Ris­ing star strug­gles with French in­equal­ity

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

PARIS: She is a ris­ing po­lit­i­cal star and a strik­ing im­mi­grant suc­cess story from France’s ghetto-like sub­urbs, but Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Na­jat Val­laud-Belka­cem faces huge ob­sta­cles in fight­ing the in­equal­ity she her­self over­came. “The sys­tem in France is like we’re all run­ning the 100 me­tres, but some have a 30-me­tre head start and some start 30 me­tres be­hind,” she tells AFP. The word “egalite” might be plas­tered over ev­ery school, but OECD stud­ies show in­equal­ity is ris­ing faster in France’s class­rooms than in any other de­vel­oped coun­try. Un­like much of France’s clos­eted po­lit­i­cal elite, Val­laud-Belka­cem has ex­pe­ri­enced that chal­lenge first-hand, hav­ing grown up as a rel­a­tively poor Moroc­can im­mi­grant in the north­ern town of Amiens. The 38-year-old worked her way up through lo­cal gov­ern­ment into So­cial­ist pres­i­den­tial cam­paign teams in 2007 and 2012, be­fore be­ing named women’s min­is­ter and be­com­ing a hate fig­ure for the right with her ef­forts to im­prove gen­der equal­ity in schools. Last year she be­came the first-ever fe­male ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, and many say her star has much fur­ther to climb.

The back-story gives her con­cerns about in­equal­ity a ring of sin­cer­ity. “When I look back at where I came from, at the school I at­tended... my class­mates for the most part haven’t had suc­cess­ful paths - many have had a dif­fi­cult, chaotic path,” she says. This is not es­pe­cially new, she warns, but it is get­ting worse. “We can’t ide­alise some by­gone time when school was nec­es­sar­ily a so­cial lad­der for peo­ple from mod­est back­grounds,” she says. “(But) what wor­ries me... there’s al­ways been in­equal­i­ties, so­cial de­ter­min­ism, but per­haps not this level of dis­en­chant­ment that I feel when I go back to Amiens to­day, when I see fam­i­lies in the same so­cio-eco­nomic con­di­tions I was in. Peo­ple can’t even imag­ine that it’s pos­si­ble to suc­ceed any­more.” The irony, say ex­perts and teach­ers, is that France’s very in­sis­tence on equal­ity could be the root cause of the prob­lem.

‘A Big Shock’ “It was a beau­ti­ful idea in the be­gin­ning: ev­ery­one gets the same ed­u­ca­tion,” says a head teacher in Saint De­nis just north of Paris, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity. “But un­for­tu­nately, not all pupils are the same.” His school lies in a rough, work­ing-class neigh­bour­hood of mostly first- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion mi­grants, plagued by gang ri­val­ries and high un­em­ploy­ment. But any hopes of tai­lor­ing the teach­ing to the spe­cific chal­lenges of the com­mu­nity run up against a sys­tem which strictly en­forces a uni­form curriculum. “Few of the teach­ers come from this area,” says the prin­ci­pal. “It can be a big shock, a real panic for them. They don’t know how to speak to th­ese pupils, they may never have met pop­u­la­tions like this.”

Young teach­ers have lit­tle con­trol over where they are posted and the least ex­pe­ri­enced of­ten end up in the worst schools. “They feel they’re drown­ing in the prob­lems th­ese kids face: so­cial prob­lems, lan­guage prob­lems, fam­ily prob­lems. They aren’t trained for that.” The tra­di­tional view of the teacher dic­tat­ing to rows of at­ten­tive pupils still dom­i­nates train­ing de­spite its in­creas­ing dis­tance from re­al­ity, leav­ing lit­tle room for more flex­i­ble teach­ing styles.

With­out strong parental sup­port, many chil­dren fall through the gaps. “The suc­cess of stu­dents is com­pletely tied to what par­ents do and who they are,” says the head teacher. “That’s pro­foundly un­changed in France, and that’s ter­ri­ble.”

‘The Rich Have Left’ Val­laud-Belka­cem knows the prob­lems, and prom­ises that re­forms are un­der­way: more teach­ers and money for schools in tough ar­eas, a more flex­i­ble curriculum and bet­ter train­ing. Most con­tro­ver­sially, she an­nounced a pi­lot scheme last week by which par­ents in a few ar­eas will have a choice of schools for the first time, and lo­cal coun­cils tasked with en­sur­ing a mix of so­cial groups in each one. “I’m not preparing a revo­lu­tion,” vowed the min­is­ter, but she knows any changes to school dis­tricts will be ex­plo­sive.

As many gov­ern­ments round the world have found, such plans run aground as soon as wealth­ier par­ents are told to send their chil­dren to rougher schools. “She’s go­ing to fail,” says Ro­drigo Munoz, pres­i­dent of a par­ent­teacher as­so­ci­a­tion in Saint-De­nis. “The rich have left and they aren’t com­ing back.” —AFP

PARIS: French Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Na­jat Val­laud-Belka­cem leaves af­ter a weekly cab­i­net meet­ing at the El­y­see pres­i­den­tial palace yes­ter­day. —AFP

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