Debate to look decades ahead
The government has launched a nationwide debate to prepare the way for France's first major education act for 15 years.
It will replace the "child-centred" policy of Lionel Jospin introduced in 1989 and fulfil an election pledge of President Chirac. Education minister Luc Ferry said the debate will establish the direction schools will follow for the next 15 to 20 years.
But, while he was promising teachers full involvement in the consultation, unions were giving notice of the new term's first day of protest against government policies.
Mr Ferry said the consultation would be carried out as widely as possible - "not only among experts, but also non-specialists". It would include education inspectors, local authorities, the unions, economic and professional bodies, politicians, parents and pupils.
He hoped former education ministers would play an active part, though one of his predecessors, Claude All gre, turned down the invitation.
Work will start this month on a document setting out the current state of education and a national commission will identify the questions to be raised in the debate. These will probably include greater autonomy for heads and redefining the values of the "republican school". Evaluating schools, the curriculum, and what demands pupils should meet will also be discussed. Legislation should be drafted next autumn.
But despite what Mr Ferry called this "exceptional opportunity for teachers", unions are more preoccupied with opposing government plans to reform public-service retirements. Also controversial are proposals to devolve some responsibilities to local authorities and to cut jobs.
The last school year was badly disrupted by teachers' strikes, which were temporarily called off after government concessions just before pupils took their exams in June. But unions said not enough progress had been made, and their grievances remained.
During the summer prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin held talks with the unions, though conspicuously without Mr Ferry, whose failed to restore calm to schools last year.
A joint union statement said they "noted a change in the government's position and signs indicating a wish to talk", but "the absence of true consultation in preparation of the 2004 budget, salary deductions (for days lost through strikes), decentralisation of personnel and announcements of job cuts contradict these signs".
Meanwhile, classroom priorities for this year include new primary programmes emphasising reading and writing, split classes for six-year-olds in greatest difficulty, introduction of vocational courses for some lower secondary pupils, and certificates in internet and computer studies to be taken by all 15-year-olds.