France’s schools are in crisis – and it has nothing to do with pupils’ dress

A rally organised by staff in Stains, in the Paris suburbs, to protest against the government’s abaya ban in schools, 6 September 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A rally organised by staff in Stains, in the Paris suburbs, to protest against the government’s abaya ban in schools, 6 September 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Shortly before schools opened for the new term in September, Unicef France issued an alert that almost 2,000 pupils were homeless, twice as many as in January 2022. The UN’s warning was timely, because parts of the state education system in France are in crisis – if not entirely dysfunctional. Yet what made the headlines wasn’t such urgent challenges, but a manufactured controversy over what children are accused of wearing to school.

In a country where the far right is steadily gaining ground, politicians and policymakers know how to play on the fear of Islam as an easy way to mobilise public opinion and pander to populist ideas. Witness Gabriel Attal, France’s education minister, who made the ban on the abaya, the long loose dress favoured by some Muslims, his top priority for the new school year.

He instructed ministry officials to invite the media to visit schools likely to run into the purported “abaya problem”. His strategy of stirring up Islamophobic sentiment to distract from the problems plaguing state schools seems to have paid off. The media focused largely on the scare story, while students in schools and universities started a new term under tough conditions exacerbated by a heatwave.

In Stains, one of the poorest towns in the Paris banlieues, staff at one high school went on strike, refusing to act as “clothing police” at a time when, according to a statement they issued, classrooms are overcrowded and staff shortages at the school mean 60 hours of teaching will be lost weekly.

Their predicament is by no means exceptional, with 3,000 teaching posts unfilled for the new term. Nationally, staff shortages meant a loss of 15m teaching hours in 2020-21. Successive waves of reform have battered the profession, which has increasing difficulty attracting fresh recruits.

French teachers’ salaries consistently fall below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. A French teacher with 15 years’ experience earns less than €40,000, 20% below average. Early-career teachers in Germany earn twice as much as their French counterparts. Yet French teachers have to cope with longer hours of teaching and some of the worst pupil-teacher ratios in Europe. As a result, record numbers are leaving the profession.

Looking back at my teenage years in the banlieue, I know I was not afforded the same chances as contemporaries who went to city lycées or private schools. Yet teaching was always a respected profession. This is no longer the case.

To plug staffing gaps, the government launched a scheme in 2022 to recruit “contract” teachers (as opposed to the standard tenure system, under which they count as fonctionnaires or civil servants). They were given four days’ training, despite often having no previous teaching experience. Predictably many quit within six months, owing to lack of adequate training or supervision.

State education in France is among the most unequal in the developed world: schools in poorer areas are so under-resourced that the education system is cementing inequality. Students from the poorest neighbourhoods are disproportionately hard hit by staff shortages. In 2018 Fabien Gay, a senator for Seine-Saint-Denis to the north-east of Paris – the poorest region in France, with the highest concentration of immigrants – cited evidence to parliament of what he said amounted to an policy of “geographical discrimination on the part of the state”.

Gay highlighted the fact that teaching vacancies in the area were less likely to be filled than those anywhere else in the country. The teacher shortage means every pupil in the area, over the course of their schooling, loses the equivalent of a full year’s teaching.

The state spends less on the average student in Seine-Saint-Denis than on their counterparts in other parts of the capital. This unfairness perpetuates a cycle of disadvantage. Such districts gain a reputation for being “difficult”, so can only attract teachers who are relatively young, inexperienced and at the lower end of the pay scale. More experienced teachers head for higher-profile schools in the richer parts of the capital as soon as they can. The net effect is that the poorest students, often from immigrant families, always bear the brunt of the sector’s shortcomings.

It is not just teachers who are leaving. With a dearth of supervisors, careers advisers, school doctors and nurses, among others, it is virtually impossible to deliver the school support services pupils need. The independent defender of rights for France, Claire Hédon, warned last year that the shortage of qualified staff and suitable facilities meant that almost a quarter of all disabled children never go to school at all.

In terms of academic attainment, French education has been the object of international concern for nearly two decades. Year after year, OECD research shows, it is among the EU countries where cultural and socioeconomic background has the greatest influence on learning outcomes. French schools are reproducing social inequality, preventing the most severely disadvantaged students from ever escaping the unfair circumstances many of them grow up in. Bullying, meanwhile, is rampant in many schools and is blamed for the two cases a month of schoolchildren taking their own lives.

No wonder then that as state schools slowly disintegrate, more prosperous families are turning to private education. The current education minister, appointed in July after a reshuffle, has no direct experience of the state school system. Like many of the political and intellectual class, Attal was educated at the École alsacienne, an elite private school in Paris. The five best middle schools (collèges) are private. Yet fee-paying schools also receive public funding, raising questions about the national investment in children who need it the most. These private institutions carry out social and educational selection, shifting the biggest challenges on to the public sector.

The core debate on national education is a societal choice: do we truly want to value the education of all children equally, and do we respect those who have children’s future in their hands?

Christine Renon, the head of an infant school in Seine-Saint-Denis, died by suicide at her workplace in 2019. According to a letter she had sent to the school management board, she was “exhausted”. She went on to detail the deficiencies and inadequate resources of an organisation that had been left to rot. This tragedy should have shocked the authorities into a profound reappraisal. Emmanuel Macron, whose government has been failing to get to grips with class sizes since 2017, pledged last year to make education a priority for his second presidential term. A year on, his new education minister’s biggest idea is a superficial measure that may infringe human rights – for no other reason, it seems, than to stir up controversy.

Rokhaya Diallo is a Guardian columnist.

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