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Grudging welcome for 45,000 assistants

Scheme will alleviate unemployment but teachers fear appointees will lack qualifications. Jane Marshall reports


Education minister Gilles de Robien last week announced the creation of 45,000 educational assistants' posts.

The move was hailed by teachers' unions as a U-turn, but was also criticised as a much inferior initiative to a previous youth employment programme which the conservative government abolished after it came to power.

About 25,000 of the so-called vie scolaire ("school life") jobs will go to young people already employed in schools under work creation schemes that will be phased out. The remaining 20,000 will be new posts offered through job centres to unemployed adults aged under 26. There will be no minimum qualifications.

Mr de Robien told education officials in Amiens that the kinds of tasks the assistants would carry out could include supervising pupils on outings, running cultural, sports and computer activities, or looking after disabled pupils.

"This news should come as a relief to the educational community and to parents, as teachers will be able to devote more time to teaching," he said.

The government is introducing the measures in response to high youth unemployment, and with the prospect of a turbulent new school year. When schools broke up for the summer holidays, unions were preparing to rally support for strikes against education reforms and next year's budget.

The scheme, which offers six-month contracts renewable up to three times, comes under social legislation being introduced by the employment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, whose ministry is providing 90 per cent of the funding, with the education ministry contributing the rest. All the assistants should be appointed by the end of December.

Critics have pointed out that that the scheme is strikingly similar to a popular youth employment programme introduced by the previous socialist government headed by Lionel Jospin.

This created thousands of jobs - including 60,000 classroom assistants - on five-year contracts for young people who had passed the baccalaureat, and provided opportunities leading to later employment.

But it was among a number of socialist programmes abolished by President Chirac's conservative UMP party, which won France's 2002 general election, to pay for tax cuts and the recruitment of more police.

While teachers' unions partially welcomed the new measures, they said they had not gone far enough. The largest union, the FSU, said they "legitimised what we have always upheld, the idea that staff on the ground are essential for education".

But the union also criticised the fact that most of the posts will be conversions of existing jobs; that there will still be 30,000 fewer assistants than there would have been under the socialists' scheme; that the new posts were insecure, short-term and will pay below the minimum wage; and that the target applicants will be those people who are having trouble finding work and will lack qualifications.

Another teaching union, UNSA-Education, said that it would "not complain about this (government) U-turn" but wanted clarification on the tasks the assistants would carry out, their training, and how they would fit into schools' regimes.

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