Examining France’s Education Reform and Teacher Poverty

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After the horrific assassination of the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty in October 2020, the poor living and working conditions of French teachers evoked heated discussion in society as well as in the government. Considering the wealth and economic power of France, it is surprising to see that the salaries of French teachers are 7% lower than the average for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Following the incident, the Minister of National Education inaugurated the “Grenelle de l’Education,” a negotiation marathon with the teaching staff that focuses on salary increases and additional protection, leading France’s education reform.

National Tribute to Samuel Paty

On Friday, October 16, 2020, in a suburb of Paris, an 18-year-old Muslim killed and beheaded a French middle-school teacher named Samuel Paty with a knife. Paty, 47, teacher of history and geography at Collège du Bois d’Aulne, was murdered 10 days after showing his 4th-year students a caricature of the prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of expression.

The atrocious murder immediately spurred large-scale protests across France, including at the Place de la République in Paris, lauding free speech and denouncing violence against educators. On October 21, French President Emmanuel Macron led the national tribute to Samuel Paty and called him “the face of the republic.” The republic awarded Paty the Légion d’honneur, the nation’s highest decoration, and his 5-year-old son is going to be a ward of the nation.

Alarming Conditions of Teachers in France

The tragic story of Paty has brought to light the poor living and working conditions of teachers in France. Considering the nation’s GDP and the average income, the salaries of teaching professions are strikingly low. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the salaries of French teachers at the beginning phase of their career are 7% lower than the average for the member countries of OECD.

In 2009, the starting salaries in primary and upper secondary education in France were €24,006 and €27,585, respectively, both lower than the EU21 and the OECD average, which are all less than €30,000. Comparing with more than €51,000 in Luxembourg, €46,000 in Denmark and Germany and €40,000 in Spain for primary education, the salary for teaching professions in France is significantly lower. Moreover, French teachers in primary education have the longest working time in the OECD, teaching 918 hours over one school year, significantly longer than the average of 779 hours. This also means that the hourly wage of French teachers is among the lowest in Europe. After 15 years of work experience, a French teacher earns about €36 per hour, only higher than that in Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and the Slovak Republic.

Besides the income gap, the social status of educational professions also varies among European countries. As a senior teacher in a language institute, Céline Dally, claims that, the conditions of French teachers are far different from those in the U.K. or Germany, where the profession is not only relatively well-paid but more importantly highly acknowledged and respected. Additionally, governmental wage settings leave the development of teachers’ wages below the inflation rate in France, making them decrease in real terms.

Macron’s Pension Reform

In 2019, the Macron administration proposed a pension reform that provoked a series of national strikes, in which countless public school teachers participated. According to the proposal, retirement payments would be calculated based upon salaries that a teacher earned throughout their entire career, instead of the last few paychecks.

Since the salaries were pretty low in the initial years, taking them into account must dramatically reduce the pension, not to say the inflations over the last decades. Dally estimated that if this reform went into effect, every retired French teacher would receive hundreds of euros per month less than before.

Grenelle de l’Education

Amid the news of Samuel Paty, many teachers and unions are calling for more financial resources and protective policies to fight against insecurities. For instance, the Sud Education Union is appealing for the indexation of wages over inflation and an augmentation in the minimum wage to €1,700 net. On October 22, 2020, just one day after the nation’s homage to Samuel Paty, the government launched France’s education reform, “Grenelle de l’Education,” in a whole new context. The Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, inaugurated the negotiation marathon with the teaching staff that will last until mid-February 2021, at the heart of which is the long-awaited rise in teachers’ salaries.

In the new post-Paty context, in addition to the revaluation of the profession on the financial level and additional protection measures, the question of the well-being and recognition of the teacher has also become central, as Blanquer affirmed, to put more teachers “at the center of society.” To reach these goals, the state has increased the 2021 budget of the Ministry of National Education by €400 million for various bonuses. Additionally, €260 million target teachers in the early and middle stages of their careers, and €178 million are for IT equipment. France’s education reform is working to aid teachers in poverty and is a step toward free expression and equality.

– Jingyan Zhang
Photo: Flickr

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