Jostling of church and state

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
The year started with the biggest public demonstration for years, as a million marched in Paris in support of public education. It ended with the first ever protest organised by secondary school heads - who sedately filed through the streets of the capital - and with university students planning to strike over budget cuts.

The January 16 march was scheduled to be a mass protest against legislation introduced by education minister Francois Bayrou, which would have lifted limits on the amount of capital finance that public authorities could allocate to independent church schools, half of which, according to a report, were unsafe.

But the measure struck at the delicate balance by which state (secular) and church schools co-exist in France. Supporters of strictly secular education were enraged and their concerns were upheld before the day of the protest by the constitutional court which ruled the key article of the proposed law unconstitutional. The march went ahead anyway, but in triumph, not anger.

Following that debacle, prime minister Edouard Balladur announced a thorough investigation and debate on the future of education. Working parties were set up and M Bayrou toured the country. In June, Balladur and Bayrou unveiled their "new contract for schools": 158 measures affecting every aspect and level of education.

Some have already been introduced, such as a national reading observatory at primary level, experimental reforms to help pupils in difficulty entering collge (lower secondary) and some new options in the lycees.

The 5,000 to 6,000 collge and lycee principals were parading at the end of the year through the Latin Quarter of Paris in support of a "moral and financial reassessment" of their job. They took the action after two lycee heads were held responsible for serious accidents at their schools, one of which resulted in the death of a pupil, while in the other a boy lost an arm. Both heads were given suspended sentences. The protest was against the increasingly heavy responsibilities the heads have to assume, in schools with up to 2,000 pupils, often in decaying buildings, in rundown areas.

The Government was also forced to withdraw legislation that would have paid young trainees less than the national minimum wage after huge protests. Instead, M. Balladur initiated an expensive youth consultation exercise which told him that the greatest fear for the future of young people was unemployment.

A hardy perennial that cropped up again in 1994 was the wearing of headscarves, or hidjabs, by Muslim girls - another challenge to the principle of secularity in public education.

M. Bayrou tried to head off the problem with a circular at the start of the school year which, without mentioning the garment specifically, banned "ostentatious" religious emblems; he made it clear that these included the hidjab. However, some pupils have continued to wear the scarves to school, and a number of them have been excluded.

Meanwhile, as 1995 approaches, students at universities throughout the country will step up their protests against further budget cuts. While student numbers continue to rise, the creation of new teaching posts is failing to keep pace.

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