What kind of education system for what kind of society?

Pierre Calame, October 2023

Collectif Osons les territoires !

The « Osons les territoires! » collective proposes a « compass of the second modernity » aimed at rebuilding relationships in all areas, and a certain number of reforms to be undertaken as a matter of urgency to reweave these essential links. For example, making the regions a collective player in education. This summary document provides an overview of the more efficient analysis available as an attachment to the factsheet.

The manifesto is a text written by the collective under the coordination of Pierre Calame.

To download : repenser_l_education_par_et_pour_les_territoires_21_10_29_en.pdf (210 KiB)

The members of the collective «  Osons les territoires  » authors of the Manifesto «  rethinking education by and for territories ", 2023 

Jacques Brégeon, Bea Barras, Pierre Calame, Pierre Caro, Jean-Pascal Derumier, Bernard Fortier, Martine Guérin, Kristina Hakala, Claire et Marc Heber, Armel Huet Suffrin, Robert Jestin, Cindy Nadaud, Richard Pétris, Jacques Pinchard, Armel Prieur, Isabelle Sorbelli, Patrick Waeles.

The school suddenly finds itself a besieged fortress. The way in which Dominique Bernard’s killer proclaimed his hatred of schools, democracy and France made schools the embodiment of democracy and France, making them unassailable for that reason alone. He was killed simply because he was a teacher, thus becoming the symbol of the school under threat. The unbearable nature of the murder suspends any critical questioning of the institution he represented, any questioning of the way in which it has fulfilled its vocation and embodied or not, in the eyes of all young people, the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity engraved on its pediment.

It would be short-sighted, however, to succumb to the emotion that overwhelms us and give up asking ourselves whether the current education system is appropriate to our society and to the challenges of the society to come. On the contrary, his death forces us to do so. While the Arras murder temporarily sent the debates that had been raging in the preceding weeks back into the doghouse, it did not make them disappear, but it does force us, as citizens, to get out of the rut of hastily cobbled-together solutions and political gestures, to raise the debate to its true height: the prospects we want to open up for our society.

When, in July 2023, young people burn down their own schools, seeing them as symbols of a State and a society they reject rather than their common home, talking about the Republican Pact, secularism and the transmission of fundamental knowledge will not be enough to put out the fire. The perspective we want to put forward for debate is that of the metamorphosis of the education system, necessary if it is to meet the challenges of a society that has become irrevocably global.

An education system is not a neutral tool for distributing timeless knowledge. It is designed according to the society we want to build. Our education system, the one that helped us grow up and to which we owe a deep debt of gratitude as well as to its teachers, some of whom have marked us for life, is a legacy of past centuries. It was designed for the society we wanted to build and the challenges we had to face at the time it was conceived. Because of its inertia, which is common to all major institutions and systems of thought, a gap has gradually opened up between its conception and the society to which it is addressed, which is so different from the society to which it was addressed a hundred years ago, and even more so from the society yet to be built.

Our reflection is in line with a broader reflection, carried out in 2021 and 2022 on the necessary metamorphosis of our system of thought and our institutions, which led us to publish the manifesto « Dare the territories! In it, we show why the catchment area, the territory, still a second-rate political and economic player today, is destined to play a decisive role in the twenty-first century. We discovered that this also applied to the education system, which led us to place the territories at the heart of its metamorphosis. It is this analysis and these proposals that we wish to put forward for debate today: rethinking education by and for the regions; the time for global, open and lifelong education has come.

The current conception of the education system is part of what we have called « the first modernity », the one that inspired the Enlightenment and founded the industrial and technological revolution. Its DNA, the compass that has guided it and given it its formidable operational effectiveness, is the art of separation, of specialisation: The separation of humanity from the rest of the living world, which was reduced to the status of a resource to be exploited; the specialisation in the economic field of private players on the one hand and public players on the other; the hierarchical design of organisations, inspired by the army or mechanical automata; the lightning progress of science and technology, subdivided into disciplines and giving priority to the search for universal laws; the central role played, particularly in France, by the State, which was supposed to embody the nation and hold a monopoly on the public good.

The school of the Republic reflected this conception of modernity and a vision of society: the establishment of a single, indivisible Republic enlightened by reason; a homogenous nation imbued with its superiority, distrustful of intermediary bodies and of regional, linguistic or cultural differences likely to divide it, drawing a strict distinction between reason and emotion, reflection and action, knowledge and beliefs. This school favoured abstract knowledge and individual abilities, neglecting collective skills and the know-how and know-how derived from experience. It met the needs of a society structured by hierarchical organisations. Academic performance was used to justify the place assigned to each individual on the basis of his or her ability to master abstract knowledge.

