With French presidential and parliamentary elections due in April , May and June next year, politicians on all sides agree that education should be a high priority and they are trying out a range of policies for education reform. These include ending the comprehensive secondary school (‘college unique’), a greater emphasis on skills training, a radical decentralisation of the system, changes to teachers’ terms and conditions as well as a return to traditional methods, or possibly a highly individualised approach based on e-learning.
In a recent post on the Café Pedagogique site, the eminent French educationalist Philippe Meirieu examines the link between education reform and the future of the French social project. In particular he contrasts different approaches to school autonomy by identifying two radically different types which he calls market autonomy and democratic autonomy.
By democratic autonomy, Meirieu means giving schools the necessary freedoms to ensure that their professional teams can achieve clear national aims and objectives established democratically and within a coherent national system. By market autonomy he means the creation of a system which pits publicly funded schools in direct competition against each other, something rather like the system of private schools under a state contract which is already possible. According to Meirieu, many of the elements of this market autonomy are already present.
Meirieu argues that the rise of individualism has led to a crumbling of people’s confidence in public education. People are no longer prepared to entrust their children to schools in the way that one might entrust them to an airline – trusting the pilot to do the job well without any advice from passengers about how to fly a plane. We are less ready to accept the judgements of others about what is good for us and we are more distrustful of those who would make such judgements, whatever their expertise, in the name of the common good. In fact, the whole concept of the common good is no longer clear.
In this account, while our personal interests are perfectly legitimate we seem to lack the political institutions to construct a common good which is compelling enough to have a greater legitimacy than these short term interests. This leads us to be conflicted between our immediate personal interests and our desire to contribute to a greater common interest. We might agree with the idea of diverse, comprehensive, socially mixed schools and parity of esteem for vocational education…but maybe not for our own children.
And so, French citizens are increasingly becoming education consumers and the move towards market autonomy is well under way as evidenced by the increasing use of league tables, patterns of option pathways available, new flexibilities in catchment areas, new forms of student support which play on parents’ anxieties and also the very existence of private schools, whether they contract with the state or not.
Meirieu acknowledges that some of the growth in alternative and private schools is a response to the perceived failure of public schools to live up to their promise of individualised support, academic excellence and preparation for citizenship.
It is in this context that French politicians may be considering market reforms in education. Meirieu suggests that it would not be difficult for a new government to radically fragment the system into a multitude of smaller units committed to serving ‘parent-consumers’ who would become more reliant on their ability to play the system as well as possibly on their ability to pay for it. There are those who are ready to make the case for a massive deregulation of state education and the introduction of vouchers which can be ‘topped-up’ by the better off. Any government making this choice would be able to abandon any social vision or national purpose for education and hand things over to the institutional Darwinism of the market, trusting that those schools doing the best job will survive and thrive.
This would, of course, mean the end of France’s Republican education project, as defined by Jean Jaures (1859-1914) and others. It would mean abandoning any ambition of creating an education system which could help construct the common good for all our children. French education would be delivered into a global education market and be fought over by interest groups and corporations.
In the face of this threat, what does Meirieu recommend?
He certainly has no time for the ‘limping’ status quo. Drawing on French revolutionary traditions he suggests that what is needed is a combination of a ‘Jacobinism’ of aims with a ‘Girondism’ of means. By this he means that the aims of the system should be set nationally and democratically and apply to all; a strong, coherent and popular project which could enthuse teachers, parents and students. This would require a strong policy commitment to comprehensiveness and social mixity, parental involvement, effective differentiation, pathways of equal status, the promotion of teamwork, research and project work among staff and students and a strong place for arts and cultural learning.
However, the institutions themselves should benefit from considerable autonomy in implementing these national aims in ways which are appropriate to their local context and which build on the skills and creativity of their staff. This is the flexible, pragmatic ‘Girondism’ suggested by Meirieu. The role of the state should not be to ‘reign’ over the system or to treat its citizens as subjects but to guarantee those common values which unite citizens and create the conditions for them to live those values. Far from being docile servants of the school system, teachers and others education workers should be seen as skilled actors in a process which can both unite and liberate future citizens.
Meirieu regards this as a complete reversal of ends and means in contemporary French education and one which is urgently needed. In his view, the state is both abdicating its responsibility for defining ends and chipping away at the means available to help achieve them. All those involved in education need to have the opportunity to work on the relationship between ends and means in order to actually have a chance of actually achieving a smaller number of agreed social and educational objectives.
These debates are relevant to the English context where a system of radical ‘market autonomy’ is much further developed; to the extent where we are now starting to ask how we might rebuild a more coherent, less atomised, system. As always, each country can learn much from the experience of the other.
Educating after the November 13th attacks (December 2015)
Educational inequality in France (May 2015)
L’autonomie pourquoi? (In French) (April 215)
Roberto Unger on school as the ‘voice of the future’ (April 2015)
The bitter fruits of autonomy (November 2014)
What is learning? Philippe Meirieu (July 2014)