Sunday, April 02, 2006

French Youth - a teacher's perspective.

Despite what you may read or hear about the French protests in the news, things are not as bad as they look. The economy is not paralyzed, transports work, the strikes have been limited and if the demonstrations have been popular, most of the protests have been made by students and union workers and yes, overall the country is at work. There is very little chance that a general strike over the controversial law should take place. Basically after Chirac's speech, one can say that the government has more or less lost its battle by admitting it has made errors. Chirac announced his plan to enact but suspend the contract law Friday evening.

The CPE (‘First-Employment Contract’) was a bad idea to begin with even if, in my opinion, it probably did not deserve the big fuss made about it. It should have been negotiated beforehand or dropped altogether. (I also think the two controversial points changed by Chirac did not make a whole lot of sense to begin with and sent a bad signal). There is however a call for a new major demonstration and strikes on Tuesday. It may get worse not because more workers are ready to go on strike (even if they are, one day of strike is no big deal) but rather because students are by definition harder to negotiate with. Today, everybody’s concern is precisely that the students’ demonstrations turn violent and out of control and that they become more radical.
Most commentators, however, stress the fact that the coming school holidays (at the end of next week for the
Paris area) may weaken the movement and that it might be harder afterwards for them to get their strength back. So in the end, it might be a last-ditch stand which will clear the way for the unions and the left to negotiate a better deal with the majority for the next law to be discussed in Parliament.

But, that does not mean the problems underlying the issue should not be taken seriously. The current protesters (mostly middle-class students) as well as the rioters last November (lower-class junior and high-school students) in poor neighborhoods (the banlieues) are the signs of an ongoing malaise with the French youth. It is not, as most of the foreign media have tended to see it, that the students demonstrating are spoiled, lazy brats who just want security, life-long jobs and social advantages. It is that are disillusioned and frustrated. As the Economist wrote it last week, the blame is partly to put on our political leaders, but the problem is this is the failure of society as a whole, including parents, teachers and unions to consider and sell today’s reality to the youths.

Despite what some conservatives may say, the French school system is certainly not a failure as a whole but it has repeatedly failed to take reality into account. I can only speak for my own experience, I guess. I have been a teacher in France for the last 10 years, and I'm beginning to have a better idea of how it works. better than most politicians and most journalists, I think.

In France, the myth has been that school will save you from poverty and unemployment. The reason is that it used to be true to some extent; because a limited number of people had access to universities which ensured them that with a degree they would have a job. In the last 30 years however, high-school graduates have considerably increased but that increase has been disconnected from the needs.
From 1990 et 1995 alone, the number of high-school graduates went up from 43,5% to 62,7%. In order to have so many more graduates from high-school, the requirements have been lowered (through the multiplicity of different baccalauréats for instance). The problem is that there is only a handful of prestigious baccalauréats and you have to be at to the top to be in a preparatory class for a Grande Ecole (the most prestigious
higher education establishments). Usually anything less is the result of some failure at some level in the educational process. Or so it is perceived.

This is very much in tune with the French hierarchical view of society in which white collars and intellectuals are revered and blue-collars or manual or ‘technical’ workers are despised. Usually in France you do not chose a ‘manual’ or ‘technical’ job because you are good at it or because you want to do it but simply because you failed somewhere along the way. You don’t choose it, you are forced into it. Granted this may be the case in most western countries, but it takes unique proportions in France. Then there is also the idea that if you failed, you are forever stuck wherever you are. There is very little hope that you can climb up the ladder and do something entirely different. This is not necessarily true but that’s the way it is perceived and it leads to despair.

In France, a baccalauréat gives you more or less a free pass to university but because there have been an increasing number of students in university, their degrees have lost credibility on the market. Most high-school students are not prepared for the kind of work they have to do in university and they usually fail their first couple years. Then they end up with nothing or doing something else - Again ttheir 'choice' is dictated by failure . This is particularly true in humanities. In fact, most of the students who protest these days are psychology, literature or social students who have very little hope of getting a job even with their degree. There are simply not enough jobs available in their field. At least they have very little hope of getting the type of job they have been led to expect. This naturally results in anxiety and frustration.
It is also clear that a baccalauréat itself is worth nothing on the job market. Some politicians lament over that but it is their own doing, with the blessing of the unions and the left.

