The French national education system is at an impasse. The recruitment competitions for primary and secondary school teachers held in the spring did not generate enough teachers to cover the needs of the start of the school year in September 2022. Some academies and some courses are in critical situations: for example, in mathematics, only 557 candidates were admitted to the CAPES—the competitive examination to become a teacher in secondary schools—for 1035 available posts.
The problem is not new, but the situation has reached an unprecedented level this year, giving rise to deep concern about the level of decay in French public education.
The new Minister of National Education appointed in June by Emmanuel Macron, the indigenous activist Pap Ndiaye, acknowledged “structural difficulties” in recruitment. The needs were urgent and real; solutions had to be found quickly, so the ministry decided to set up accelerated recruitment processes in order to place a teacher in each class at all costs. The plan is to put teachers in classrooms as contractual workers, not as civil servants, and to exempt them from passing the competitive examination: something that is hardly conceivable in the French education system. This second-best solution has been widely criticised by public opinion.
A few weeks ago, a journalist from BFM TV played the game of applying to be a new teacher and described her experience. The young woman did not want to go into teaching but simply applied for the Versailles academy, one of the largest academies in France, in order to be able to report from the inside on the express employment conditions that the Ministry of Education has put in place.
The result of her investigation is appalling. She did not lie about her CV or her degree—she simply failed, quite logically, to specify her training as a journalist. In her cover letter, she stated that while she had a degree in literature, she had no teaching experience. Three directorates of departmental services of the national education department replied to her, offering her an interview in June, each time for a position as a professeur des écoles (school teacher), i.e., in primary education. For these interviews, she did not prepare herself, did not revise anything and did not hesitate to improvise, even openly admitting her ignorance when asked certain questions.
“What do you know about the programme?” “Not much,” she replied. Another question: “Do you know the official documents you need to have in your classroom?” She had no idea: “No,” she answered frankly. During the interviews, she was promised express training, but without any certainty. In response to her concerns about the quality of her profile and her ability to teach, she was told that she was “perfectly legitimate” with just a Bachelor of Arts degree. Of the three interviews she had, she received three positive responses, which she obviously declined, putting an end to that ludicrous experiment. The teachers’ unions are crying foul, and not without reason. Are we asking a person on the street to become a doctor in the operating room because he knows how to put a bandage on a finger? The ministry replies that emergency recruitment is not “optimal,” but assures that the selected profiles are carefully checked and promises improvements. In the meantime, no fundamental solution has been found to the crisis in the French education system. Pap Ndiaye’s priorities are detailed in an article published in the magazine Challenges at the start of the school year. Number one: to reduce social inequalities. There is no evidence of a concern to bring education back to its primary mission: to transmit knowledge.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).