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Urban violence tops year's shocks

TES correspondents look back at the controversies and turbulent events of the past 12 months. FRANCE. Jane Marshall examines Gerard Depardieu's role in highlighting disruptive school life

In his latest film, Le Plus Beau Metier du Monde, the ubiquitous Gerard Depardieu plays an unstreetwise history and geography teacher who moves from a calm, provincial lycee to a difficult lower secondary in a deprived, racially mixed Parisian suburb, where he is allocated the most disruptive class.

No doubt the fictional events have struck a chord with thousands of teachers working in real problem schools - extortion, intimidation, violence, theft, an ineffectual headteacher, trashing of a classroom - though it is unlikely they find the reality so funny, or have experienced the film's happy ending.

School violence has been a major preoccupation during 1996. The nation was shocked as the year started with mounting depredations at schools in poor urban areas around Paris and other cities: school staff were attacked, their cars vandalised, arson committed and school property wrecked as stone-throwing youths went on the rampage. Many schools closed for a week or more as teachers went on strike in protest.

In response, education minister Francois Bayrou tightened up anti-violence policies, and a 19-point prevention plan was one of the innovations of the new school year in September.

Measures range from extra staff in sensitive schools and controls against intruders entering premises to emergency telephone lines and greater co-operation between schools and the police and judicial authorities.

But teachers' unions report a continuing trend of rising violence in recent years, with the perpetrators getting younger; they chiefly blame the depressed economy and consequent unemployment and precarious social conditions of many families.

The Depardieu film also touches on the continuing controversy of Muslim schoolgirls wearing headscarves - hijabs - to school, which many believe infringes the neutrality of French state education.

It is a problem that remains unresolved, in reality as in the film. In October, the State Council ruled that, contrary to a circular issued by the minister, wearing a hijab to school did not in itself constitute proselytism; only if the girls also refused to attend certain lessons (such as biology) or do games might their behaviour be unacceptable.

The next instalment is expected to be Francois Bayrou, backed by President Chirac, introducing legislation to outlaw hijabs at school.

Higher education also dominated the year, and is set to do so in 1997 as well. Bayrou announced major university reforms, to be introduced over the next few years, following a mammoth consultation exercise with the entire French academic world. This was prompted by student strikes and demonstrations at the end of 1995 against overcrowding, under-staffing and under-funding.

Initial measures include 2,700 new teaching, research, technical and administrative posts; but primary and secondary schools have suffered in consequence, losing more than 5,000 posts.

Language teaching is also on the list of priorities for next year. A new video has been produced for the second level of a course introduced last year which gives primary pupils from the age of seven 15 minutes' daily instruction in a foreign language (TES, August 30); and the ministry of education will soon unveil its latest innovations at the vast Expolangues exhibition and trade fair.

Other forthcoming plans include developing technological education in both higher education and schools, and launching a drugs awareness campaign for young people.

But, as yet, there is no word on when Jacques Chirac's referendum on education - promised during his 1995 presidential election campaign - might be held, though the Fauroux Commission, appointed to investigate the educational system in preparation for such an exercise, presented its report in June.

Opinion is divided on the advisability of a referendum anyway; parents tend to be in favour, teachers and Bayrou are against. Perhaps they should ask Gerard Depardieu what to do.

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