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Emmanuel Macron and education: on the crest

April 21, 2022

In the presidential project presented by Emmanuel Macron on March 17, education occupies a prominent place. This priority of the presidential candidate was reaffirmed in the debate that pitted the two finalists of the presidential election on April 20. Emmanuel Macron remains convinced that strengthening equal opportunities requires success in education. This is one of the strengths of his political philosophy: instead of leveling inequalities with monetary benefits, as the French left advocated and practiced when it was in power for many years, it is better to deal with them from the ground up. And this root treatment goes through the school. Indeed, social science work has shown that cognitive inequalities, the source of wider social inequalities, crystallize from the first years of life and are very difficult to correct afterwards if they are not dealt with as soon as possible. However, and the president acknowledged this in his press conference, France’s performance in this regard is disappointing, as the OECD PISA surveys regularly show.

End educational centralism

What is the president’s diagnosis to explain these poor performances and justify his education program? Essentially, the idea is that the hyper-centralised nature of the ‘national education’ machine is no longer suited to dealing with extremely contrasting local situations in the context of mass education. Providing additional resources to disadvantaged areas is not enough, as these policies leave aside an essential ingredient: the motivation and involvement of local actors. Of course, such motivation and involvement may exist, but the current system of assigning teachers, essentially based on age, and the bureaucratic centralism of the administration do not suit them. Thus, the Copernican revolution consists in giving more autonomy to institutions to hire teachers for “profile positions” in the long term and to build real learning communities united around a common project.

At his press conference, Emmanuel Macron insisted on one aspect, probably because he is speaking to the parents of pupils, namely the absence of unreplaced teachers. He did not take up 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: engaging teachers and recognizing their efforts in the success of the students they are responsible for. Studies in the economics of education have shown—a result we understand quite intuitively—that the quality of education (and therefore the teachers who provide it) is a fundamental factor in student success. The commitment of teachers, their good adaptation to the position and the students for whom they are responsible, are therefore something essential that must be supported as much as possible. It is also a question of taking better account of the fact that each teacher belongs to an educational community whose goals must be shared, as is done today in France. In our country, the teaching profession is still too conceptualized in a purely individualized way. The sharing of experiences and best practices should be generalized.

This type of policy also presupposes leaving some freedom to the institutions to implement national programs in their own way, which is done in the Northern European countries, which achieve much better results than France. This type of recommendation (which is also supported by the OECD) provokes very strong criticism in France from supporters of republican equality. But these critics are hypocritical because the equality they speak of remains purely formal. It is paper equality, not real equality, it is enough to convince some to compare the dropout rates of priority districts of the city and other zones of the territory. Adapting the national curriculum does not mean renouncing the national curriculum, but creating appropriate educational tools to deliver it to a population with specific characteristics. Only local actors who are directly confronted with this audience can imagine and build these educational tools. Of course, they already do this to some extent, but it needs to be further supported and encouraged, and therefore trusted and given more freedom. “The programs and exams remain national, but we must have more freedom,” affirms the presidential candidate.

The guarantee of this freedom left to local actors is evaluation, and not just a formal and meaningless evaluation, as is practiced today, but a real evaluation of enterprises with relevant indicators of success. Here, too, the Nordic countries have been doing it for a long time. In France, we are reduced to relatively crude rankings published regularly by magazines. This type of proposal also faces strong criticism, which stigmatizes the managerial approach to education and points to the risk of fierce competition between institutions. But even here this criticism is hypocritical, because this competition really exists, but today it is played on the black market of education with biased and often fantasized information. Reality takes precedence over rumor and hearsay.

Emmanuel Macron also wants to expand and strengthen the reform of the secondary vocational school that began in 2019, in particular by grouping too many specializations of the vocational baccalaureate into 14 families of branches, a good idea that prevents students from specializing too early. a specialization that might not correspond to their wishes (but there are still 44 specializations for students who have not chosen a professional baccalaureate and who are starting the CAP). The presidential candidate did not go into the details of the planned reform. We understand that he wants to bring the secondary vocational school closer to the world of business, as it is today, and to better align education with the needs of employment, not hesitating to “dereference” teaching professions that would not be “sufficiently qualified or do not lead to sustainable employment”. Our goal is primarily efficiency in terms of professional integration by bringing the secondary vocational school closer to the apprenticeship model.

Bargaining bet

With this overall program (which was only touched upon in the long debate of April 20 and which he does not present here as explicitly as I do, but such is the spirit), Emmanuel Macron is on top, knowing full well that he will not succeed in this reform against teachers. He has to convince them and the task promises to be difficult[1]. The teaching unions who spoke after his press conference are up in arms, even the reformist UNSA. For Snuipp, “it’s an ultra-liberal, Anglo-Saxon right-wing agenda”. Emmanuel Macron certainly promised a significant increase in teachers’ remuneration (less well paid than in the rest of the OECD at the beginning of their careers), but with the counterparts of additional commitment (replacing missing teachers, individual support for students, etc.). …). You may remember the experience of Prime Minister François Hollande Vincent Peillon, who, since the beginning of his mandate, made many concessions to the teachers’ unions without demanding compensation, and whose final results, despite good intentions, are very disappointing.[2]. Emmanuel Macron is betting that the give-and-take negotiation will be able to involve representatives of the educational world. An important point to note: this consultation will be broad as it will need to involve not only teachers and educational and administrative teams, but also students’ parents, elected officials, associations and also secondary and tertiary students. On the candidate’s side, there is undoubtedly a hope that the voice of users of education, and not only experts, will be heard and will support compromises. However, the bet is far from won, as the success of the reform probably depends on the outcome of these negotiations. In the mind of the candidate, it seems that the affirmation of universal suffrage is no longer enough to enforce the legitimacy of the reform. Education will be a field full of pitfalls for this new (still vague) philosophy of political action.

[1] On this topic, see Iannis Roder’s article in Expres of March 24: “School reform without losing sight of teachers’ interests is a real challenge”.

[2] See “Vincent Peillon’s candidate: was he a good minister of education?” », The ObsDecember 12, 2016.

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