This Sunday, 23rd April and then on Sunday 7th May, French voters go to the polls to elect a new head of state. This will be followed shortly afterwards by parliamentary elections on the 11th and 18th June.
All the leading candidates agree that France’s unitary national education service; ‘l’éducation nationale’, faces many challenges and needs reform. So what are their competing visions in this important policy area?
This post briefly compares the stated education programmes of the 5 candidates scoring highest in the opinion polls and from left to right:
- Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise)
- Benoît Hamon (Parti Socialiste)
- Emmanuel Macron (En Marche)
- François Fillon (Les Républicains)
- Marine Le Pen (Front National)
Only two of these will make it through to the second round and currently this is a very close call between four of the candidates (Mélenchon, Macron, Fillon and Le Pen) who are polling at very similar levels.
In terms of additional investment, 3 of the candidates have committed to training and recruiting more teaching and support staff with Mélenchon promising an additional 60,000 posts, Hamon 40,000 and Macron 9,000 over their term of office. Fillon proposes to introduce performance-related pay, greater institutional autonomy over teacher recruitment and more school-based training.
Macron and Hamon have both set themselves specific targets for maximum class sizes in primary schools and in designated disadvantaged areas: 25/20 from Hamon and 12 (infants) from Macron who is also proposing greater incentives for staff to work in disadvantaged areas. Hamon wants to offer the option of nursery education to children aged 2 and above in disadvantaged areas and Fillon suggests compulsory education should start at age 5 rather than 6.
Mélenchon is in favour of a fully funded national programme of extra-curricular activities for all school students, Hamon proposes a 25% increase in such activities including a new ‘Arts for all at school’ scheme and Fillon also suggests an extension of after-school homework clubs. Le Pen would end all ‘cultural’ or mother tongue language classes.
Fillon and Le Pen are both keen to introduce school uniform rules and Macron wants to ban the use of mobile phones in primary and secondary schools. All the candidates are in favour of some kind of civic or military service for 16-25 year olds – whether compulsory and military (Macron and Le Pen) compulsory and civic (Mélenchon) or voluntary (Hamon and Fillon).
All but two of the candidates (Hamon and Macron) are critical of the recent major reform of the secondary curriculum and would revisit it. This reform saw schools gaining more autonomy to manage some of the weekly hours of teaching using more individual support and thematic interdisciplinary project work covering 2 different themes per year such as: health, the environment, ancient civilizations etc. with a view to helping students make more sense of their studies. A new ‘Brevet’ qualification for 15 year olds was introduced, graded through a combination of continuous assessment of a common core, some oral exams and written exams in maths, science, history, geography, technology, French and moral and civic studies.
In upper secondary education, Mélenchon wants to extend the vocational baccalaureate from 3 to 4 years and to create a national careers service. Hamon wants parity of esteem for all bac routes and Macron is keen to extend the bilingual and European streams while reducing the number of compulsory subjects in the bac and introduce more continuous assessment. Fillon also values vocational education and training, seeing this as part of a strategy to reduce unemployment. Le Pen wants to introduce vocational streams from age 14 and sees the bac as a tool for selection and guidance with more emphasis on basic skills and an end to all interdisciplinary projects.
Mélenchon also offers specific policies on Higher Education, with a plan to abolish university fees with effect from this Autumn as well as to create more affordable student accommodation.
Each of these candidates, if elected, would fully expect to be able to shape the system and implement their specific proposals across the board because France still has an education service run along national lines.
One thing is clear, whether they come from the left, the right or the centre and whatever their policy differences, none of the candidates for France’s highest political office is advocating the ‘Anglo Saxon’ competition and ‘choice’ market reforms which have taken hold in the US and UK. There is little appetite in France for anything which might undermine the idea of a single national education service based on national values, with national standards and serving national objectives.
Market autonomy or democratic autonomy? (May 2016)
Scale and efficiency in upper secondary education (October 2015)
Educational inequality in France (May 2015)
Inspectors make the case for comprehensive colleges (January 2015)