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France fights 'education inequality' by ending bilingual classes

A 2012 OECD study found that France's education system showed gaping disparities between rich and poor children. But efforts to close the gap are proving controversial: Middle school teachers went on strike Tuesday. 

REUTERS/Robert Pratta
Striking French teachers hold placards which read, "Equality Yes, Mediocrity Non" (L) and "Low-cost School, Future in Danger" as they attend a nation-wide protest against new measures aimed at revamping the country's school system in Lyon, France, May 19, 2015. France's 840,000 teachers are largely opposed to the reform, their unions say, fearing it will increase competition between schools and so exacerbate inequalities.

France is proposing education reforms that would end elite bilingual programs and give schools more say in how students spend their time — a move to fight the inequality in education that threatens the country's future.

The plan from the Socialist-led government came after an international study ranked France among the developed world's most unequal school systems, with student performance highly dependent upon students' socio-economic status. But the plan has drawn criticism from both left-leaning teachers' unions and from French conservatives in a debate that mirrors discussions across the United States.

Middle-school teachers went on strike Tuesday to criticize the plan.

The government wants to add multi-disciplinary classes and cut a well-respected bilingual program that enrolls about 15 percent of top students in favor of expanding foreign language classes to a broader range of younger children. Students will start learning their first foreign language — usually English — in the equivalent of first grade and their second foreign language around age 12.

But French conservatives have fixed on a new required theme for middle school history classes, titled "A world dominated by Europe: Colonial empires, commercial exchanges and slave trades." A seemingly more positive take on the period, titled "Society and culture in the Enlightenment" is an elective.

Latin and Greek will be de-emphasized — currently 20 percent of middle schoolers learn those ancient language — but still optional. German and English will still be the first foreign languages taught — the government went out of its way to reassure worried German officials.

The number of hours in class, 26 per week, will not change.

Teachers are divided over the plan, fearing it will pit instructors against each other in the multidisciplinary courses, creating discord that will hurt students.

"It will create a battle between teachers," teacher Jean-Remi Girard told France Television.

But France's government is under pressure to fix the system after the 2012 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that France's education system showed gaping disparities between rich and poor children, notably in math. Among all the 39 countries that participated in the PISA study, only Taipei showed more inequality in math results, according to the OECD.

"How can we accept that our educational system can't promote all talents, that so many middle schoolers do not master basics, do not master foreign languages?" Prime Minister Manuel Valls wrote Monday in the Liberation newspaper. "In the current world — a globalized world, a world of exchanges — this is sending our children, and therefore our country, toward an impasse."

French teachers — and sometimes students — have gone on strike to protest every major change in the education system. The last set of changes, which added a half-day to what had previously been a four-day school week in primary schools, prompted protests for a school year.

The education minister at the time ultimately resigned after pushing the reform through, joining a long list of short-lived predecessors. The average tenure in the position is just 22 months and 15 days since the Fifth Republic began in 1958, according to the French magazine Le Point.

His successor, Socialist Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, has staked her tenure on the latest changes, describing critics as "pseudo-intellectuals" full of lies and nonsense. She said the teachers striking Tuesday made up less than one-quarter of the total.

The unions claimed more than 50 percent of teachers participated in the strike and, in an open letter to Vallaud-Belkacem, said the changes "will not be pedagogical, no matter what its promoters say, but bureaucratic."

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