In France, for a few days, the issue of violence at school ignited the media after a sequence filmed in a college in Créteil was published in Youtube, where a teenager held up his teacher with a dummy weapon.
A recurring problem
Violence in schools is a recurrent phenomenon that takes various forms: violence against teachers, harassment and even cyber-harassment of some students by others. The media focus on the most serious acts, but in reality there are repeated, daily incidents of micro-violence. The Government talks about placing police officers in schools; on television sets, journalists or even teachers report the problem on the resignation of parents and the laxity of the education system. Before communicating on hastily proposed solutions or analyses, it would be better to investigate the root causes of violence in schools.
Social problems and school failure
The reality is that our education system has great difficulty in absorbing the academic failure that primarily affects young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The OECD-led "Programme for International Student Assessment" (PISA) puts the French education system at a poor level (26th out of 70), far behind countries such as Japan and Finland but also Poland, Portugal and even Vietnam. France is a champion of educational inequalities and suffers from a chronic inability to help disadvantaged students, who are much more penalized in their performance than in other countries.
The French school system puts a lot of pressure on students: many hours of classes, many homework, a selection by failure, a distant and formal teacher-student relationship. The system forces teachers to impose themselves in an authoritarian way. These practices contribute to disinvestment and academic failure. Successful students are those who, because of their socio-cultural background, are well adapted to the system (especially the children of teachers). Children from families farthest from school are often excluded from access to knowledge and the diplomas that reward them.
More than 100,000 young people leave the school system each year without any qualifications and in a situation of failure. This is a real institutional violence which, without excusing them, feeds individual violence.
The Finnish example
A French teacher, Mr. Paul Robert, principal of the Nelson Mandela College in Clarensac, Gard, participated in a study visit to the Finnish education system organised by the European Union. The conclusions he draws from this are most interesting. Finland has very good results in the international PISA survey: in 2016, it ranked 5th out of 70 countries. It is one of the countries in the world where inequalities are best addressed by education, where differences in skills between boys and girls are the smallest and where students have a very positive self-esteem about learning.
What are the characteristics that explain this success? Mr. Robert noted the following points:
- Every student is important. A happy, fulfilled student, free to develop at his own pace, learns better. A warm and welcoming environment.
- The small size of the schools: (300 to 400 students for a middle school; 400 to 500 for a high school) creates an atmosphere of proximity and allows the principal or principal to get to know all his students personally.
- Familiar and respectful relationships. Relations between teachers and students are characterised by a high degree of familiarity, which in no way excludes mutual respect.
- Child-friendly learning rhythms. Learning to read only begins at the age of 7. Every day is devoted to a discipline (music, sports, manual or artistic activities, mother tongue, maths) but it is only in the morning that children are introduced to it, always in a very attractive way. The afternoon is reserved for the game.
- A high coaching ratio. During the first years of compulsory schooling ("basic education" from 7 to 13 years of age), the number of pupils per class must not exceed 25. From primary school and even in middle school, educational assistants come to assist the teacher. Special assistance is provided to small groups of students who require special assistance.
- Active and involved students. Mr. Robert has always seen students in activity, alone or in groups, with teachers soliciting their participation and attentive to their requests.
There is no shortage of resources in France but they are poorly distributed
How is it that what is possible in Finland is not possible in France? Does the Finnish school have more resources? Well, no, France spends about 7% of its GDP on education, like Finland. There is no shortage of resources in France, but they are, it seems, poorly distributed. The best teachers are in middle and high schools in residential areas, where executives and higher professions live, while less experienced teachers are sent to make their mark in more disadvantaged areas (see http://ecolesdifferentes.free.fr).
Let us dream a little: the Government has taken a common sense measure by splitting the preparatory course classes in the Priority Education Areas. Fewer students, more supervision, it is the right formula to produce better results. Why not continue in middle and high schools where academic failure and violence interact?
Move to a more cooperative system at both teacher and student levels
How to launch a new dynamic in these institutions? Here are some ideas inspired by the Finnish system.
In France, the model of the valued teacher is that of the "transmitter of knowledge". In middle school or high school, each teacher must be a specialist in a particular subject. A high level of knowledge gives him the opportunity to teach even if he does not know much about pedagogy. The role of the teacher is to transmit knowledge; he is an expert on a given content. He must have great authority and be directive to impose himself. He uses the resources of his knowledge and the documentation he possesses, his strategy is centred on the logic of presentation, transmission and the progressive development of his teaching. Its key problem is the didactic transposition: how to make its message clear and understandable. This model works well with young people from a privileged socio-cultural background or culturally close to school, it often fails with others.
Another model exists: the "learning facilitator" model. It is widely used in non-formal education, continuous training, for example, or youth movements. Its concern is to identify the needs of the learners for whom it is responsible and the skills they wish to acquire. Its strategy is to consider the means that learners will use to learn, in order to facilitate their learning. It uses dialogue, participants are active, it guides a cooperative work process. It does not give the right answers, it raises the right questions.
Why not use a new education system in middle and high schools in disadvantaged areas that combines these two models. In the morning, the "knowledge transmitters" would give courses in French, mathematics, science... In the afternoon, the "learning facilitators" - Finnish-style "educational assistants" - would have the task of helping teams of pupils to cooperate to carry out experiments, exercises and games designed to enable them to better integrate the knowledge transmitted in the morning. In this cooperative learning, young people themselves would be empowered and participate through a system of "peer tutors".
"Knowledge transmitters" and "Learning facilitators" would work together as a single educational team to share educational objectives and outcomes. Students would be asked to participate in the evaluation of their results. This cooperative dynamic would make it possible to integrate active training in democratic citizenship into school practice and would facilitate the maturation and attainment of moral autonomy, the real antidotes to violence.
Utopia? In France, we have all the ingredients for such a reform of the education system, at least in a few critical institutions. After local experiments, the new system could be gradually extended. Cost is certainly an obstacle, but have we measured the social cost of the failure of more than 100,000 young people leaving school each year without qualifications?