It managed to organise the transition from a predominantly rural society to an urban, industrial and then tertiary society, and nurtured the illusion that the formal equality of all children in school, guaranteed by a national, centralised and uniform system, would form the basis of a just republican order in which everyone would find their place by virtue of their personal merit. By banning data on the cultural origin of pupils as long as they were of French nationality, by abolishing repeating years, by offering all young people a standard lower secondary school, by making the success rate at the baccalauréat a political objective rather than a true measure of knowledge acquired, society has deluded itself that by breaking the thermometers it would bring down the fever. It has lied to itself about the depth of inequalities in schooling, revealed by international comparisons which show, on the contrary, that formal equality in schooling leads to objective inequalities that are far greater than in most other OECD countries.

As an inevitable counterpart to its effectiveness and presuppositions, early modernity has led to a widespread crisis in relations: between humanity and the biosphere, symbolised by climate change; between individuals, with the loss of social cohesion and mutual trust; between societies, with the inability of sovereign states to manage the global commons. This crisis extends to the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, and more generally to hierarchical organisations, which are increasingly unable to respond to the need to adapt to changing and unpredictable contexts and to the aspiration of each and every one of us to be something other than a cog in a centralised system.

To face up to this, we need a « second modernity » whose compass will be precisely to create and recreate relationships of all kinds. And this will also guide the metamorphosis of the education system. 1.2 million people are currently paid by the French education system. They represent a huge pool of experience and will be key players in the new education system, whether in the education of children and young people up to the end of compulsory schooling or in lifelong learning. But they need to be placed within a new institutional framework that enables them to harness this potential to serve this new requirement for relationship management.

Reflecting the specialisation and segmentation that characterised early modernity, today’s education system creates a multitude of gaps: between the different school cycles; between an educational community limited to teachers and all those who contribute to the child’s development, starting with parents; between the subjects taught; between teachers within the same school; between school and non-school time; between the different training pathways at the end of compulsory education; between the education system and career opportunities.

It is essential to rethink the overall development of children and young people by overcoming all these divisions. It is at the level of schools and the ecosystem of local players that this will be possible. The education system must prepare future citizens to fully assume their role and responsibility in society, through an education that is not limited to the transmission of segmented knowledge: an education for peace, cooperation, democracy, sharing, systemic approaches and the diversity of sources of knowledge. Education that puts knowledge, skills and attitudes on an equal footing, so that everyone learns to do their bit.

The new education system will be based on the principles of multi-level governance. Education for all is a national asset. Rebuilding the system on a regional basis does not mean, on the contrary, that each region is free to design it as it pleases. The national level remains the ultimate guarantor of the education system. It defines the aims of the system on the basis of democratic debate; it ensures the redistribution of funding for education; it establishes the conditions for equivalence of teachers’ curricula to enable mobility from one region to another; it coordinates assessment procedures. But it does so on the basis of guiding principles established jointly on the basis of regional experience.

It will be up to each region to put in place the training arrangements for education staff, whether teachers or not. Their primary vocation is to be awakeners and educators, and their initial and in-service training must reflect this and take precedence over strictly disciplinary knowledge, especially as in the new technical context this knowledge can easily be mobilised from external sources. Each establishment, under the authority of its director, will define and implement a collective educational project, free in particular to adopt, if it so wishes, a model of active teaching of which there are many examples.

In accordance with the principle of active subsidiarity, which is the hallmark of multi-level governance, exchanges of experience between schools, between territories and with other countries will enable a periodic collective review of the common guiding principles, in an approach that is no longer one of top-down directives but of constant progress based on input from everyone.

Compulsory schooling in the new system is only the first step in a dynamic process of acquiring human, social and technical skills, both individual and collective, which will develop throughout life. These skills must correspond to the challenges facing society in the era of the « Anthropocene », to use the expression proposed by scientists to describe a new era in which humanity’s impact on the biosphere is such that it is capable of rapidly destroying the very conditions for its survival.

This means : collectively defining the skills needed in this new era; recognising the diversity and complementarity of educational pathways; reforming higher education as part of a new contract with society; strengthening lifelong learning by devising itineraries for building skills throughout life, including during retirement, which today commonly lasts 20 or 30 years and implies a new and prominent role for senior citizens in the service of society ; to give new impetus to popular education, which is based on an ethic of responsibility and mutual recognition and promotes a back-and-forth relationship between action and reflection; to improve the links between training institutes and employers by promoting work-linked training. Finally, a national emergency programme will be set up to equip the regions of tomorrow with the skills they need to design and lead the transition to a sustainable society.

In short, let’s put our trust in collective creativity, in the ability of individuals and institutions to learn from each other, and in the capacity to combine unity and diversity. Let’s dare to be democratic. Let’s dare the territories.