Change of direction puts jobs at top of agenda

FRANCE

The new school year got off to a stormy start for education minister Claude Allgre, who angered teachers by asserting their rate of absenteeism was too high, writes Jane Marshall.

Marking the return with a visit to a primary school in Evry, about 40 kilometres south of Paris, the notoriously outspoken minister condemned the unacceptable rate of teacher absenteeism, which he mistakenly stated to be 12 per cent in state schools. Later he retracted that claim, saying he had confused two figures - the true rate is estimated to average about 6 per cent - but in a weekend television interview he still insisted that absenteeism was too high.

The teachers' union, the Syndicat des Enseignants, received many angry calls from members. And members of the primary teachers' union SNUIPP were also furious, according to a spokesman who found M. All gre's gaffe surprising and sloppy for a minister who is a scientist.

To mark the start of the school year the socialist government, which came to power in June, outlined measures signalling a change of political direction in French schools.

It confirmed priority for youth employment; the reopening of teaching posts in primary schools after the last government's decision to cut 5,000 primary and secondary posts; guaranteed employment for supply teachers and increased financial help for poor families. It also issued a circular to all heads reminding them of their duties to report suspected cases of paedophilia and child abuse.

M. Allgre used to be chief adviser to the last socialist education minister, Lionel Jospin, now prime minister, and his reforms indicate a return to the policies operating before the four-year rule of centre-right minister Francois Bayrou. He said recently that "our action is for the long-term and our will is radically to transform school towards greater social justice, decisive modernisation and an energetic recovery of republican values".

The minister had already made clear his intention of appointing 40,000 young people to ancillary jobs in education between now and the end of the year (TES, August 1), with priority going to primary schools in educational priority zones (ZEPs) and other "sensitive" and rural areas. In August, Mme Royal announced the reopening of 800 classes, equivalent to about 350 jobs, that were due to close under M. Bayrou.

M. Allgre has also taken steps to improve the "acute social problem" of employment of supply teachers - matres auxiliaires - who endure precarious working conditions and high unemployment rates. Under orders to chief education officers, all MAs who have worked during the past two years, about 28,000, have been guaranteed re-employment.

To help about 5.5 million children in poor families, the minister has increased the means-tested "return to school allowance" from 1,000 francs (about Pounds 100) to 1,600 francs per child. In addition, a 290 million-franc canteen fund for secondary schools has been set up.

Other projects announced by M. All gre include cutting ministerial bureaucracy, increased help for ZEPs and promoting science teaching and the use of computers in the classroom. He has also promised measures against violence in schools.

On the perennial question of managing the school timetable the minister stated he was not a "fanatic" about introducing a four-day week with Wednesdays and Saturday mornings off.

He said: "I am not in favour of making Saturday mornings free, which seems a good time for establishing contact between teachers and parents. My problem is not about procuring weekends for well-off parents, and the interests of winter sports centres come after those of the children."

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