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Emmanuel Macron and schooling: on the peak of recognition

April 21, 2022

In the presidential project, which Emmanuel Macron presented on March 17, education occupies a prominent place. This priority of the presidential candidate was confirmed during the debate, in which two finalists of the presidential election spoke on April 20. Emmanuel Macron remains convinced that strengthening equal opportunities requires progress in education. This is one of the strengths of his political philosophy: instead of offsetting inequalities with monetary goods, as the French left advocated and practiced when they were in power for many years, it is preferable to treat them at the root. And this root treatment goes through the school. Indeed, work in the social sciences has shown that cognitive inequalities, which are the source of wider social inequalities, crystallize from the first years of life and are very difficult to correct afterwards if not treated as soon as possible. However, as the president acknowledged in his press conference, France’s results in this regard are disappointing, as the OECD PISA polls periodically show.


End Educational Centralism


What diagnosis did the president make to explain these poor results and justify his educational program? Essentially, the idea that the over-centralized nature of the “national education” machine is no longer suitable for dealing with extremely contrasting local situations in the context of mass education. Providing additional resources to disadvantaged areas is not enough, because this policy does not take into account an important component: the motivation and participation of local actors. This motivation and this involvement, of course, can be, but the current system of appointing teachers, mainly by seniority, and the bureaucratic centralism of the administration do not favor them. Thus, the Copernican revolution is to provide more autonomy to educational institutions in order to recruit teachers for “core positions” in the long term and build real educational communities united around a common project.


At his press conference, Emmanuel Macron insisted on one aspect, probably because he speaks to the parents of students, namely the absence of non-replaced teachers. He did not use this argument in the April 20 debate because it caused controversy and seemed stigmatizing. In any case, this is just one example of a much broader issue: the involvement of teachers and the recognition of their efforts to achieve the success of the students for whom they are responsible. Research in the economics of education has shown (a result that we perceive quite instinctively) that the quality of education (and therefore the teachers who provide it) is an important factor in student success. Thus, the participation of teachers, their good adaptation to the position and to the students for whom they are responsible, is something important that needs to be encouraged to the maximum extent possible. It is also a matter of taking better account, than is done in France today, of the fact that every teacher belongs to an educational community whose aims he must share. The profession of a teacher is still too perceived in our country as a purely individualized one. The exchange of experiences and best practices should be universal.


This type of policy also involves giving institutions a certain amount of freedom to apply national programs in their own way, as is done in the Nordic countries, which achieve much better results than in France. Recommendations of this kind (which are also supported by the OECD) in France are very strongly criticized by supporters of republican equality. But these critics are hypocritical because the equality they speak of remains purely formal. Equality is paper, not real, it is enough to be convinced of this if we compare the dropout rates from schools in the priority districts of the city and other areas of the territory. The adaptation of national curricula does not mean abandoning national curricula, but the creation of appropriate educational facilities for their transmission to populations with special characteristics. Only local actors with direct contact with this audience can present and create these educational tools. To some extent, they are already doing this, of course, but this needs to be encouraged and encouraged even more, which means trusting them and giving them more freedom. “Programs and exams remain national, but we need to get more freedom,” the presidential candidate argues.


The guarantee of this freedom, left to local actors, is evaluation, and not only a formal and insignificant evaluation, as is practiced today, but a real evaluation of establishments with appropriate indicators of success. Again, the Nordic countries have been doing this for a long time. In France, we are limited to rather approximate ratings published periodically by magazines. This type of proposal has also come under fire, stigmatizing the managerial approach to education and pointing out the risk of fierce competition between institutions. But here, too, this criticism is hypocritical, because this competition does exist, but today it is played out on the black market of education with biased and often made up information. Reality is preferable to rumors and rumours.


Emmanuel Macron also wants to expand and strengthen the vocational secondary school reform that began in 2019, in particular by merging too many vocational baccalaureate majors into 14 occupational groups, which is a good idea that prevents students from specializing too early in a major that would not necessarily suit their wishes (but there are 44 other majors for non-professional baccalaureate students who are starting CAP). The presidential candidate did not go into details of the planned reform. We understand that he wants to bring the vocational school closer to the world of business than is the case today, and better match training with employment needs, not hesitating to “not favor” training professions that would not be “sufficiently qualified or would not lead to sustainable employment. First of all, we strive for efficiency in terms of professional integration, bringing the vocational high school closer to the apprenticeship model.


Bet on negotiations


With this general agenda (which was only touched upon in the long debate on April 20 and which he doesn’t present as explicitly as I do here, but that’s the gist), Emmanuel Macron is on the crest of a wave because he knows full well that he won’t be able to achieve success in this reform against teachers. He must succeed in convincing them, and the task promises to be difficult.[1]. The teachers’ unions that spoke after his press conference took up arms, even the reformist UNSA. For Sniupp, “it’s an ultra-liberal Anglo-Saxon right-wing program.” Emmanuel Macron has certainly promised a significant increase in the remuneration of teachers (who are less well paid than in the rest of the OECD countries at the beginning of their career), but with additional commitments (replacing absent teachers, individual student support, etc.). .…). He may remember the experience of the Prime Minister of Education, François Hollande Vincent Peillon, who, from the very beginning of his mandate, made many concessions to teachers’ unions without demanding compensation, and whose final results, despite good intentions, remain very disappointing.[2]. Emmanuel Macron is betting that negotiations based on concessions will be able to attract representatives of the educational world. An important point to note is that this consultation will be broad, as it will involve not only teachers and teaching and administrative staff, but also parents of students, elected officials, associations, and middle and high school students. Without a doubt, the candidate hopes that the voice of the users of education, and not just professionals, will be heard and will contribute to a compromise. However, the bet is far from winning, as the success of the reform seems to depend on the outcome of these negotiations. According to the candidate, the recognition of universal suffrage is no longer enough to impose legitimacy on the reform. Education will be a field full of pitfalls for this new (still obscure) philosophy of political action.

[1] On this subject, see Yannis Roeder’s article in Express March 24: “Reforming the school without losing sight of the interests of teachers is a real challenge.”


[2] See “Vincent Peillon’s Candidate: Was He a Good Minister of Education?” “, obsDecember 12, 2016.

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