As for the 40% who do not have a baccalauréat, they are given even less consideration. The problem has partly to do with what happens in "collège" [junior-high school].
Teenagers who have repeatedly failed their grades by the age of 13 or 14 have very little choice but to go on for another 2 or 3 years – even if they cannot follow the syllabus. They go on to the next level ‘out of consideration for their age’ (“au benefice de l’âge” as it is often put in French), meaning they’re too old to repeat the class again and there is no other option for them. There used to be other options- such as more technical courses of study but it was seen as too selective and unfair, to the point that the word ‘filière’ has become a dirty word. The problem was that there was no way to go from technological studies to more classical studies. The ideology of the “collège unique” is that all students deserve the same schooling. Unfortunately this idealistic view does not consider the individual for what they are but for what they should be. Most teachers today are very critical of this ‘collège unique’ system but the unions and some older teachers do not want to hear of any change there. As for the parents, they keep hoping that maybe next year their kid will do better, even if their expectations are unreasonable Just imagine the pressure on the kid.
So you can find teenagers who are 2 or 3 years behind and are still performing poorly in class. As you can guess that gives them a sense of utter failure and leads them to frustration and anger. Then they can eventually quit regular school and study for a professional degree (BEP). The problem is that it is often too late for a lot of them. Their sense of failure and rejection has already taken grip of their mindset and personality. After years without success, they end up taking on a culture of failure (which means that failure becomes ‘cool’, it becomes part of who they are) and some even turn violent.

So to conclude, we can say that one of the problems is that France as a whole has too much consideration for what is seen as ‘intellectual’. The politicians, the teachers, the unions (i.e. the teachers’ union) and the parents all share responsibility. Nobody wants to see the truth for what it is. As a result there are not enough plumbers or construction workers but too many university students with a useless degree or too many dropouts with nothing at all. In addition, it must be said that too many parents fail to give the proper limits to their kids. Many of the kids in trouble think they can get away with anything and that since they are failures, they have nothing to lose.

My idea (which is not actually my own invention) is that there needs to be more connection between the economy and education. whta does that mean? Well, you need to offer alternatives to students who cannot make it to the top and study until they’re 26. You need to give alternatives at all levels (junior-high, high-school and universities) and ‘sell’ those alternatives as positive changes but you need to very strict about them too. what is needed is to give them a better sense of reality and not lead them on to i!mpossible expectations. That is the role of both parents and teachers. In order to do that, you also need to have more flexible means to go from professional studies to regular studies.

Wow, when I read myself, I feel like I’m Sarkozying. But I’m not - I'm a socialist-type of guy... or so I have always though... and that’s probably the problem: such a view as mine is labelled as too ‘libéral’ (i.e. ‘free market' ideology), and the discussion quickly turns sourly political and it then becomes impossible to discuss the different options and changes.

The main issue here is that the French Republican idealism of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" may have gone too far. The individual is often sacrificed on the altar of mythical equality. Giving everybody the same chance is often misunderstood for having everybody do the same thing, but in my own experience, every student is different and that is a good thing. Only that should be acknowledged.

I think the current leaders – the baby-boomer generation – have a great responsibility in this idealistic view of what education should be about. Unfortunately, it will probably take a crisis or two to really change the French educational system but more importantly, to change the mindsets and we can always hope that this one will teach somebody something, and that the campaign for next year’s elections will finally tackle this issue in more realistic terms.


At 20:52, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1st : a few years ago, working in a training centre I was stupefied earring that teenagers was learning at school to get a CAP of « piqûrière”, a low professional degree to work in textile industries ; they had not any chance to get a job because the machines were too high-performance compared with the degree ! Why such a stupidity ? because it was unthinkable to fire all the specialised teachers !!! I do hope that non sense doesn’t exist any more.
2e : I agree, some children don’t fit to school or school doesn’t fit to them and its’ high time to consider it and makes the things change.
3rd : Generally parents do hope the best for their children : good standard on living, well paid job, good working conditions... and how to get them without a high degree (even if nowadays that doesn’t guarantee to get a good one so easily) especially in a country where being a member of the “élite” is highly regarded.
4th : as adults some children dislike some jobs : working outside in winter when it’s very cold or in summer when it’s very hot for example can be hardly appreciated by them.


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