French school strikes: Why are France's teachers taking to the streets yet again?

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French school strikes: Why are France's teachers taking to the streets yet again?
Teachers protest against the new 'Blanquer Law' in April 2019. Photo: AFP

Parents across France braced for more school strikes on Thursday as teachers stage walk-outs and street protests against the government. Here's what it's all about.


Around 15 percent of primary school teachers in France are expected to take to the streets on Thursday to protest the government's planned education reforms.  
A total of 5.5 million civil servants were called on to protest, according to France's Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, with fewer secondary school teachers expected to turn out compared to their colleagues working in primary education.
"We can look at the 15 percent [who are striking] but do not forget those who are not striking," he said, adding that "we [the government] have had the lowest rate of strikers in the history of education in the last two years".
Many schools across France were recently forced to close on April 4th when teachers across France downed tools
But why exactly are the country's teachers taking to the streets once again?
Teachers and unions are up in arms about the government's plans for far-reaching reforms to France's school system (called 'Loi Blanquer' after France's education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer) which was voted through France's parliament in February.
The changes could come into effect at the start of the next school year in September. 
The new measures will affect pupils from écoles maternelles (nursery schools) all the way through to écoles primaires (primary schools) and collèges (middle schools) (for pupils aged 10-11 to 14-15).
Changes to the lycèe (the last three years of secondary school for pupils aged 14 plus) have already been pushed through, causing a wave of protests of their own late last year. 
Perhaps the most controversial point of the reform is what it doesn't do.
Teaching unions say the education bill does nothing to advance teaching in schools, fails to resolve the issue of resources and longstanding issues around teach training. Nor does it deal with the issue of teaching and accompanying children with severe learning difficulties, unions say.
Another major gripe is that unions find the education minister authoritarian and object to his manner of handling the reforms without enough consultation or respect for teachers on the ground.
Here are the key points of the reforms:
The most contentious issue that has really riled parents and teachers is a plan to unite elementary, primary and middle schools under one administrative entity.
Under the reform French schools from nursery (ages three to six) all the way up to collège will become one single administrative entity, under the authority of the collège whose director will be responsible for all three establishments.
Unions and parents believe that by getting rid of nursery and primary school heads and bring the schools under the control of the college will ruin the close relationship parents had with the heads of primary schools.
Parents also fear this will simply lead to certain nursery and primary schools closing altogether, especially in rural areas, meaning children will no longer go to their local school. This will give parents transport headaches.
Another key element of the reform is that nursery school will become obligatory for all children from age three.
The law's demand that teachers must be "exemplary" models for their pupils has not gone down well either.
Currently in France, children don't have to go school until age 6 although 98 percent of pupils start age 3, so the reform won't change a great deal.
Other changes will see students training to become teachers allowed to teach in schools several hours a week, and the French flag displayed in all classrooms.
We previously asked Angelina Bled, general secretary of France's Unsa student union why teachers and unions opposed the reforms and if more strikes are to be expected over the next few few weeks.
Why are you against the government's school reforms?
There are several issues. One major problem is that the government wants school to become obligatory for all children from the age of three. That means that public funds will be taken away from state primaries to fund private schools. It's a very thinly-disguised present to the private sector.
The second issue is what the government has coined the 'ecole des savoirs' (the school of knowledge) where all schools up to the collège will be gathered under a single entity. This point raises lots of questions. The idea behind this was to allow schools in rural areas to survive. But how will it be done? None of us were consulted on this point. And what will happen to the nursery and primary school headteachers? It's a very stressful situation.
The government's 'Loi Blanquer' is being pushed through by force, even though it will completely change our profession and the way we work. But so far, there hasn't been a proper discussion which is vital in order to build a new school system which is meaningful.
The reforms started with the idea of making school obligatory for all children from the age of three which is a good thing. But then, lots of other points were added, without a coherent project in mind. Schools are being taken apart and put together again, but we don't really know what for.
There have been a number of strikes recently. Do you not worry that yet more strikes might turn parents and others against you?
So far, polls show that parents overwhelmingly back us. At the start, the reforms were attractive but not any more. 
by Emilie King


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