Chief talks of calm as storm looms

Jane Marshall

Jane Marshall finds the new school year marked by rumbles of renewed protest over unemployment.

Francois Bayrou, starting his third school year as education minister last week, gave himself a pat on the back. "Change," he said, "was taking place in calm" and there had been "a peaceful return to school", as nearly 13 million pupils and more than a million teachers and other workers in education began the new academic term.

But teachers' and parents' representatives were already marking the return with protests over a variety of issues, from the introduction of foreign languages at primary school to unemployment among supply teachers, and the unions warning of strike plans.

M Bayrou also has the task of organising a referendum on education, an idea which, in agreement with the teachers this time, he has publicly opposed.

Primary and lower secondary schools are those facing most change, with the introduction of the bulk of reforms promised under M Bayrou's "new contract for schools" announced more than a year ago. Revised programmes for nursery and primary pupils will give priority to reading and writing, simplify maths and make history lessons more personalised and vivid. Daily supervised studies at school will replace written homework.

The crowning innovation was to have been a daily 15-minute initiation in a foreign language for all seven-year-olds.

However, union boycotts over lack of teacher training mean the scheme must rely on volunteer teachers, and to begin with it is being restricted to 250,000 pupils, 40 per cent of the age group. This week, the education ministry was sending out 10,000 videos to schools for use in the English, German, Spanish and Italian sessions.

In the coll ge (lower secondary), reforms aimed at helping first-year pupils in difficulty, which started as an experiment last year in 368 schools, are now being introduced in all establishments. While the trial worked well, it remains to be seen whether the rest of the 6,500 coll ges, not necessarily so motivated as the pioneers, will achieve such good results.

Schools from the pilot sample, meanwhile, are now extending the reform to classes in the second year, including a two-hours-a-week option in Latin.

Lycee reform was completed last year, when pupils sat the revised baccalaureat. For this year, M Bayrou has reorganised the timing of the examination, which will take place later than usual, as part of the interminable effort to rationalise the school calendar and prolong the summer term which, for pupils not actually taking exams, tends to be a waste of time.

But before the new academic year had even started, representatives of both parents and teachers were voicing concerns.

Jean-Pierre Bocquet, chairman of the usually right-leaning parents' association PEEP, echoed teacher unions' doubts about the lack of qualified staff for the primary-level languages initiative.

Unions called for national action in support of the creation of new teaching posts, and to defend supply teachers, 10,000 of whom are estimated to be without a job. Demonstrations took place in Versailles, Creteril, Caen, Poitiers, Nancy, Orleans and Dijon; while educational counsellors in secondary schools came out on strike for "true recognition of their educational and teaching functions".

Michel Deschamps, of the union grouping FSU (Federation Syndicale Unitaire), confirmed it would support a public-sector strike. Teachers also face being hit by a freeze on civil service pay, announced for next year by prime minister Alain Juppe.

Another preoccupation for M Bayrou will be organising the referendum on education, which was proposed as an election pledge by Jacques Chirac before he became president of France, and which M Bayrou publicly criticised during the campaign.

The first step, due this week, is the appointment of a referendum commission under Roger Fauroux, a former minister in the government of socialist Michel Rocard.

* The new year was marked by strict security in and around schools following three bomb explosions in Paris since July, and the discovery of two unexploded devices, one on the high-speed rail line near Lyons and one in Paris. Even tighter precautions were enforced after a further attack when a car bomb exploded last Thursday outside a Jewish school in Lyons, five minutes before pupils were due to leave in the afternoon. Police suspect the explosions, which occurred without warning, were carried out by Islamic extremists.

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