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Unequal schools in France prompt strike, soul-searching

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PARIS (AP) — France is trying to shake up a top-down system of teaching, end an elite bilingual program and give schools more say in how students spend their time, saying entrenched inequality in education threatens the country's future.

The plan from the Socialist-led government came after an international study ranked France among the developed world's most unequal school systems, with students' performance highly dependent upon their socio-economic status. The changes set to start in 2016 are relatively modest: scaling back Latin and Greek, rescheduling and expanding foreign language teaching, and letting schools — rather than the central government — decide how to spend 20 percent of students' time.

But the plan prompted a strike on Tuesday, drawing criticism from both left-leaning teachers' unions and French conservatives. It's a debate that is similar to discussions about underperforming students in the United States.

French teachers' unions, which routinely protest any changes, complain the reforms are superficial and were pushed through without consultation. Conservatives fear an attack on France's intellectual tradition.

The government wants to add multi-disciplinary classes and cut a well-respected bilingual program that enrolls about 15 percent of top students in favor of expanding foreign language classes to a broader range of younger children. Students will start learning their first foreign language — usually English — in the equivalent of first grade and their second foreign language around age 12.

But French conservatives have fixed on a new required theme for middle school history classes, titled "A world dominated by Europe: Colonial empires, commercial exchanges and slave trades." A seemingly more positive take on the period, titled "Society and culture in the Enlightenment," is an elective.

Latin and Greek will be de-emphasized — currently 20 percent of middle schoolers learn those ancient languages — but still optional. The government went out of its way to reassure worried German officials that German and English will still be the first foreign languages taught.

The number of hours in class, 26 per week, will not change.

For Peter Gumbel, a British journalist who lives in Paris and is about to publish a second book about French schooling, the plan is a timid approach to an urgent problem.

"They can't be radical because they know if they try anything radical the whole country would erupt. As it is, they're trying something that is not radical and the country is not quite erupting but people are going out in the streets and there's a lot of indignation," Gumbel said.

The unions claimed more than 50 percent of teachers participated in the strike, although the crowd that took part in a protest march was small compared to previous strikes. The government, citing figures from schools, said fewer than one in four middle school teachers participated.

In an open letter to the education minister, opponents said the changes "will not be pedagogical, no matter what its promoters say, but bureaucratic."

France's government is under pressure to fix the system after the 2012 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that France's education system showed gaping disparities between rich and poor children, notably in math. Among all the 39 countries that participated in the PISA study, only Taipei showed more inequality in math results, according to the OECD.

"How can we accept that our educational system can't promote all talents, that so many middle schoolers do not master basics, do not master foreign languages?" Prime Minister Manuel Valls wrote Monday in the Liberation newspaper. "In the current world — a globalized world, a world of exchanges — this is sending our children, and therefore our country, toward an impasse."

France's last education reform, which added a half-day to what had previously been a four-day school week in primary schools, prompted protests for a school year.

The education minister at the time ultimately resigned after pushing the reform through, joining a long list of short-lived predecessors. The average tenure in the position is just 22 months and 15 days since the Fifth Republic began in 1958, according to the French magazine Le Point.

His successor, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, has staked her tenure on the latest changes, describing critics as "pseudo-intellectuals" full of lies and nonsense.

Gumbel said the changes will do little to address the fundamental problems in French education.

"The best gloss you could put on this reform is yes, they are making the program more interesting, more relevant, more fun. And that of course is shocking to the French purists who want you to be cramming things that are useless for your life," he said.

"There is a vision of school of being a meritocratic, marvelous place where great things are learned. And the reality is that actually 20 percent of the kids are not learning anything at all."


Jeff Schaeffer contributed from Paris.

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