The school, out of political project?

The school, out of political project?

France likes to discuss school. The school institution has historically been built there in parallel with democracy and its management raises issues as essential as knowledge, authority or justice.

It is healthy that these issues are the subject of active public debate. To conduct an educational policy, the discussion of projects must enlist the support of a sufficient number of citizens and offer teachers a horizon that gives meaning to their daily action. To practice this profession, it is better to believe in what you are doing and to know why you are doing it: this is, once again, a matter of politics.

When a new minister takes office, it is not useless to wonder in what political tradition he could place his action, and to what extent the public debate of recent decades has succeeded in shaping political cultures that are sufficiently stable, identifiable and adapted to the ordinary frameworks of the institutional political debate, in particular the right/left division.

To do this, we will rely on a systematic study of the how the general information press has, since the 1960s, relayed educational debates in order to identify, alongside the official texts produced by political organizations, what resists the media filter and spreads beyond the circles of specialists, with a serious chance of constituting a political culture. What this study shows is that it is very difficult to identify, in the many controversies that have marked the recent history of educational debates, clear and lasting orientations.

Dodge and Confusion Left

The left, for its part, knows how to refer to strong symbols. His organizations very often invoke the Langevin-Wallon plan of 1947, who imagined at the Liberation the school of the new society that we then wanted to build. But its mention in the press never says anything about its content. Jean-Pierre Chevènement even invokes it on several occasions from 1984 to defend what he calls "republican elitism", without anyone pointing out to him that the illustrious text actually defends the opposite.

Throughout the 1970s, the left strove to follow in the footsteps of another symbol: May-68. But it is by subordinating each time, in its publicized positions, educational issues to more general prerequisites such as "the establishment of a socialist society" (Charles Josselin, 1973) and the need for the “Common Program of Government”. The communication of the trade unions and the government parties in fact staged their unity in a systematic opposition to power. This is how they loudly brought to the press, between 1975 and 1977, their "sacred union against Haby reform without ever addressing the question of the “single college” as a priority debate.

Present in power from 1981, the united left (behind a soon-to-be hegemonic Socialist Party) communicated extensively on the "priority to education", by making the first state budget, but did not have much opportunities to defend one's strongest concrete choices in front of the media.

Reforms as important as the priority education zones (ZEP), which come under a new principle of positive discrimination, the Professional Bachelor, set up from 1985 with a view to leading "80% of an age class to the baccalaureate level" or the fact of put the student “at the center of the system”, have been little noticed by the media, this discretion also allowing the government to avoid controversies that lead to internal divisions.

Between 1997 and 2017, Claude Allègre (minister from 1997 to 2000) or Vincent Peillon (from 2012 to 2014) tried to open substantive debates, but the media visibility of the former's aggressiveness overshadowed his plans for reform while the very strong opposition aroused by the reform of the school rhythms of the second concealed his work of “Refoundation”.

In 1999, Minister Claude Allègre presented his project for primary school reform.

In fact, the most nourished exchanges of ideas have brought divisions more than they have contributed to uniting the left around a common culture. From ministers Alain Savary to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, via Lionel Jospin or Claude Allègre, these focused on reform projects favorable to alternative pedagogical methods, supposed to encourage the care of school populations that have become more heterogeneous, thanks to the teamwork of teachers and the use of more individualized techniques.

However, although supported by the educational movements, these reforms were perceived by the teaching base and its majority unions (key electorate for the left) as brutal injunctions disregarding the difficulties they encountered on a daily basis. The strikes, demonstrations and controversies that followed generally led to a policy of concessions and/or an electoral defeat.

These divisions are all the deeper because in each episode of conflict, the ideological framework of opposition to reforms, in the press and publishing, was ensured by a discourse creating an additional divide. Reformulating recurring anathemas, personalities generally from the academic or media world have been able to lastingly appeal to both the left and the right by denouncing in the reforms the mark of "pedagogism", undefined ideology Who do they think is responsible for the School's problems?. When in 1984, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, then a socialist minister, took up this “antipedagogical” discourse with a conservative tone, he gave birth to a so-called “republican” current which has since enjoyed significant posterity, while blurring a little more tracks on the left.

Schizophrenia and inclinations to the right

The ideological confusion is no less great in the public expression of the right, torn from the 1970s between two contradictory priorities. Assuming the responsibilities of power, successive ministers agreed to respond to the aspirations for liberalization of the pedagogical report and to complete the policy of massification of the second degree at work since 1959 through single college institution in 1975. At the same time, the conservative networks, from the columns of Le Figaro to the SNALC, via the UNI or the Club de l'Horloge, were indignant at this policy of concessions.

Beyond the defense of the “free” school, victorious in 1984, the right of the 1980s appropriated certain ideological markers carried by the antipedagogist dynamic. However, during their passage to power, its main personalities were unable to implement the abolition of the single college, the closure of the IUFMs (“pernicious institutions in the hands of the mediocre or the enlightened”, according to François Fillon) or the abandonment of the principle according to which the student should be "at the center of the system", on which they had communicated extensively. Building itself in opposition in a polemical mode, the conservative culture has once again come up against the facts.

Demonstration against the Savary bill, in 1984.

The liberal option has given rise to more concrete achievements. Decentralization, thought above all as empowering middle managers (particularly heads of establishments), was thus a priority concern of Luc Ferry as of Jean-Michel Blanquer, and is manifested even in the "Pact" promoted at the start of the new school year. 2023 by Emmanuel Macron.

But it offers few outlets for the conservative world to distinguish itself from the left, which has long claimed decentralizing values ​​and which, in the 1980s, perfectly appropriated the idea according to which the School had to adapt the needs of businesses: this was another communication priority for Jean-Pierre Chevènement.

In fact, it was not until 2007 that the right adopted a communication on education giving priority to the construction of a truly conservative identity. Nicolas Sarkozy is then the first candidate in the second round of the presidential election to give an important place to school in his campaign, by highlighting the question of discipline and authority. From then on, the School became a privileged ground for the ideological refoundation of a right which must, on the other side, measure itself against an extreme right in full rise.

In opposition since 2012, Les Républicains parliamentarians, like those of the National Rally, and occasionally followed by Jean-Michel Blanquer, seize every opportunity to use ideological, positive markers, such as uniform or flag raising, or negatives, such as inclusive writing, "wokism" or religious attire.

Political reflection necessary for educational commitment

It is not certain that this work, essentially symbolic, is enough to build a culture shared on the right. On the left, the forces now called upon to play a leading role, from ecologists to France Insoumise, rarely have the opportunity to express themselves on educational issues, so that the prospects there also risk remaining unclear. Still little factually founded, the new oppositions, imagined by the current power, between “progressivism” and “populism” or between “republican arch” and “extreme”, lack content.

Historically, the question of the status of the private school is in fact the only point which has succeeded in uniting the camps in the long term and in arousing clear opposition, bearing real political identities. But since the monster demonstrations of 1984 and 1994 convinced each other not to touch the status quo, these have lost their consistency.

But the school needs politics. We will not give young people the desire to get involved in the education professions without allowing them to include this commitment in a project that goes beyond them. Teachers will not be mobilized for a reform, however necessary it may be, unless it is underpinned by a vision. This is a matter of programmatic work and debate, activating an imagination and staging clear and lasting divisions. And on this point, everything remains to be done.

Yann Forestier, Associate researcher at the Amiénois Center for Research in Education and Training (CAREF). Associate Professor of History, University of Picardy Jules Verne (UPJV)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image: k_samurkas /

In the Company section >

Recent news >