The 2008 French Syllabus

The 2008 version of the French national primary school syllabus, the nationwide benchmarks revised every six years, was recently made public by the Minister of Education, Xavier Darcos.

In these new programmes de l’école primaire, as this national curriculum is referred to in France, the emphasis is put on the fundamental fields of learning - French and mathematics.

In late September, as a teaser, the minister divulged one of the measures he intended to implement: a two hour reduction of the time primary students spend in class each week. Compared to the previous 26 hours per week, children between 3 and 10 will spend only 24 hours a week in school starting September 2008, when the modified texts go into effect. This means no school on Saturday mornings, no more juggling weekends between those “with” and those “without” class. These two hours gained, for the those backing the project, or lost, for its critics, will be used to organize tutoring and extra instruction for children who are lagging behind, though it is not yet clear how this additional instruction will be organized.

The Education Minister boasted that the published text would be shorter, more concise and more user-friendly than previous versions and noted that this simplification would allow the parents to see for themselves that the announced return to the fundamental fields learning is genuine. This is good news since the gist of an official French text is often submerged in a flood of technical terms and professional jargon, even when it has been rehashed for the grand public. But will parents have access to the document? The 2002 programmes were published and available in bookstores. But strangely enough, now that the syllabus is comprehensible by all, no printed edition is planned, only copies for teachers and possibly a file that can be downloaded on internet. Maybe the Ministry of Education will change its mind.

Some strong polemic has erupted concerning this back to basics syllabus. The ex-Ministers of Education Jacques Lang and Luc Ferrie wrote an article in the French weekly the Nouvel Observateur saying they considered these new programmes backward and retrograde. To prove their point they explained that students in their last year of primary school, CM2, will only need the skills necessary for correctly spelling a 10 line dictated text, whereas the previous programs (2002) required students of this age to express themselves in a written text of twice that length while respecting the rules of spelling, grammar and syntax. Moreover, the number of hours per week devoted to French – reading, writing, grammar and oral expression – has been reduced to 10 hours a week compared to 13 hours previously. These prominent former ministers explain further that the simplified text tooted by Xavier Darcos is no more than a demagogic media plan to placate the current disarray of parents. The equation, they assert, that simplified content equals teaching concentrating on fundamental learning skills is not only false but meant to hide a regrettable return to obsolete methods.

What do the parents say?

The two major parents associations, the PEEP and the FCPE, assert the positions of the political parties and specialists who share their ideas and philosophy concerning education. The left-leaning FPCE in its declarations evokes the regressive and didactically backward approach to learning put forth in the new programs, underlining that it is impossible to carry out the goals set forth with two hours less of class each week. While the Peep, in line with the presidential majority which produced the text, talks of a clear and structured project that will permit parents to more easily follow their children’s education. The only question for the PEEP is how the two hours gained in the weekly schedule will translate into extra help for students lagging behind.

The French still have confidence in l’école de la république, but have been alarmed by recent studies showing that as much as 20% of the students entering middle school had either serious difficulties or major deficiencies in reading, writing and math (see article La Rentrée 2007). The French daily Le Figaro recently asked 1100 French over 18 years of age to give their opinion on the different measures announced in the new programmes, a total of 91% thought them either “definitely” or “most likely” a move in the right direction. A majority of those interviewed also judged the results of the educative system and the performance of students coming out of its schools less than satisfactory.

On Friday, June 13th, La nuit des l’écoles , a nation-wide sleep over that took place in the public primary schools, brought parents and teachers together to protest the new programmes, the 4 day school week and the scaling down of the number of teachers in public schools. Seventy schools participated according to the Ministery of education and 1000 according to the organizers. The main fear expressed by both parents and teachers was that rote learning and memorization would once again become the essential means of learning in primary school.

And the teachers?

Teachers helped organize this "night of the schools", and while some are participating in the strike movements others say they are are pleased with the changes. The new syllabus is not the only reason for the recent strikes but they considerably added to the number of teachers, students and parents in the streets in May. As the summer vacation approaches however, the number of protesters is dwindeling.

For parents weary of striking teachers, it's good to know that the project, which should be voted by the parliament before September, gives the municipalities the possibility of finding substitutes for striking teachers. These replacements won’t necessarily be teachers. In France striking is a constitutional right and the decision of replacing teachers on strike is left up to the locally elected officials. For now, few of them are exercising their privilege.



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