Emmanuel Macron and schooling: on high

April 21, 2022

Education is at the forefront of the presidential project presented by Emmanuel Macron on March 17. This presidential candidate’s priority was reaffirmed in a debate on April 20 against the two finalists in the presidential election. 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 out inequalities with monetary benefits, as advocated and practiced by the French Left 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 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 later if they are not addressed as soon as possible. However, as the President confirmed at his press conference, France’s results in this respect are disappointing, as OECD PISA surveys regularly show.


End educational centralism


What is the president’s diagnosis to explain these poor performance and justify his educational program? In essence, it is the idea that the hypercentralized 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, as these policies leave aside a fundamental component: motivation and involvement of local actors. Such motivation and involvement may, of course, exist, but the current system of allocating teachers, essentially by age, and the bureaucratic centralism of the administration do not suit them. Copernicus’ revolution thus consists in giving the institutions more autonomy in order to recruit teachers to “profile positions” in the long run and to build real educational communities connected around a joint project.


Emmanuel Macron insisted on one aspect at his press conference, probably because he spoke to the students’ parents, namely the absence of unrepresented teachers. He did not adopt this argument in the debate on 20 April, as it provoked controversy and seemed stigmatizing. In any case, this is just one example of a much broader issue: involving teachers and recognizing their commitment to the success of the students for whom they are responsible. Studies in the economics of education have shown – a result that we understand quite instinctively – that the quality of education (and therefore of the teachers who provide it) is a fundamental factor in the success of students. The involvement of teachers, their good adaptation to the position and the students for whom they are responsible are therefore something that needs to be supported as much as possible. It is also important that we take better account of what is the case in France today, that every teacher belongs to an educational community whose goals they must share. The teaching profession in our country is still too conceived in a purely individualized way. Sharing experiences and best practices should be generalized.


This type of policy also presupposes leaving the institutions some leeway in implementing national programs in their own way, which is being done in northern European countries, which are performing much better than France. This type of recommendation (which is also supported by the OECD) has provoked very strong criticism in France from supporters of republican equality. But these critics are hypocritical because the equality they are talking about remains purely formal. It is paper equality, not real equality, it is enough to convince some to compare the rate of early school leaving of the city’s priority districts and other areas of the territory. Adapting national curricula does not mean giving up national curricula, but creating the appropriate educational resources to pass them on to populations with specific characteristics. Only local actors who are directly confronted with this audience can imagine and build these educational tools. To some extent, of course, they are already doing so, but it needs to be further supported and encouraged, and therefore trusted and given them more freedom. “Programs and exams remain national, but we must have more freedom,” confirms the presidential candidate.


The guarantee of this freedom left to local actors is evaluation, not only a formal and insignificant evaluation, as is practiced today, but a real evaluation of companies with relevant success indicators. The Nordic countries have been doing this here for a long time. In France, we are reduced to relatively rough rankings, which are published periodically 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 facilities. But even here, this criticism is hypocritical, because this competition does exist, but today it is played on the black market with education with biased and often fantasized information. Reality takes precedence over rumors and hearings.


Emmanuel Macron also wants to expand and strengthen the secondary vocational school reform that began in 2019, especially by grouping too many graduation specializations into 14 union families, which is a good idea that prevents students from specializing too soon. a specialization that may not match their wishes (however, there are still 44 specializations for students who have not chosen a high school diploma and who are starting a CAP). The presidential candidate did not go into the details of the planned reform. We understand that secondary vocational schools want to bring the world closer to the business world as it does today and better adapt education to employment needs, without hesitating to “dereference” professions that are not “sufficiently qualified or lead to sustainable employment”. Our main goal is efficiency in terms of professional integration by bringing the secondary vocational school closer to the apprenticeship model.


Negotiation bet


With this overall program (which has only been touched by the long debate on April 20 and which is not as explicit here as I am, but is the spirit), Emmanuel Macron is at the top because he knows he will not succeed in this reform against teachers. He has to convince them and the task promises to be challenging[1]. The teachers’ unions that spoke after his press conference are at gunpoint, even the reformist UNSA. For Snuipp, “it is an ultraliberal, Anglo-Saxon right-wing program.” Emmanuel Macron has 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 counterparts to additional commitment (replacement of missing teachers, individual student support, etc.). …). He may recall the experience of Prime Minister François Hollande Vincent Peillon, who has made many concessions to the teachers’ unions since the beginning of his term without seeking compensation, and whose final results, despite good intentions, are very disappointing.[2]. Emmanuel Macron bets that negotiating with donation and acceptance will be able to engage the education world. An important point should be noted: this consultation will be broad, as it will have to involve not only teachers and educational and administrative teams, but also students’ parents, elected representatives, associations and also high school and university students. On the candidate’s side, there is no doubt that the voice of education users, and not just experts, will be heard and will support compromises. However, the strike is far from winning, as the success of the reform seems to depend on the outcome of these negotiations. In the candidate’s mind, it seems that the confirmation of universal suffrage is no longer enough to assert the legitimacy of the reform. Education will be an area full of pitfalls for this new (still vague) philosophy of political action.

[1] On this topic, see the article by Iannis Roder in Express of 24 March: “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 education minister?” », The ObsDecember 12, 2016.

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