Last-minute concessions save bac

20th June 2003 at 01:00

THE baccalaureat examinations began on time last week without disruption from striking teachers, after 11th-hour concessions by ministers over government plans to devolve some jobs to regional authorities.

Unions fear the plans could lead to the break up of the national education structure and to inequalities between regions. They said that although "some progress" had been made in negotiations led by interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, grievances remained and the dispute, which has so far led to 12 strike days since September, was not yet over.

The truce was secured after Mr Sarkozy and the education minister Luc Ferry offered concessions to the four union federations which are co-ordinating the protest action.

First, the government agreed some employees such as careers advisers, social workers and school doctors would continue to be a national responsibility. But 90 per cent of the 100,000 posts concerned will pass from central to local government control, including technical and service staff.

The legislation underlines that education is a "national public service" and that the state controls the curriculum, qualifications, recruitment and management of teachers, distributing resources, regulating the system and evaluation. Experiments in greater autonomy for secondary schools have been withdrawn for now.

The government will unfreeze e80 million (pound;56.4m) to speed up the recruitment of education assistants, a new category of staff who will replace classroom assistants, particularly in primary schools.

The government also made concessions on its retirement reform, which has caused strikes in all the public-service sectors by proposing to count up to three years of study towards pension entitlement, and relaxing rules for part-time workers.

The breakthrough was achieved by Mr Sarkozy, whom prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin put in charge of union negotiations. He took over from Mr Ferry, who is a philosopher rather than a professional politician and one who has increasingly upset teachers since his appointment just over a year ago.

But the dispute is not over for the unions, which say too many grievances - on devolution of remaining posts, job insecurity of educational assistants and, above all, pensions - remained unresolved. They called their 12th day of protest for last Thursday.

Demonstrating teachers did not prevent the 630,000 candidates from taking the baccalaureat, but there were pickets outside some exam centres, notably in the south, as pupils arrived for the opening philosophy paper on Thursday. There were also protests in Paris and other towns.

Some protesters did not rule out non-cooperation such as withholding exam papers after marking them.

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