and the will of the people, and educational concerns (Maroy, 2008). The performance focus may result in disengagement from the avowed end purposes and be associated with an increased rejection of the professional autonomy of teachers. The idea of ??a professional teacher loses out to the pursuit of efficiency through the implementation of good practices identified and decided on by a closed community of experts far removed from actual classroom practices. The new education policies are all project- and delivery-oriented, and where individuals are concerned, work as commitment and reflexivity (Boltanski and Chiapello, 1999; Giddens, 1987).

This model is found to some extent in the OECD recommendations, but also in those of the Council of the European Union. But the French education system and teacher-training model retain their singular characteristics.

Developing new training provision: two approaches, two phases

New training provision since 2005 has been developed using two approaches (professionalisation and accounting), and in two phases (impetus and local implementation). Decisions on the initial training of young teachers, while ostensibly marginal and short-lived, actually affect times, content, participants, and where training and evaluation takes place.

The impetus for the 2009 reform: professionalisation approach, accounting approach

The visible impetus came from the Minister of Education, Luc Chatel, and the reform announcement sparked widespread opposition.

The rationale for the changes by central government was based on two approaches: a skills approach and a performance approach (Bernstein, 2007). The policy discourse looked for its benchmarks not only to European programmes and national and international experts, but also a social critique.

The approach to teachers’ professional development ties into a skills-based model and value rationale ...

This professionalisation approach in France is tied into the professional-development model that came out of the work of the 1968 Amiens conference, followed by the Bancel Commission under the 1989 Act. It reflects a consensus on two things: block-release teacher training and the reflexive practitioner model.

The 2006 drawing-up of specifications for 10 professional skills may be seen as a recognition of this professionalisation. However, the professionalisation approach is not interpreted in the same way by all stakeholders in the education system. Its meaning changes if coupled to either the educative State or evaluative State model.

... as opposed to an accounting approach and delivery system rationale

The ways in which funding for teacher training has changed give insights into the developments at work. In the educative State model, the State took care of initial teacher training through university institutes for secondary school teacher training and in-service training. The two reforms considered clearly form part of an accounting approach.

The mandatory weekly training day for school teachers to improve headteachers’ work goes some way to addressing an issue that has been simmering for over a decade. The Ministry of Education successfully squared two seemingly conflicting objectives: improving headteachers’ working conditions and implementing a cost-neutral reform. In doing so, it put all trainees and all parts of training provision under pressure.

The Government’s scrapping of student-teacher posts in the 2010 budget saved it 5,000 full-time equivalents.

Justification by the accounting approach is always coupled to an argument based on the professionalisation approach drawn from social critiques that are often inconsistent and result in training that is disengaged from the reflexive practitioner model. The result is a training model based on a command of academic knowledge that is wholly divorced from knowledge of how to teach which has become unnecessary where training is based on good practices selected by experts.

The teaching profession in France: an uncertain outlook

The 2009 reform pushed through by government has produced a critical situation. New teachers with no proper professional training have, since the start of the 2010 school year, been put into classrooms with a full timer. The "luckiest" among them get a few hours of “sitting next to Nelly” training outside their working hours.

The change of government in 2012 could possibly usher in a change of approach. That will be evident in early 2013 with the passing of legislation on "getting back to educational basics" and on higher education and research.

By Gisèle Jean and Thierry Astruc, Syndicat national de l'enseignement supérieur-Fédération syndicale unitaire (SNESUP-FSU/France).