why have more than a quarter of schools in France been closed in 40 years?

In Sauvebœuf (Dordogne), in Bolbec (Seine-Maritime), in Blaincourt-sur-Aube (Aube), in Abbeville (Somme), mobilization is underway against the closure of a school. The school card measures, announced in February and possibly renegotiated until the start of the school year, are the subject of tensions between the different levels of national education, local elected officials, teachers unions and parents of students.

Every year, since 1963 and the creation of the school map, the school supply has been rationalized based on demographic forecasts and available education posts, often accompanied by the consolidation, merging or closing of schools. This results in the annual number of school registrations, which covers different situations (establishments united administratively while preserving their site, new buildings, closed schools, etc.).

According to data provided to: World by the Ministry of National Education, there were 61,373 public pre-primary or primary schools registered in France in 1982, and only 44,312 at the start of the 2021 school year, down from 17,061 schools in forty years. In the same period, however, the number of school-aged children remained more or less stable.

Number of schools and number of children in France

Evolution of the number of children under 10 and the number of public kindergartens and primary schools since 1982.

  • A historically declining trend in the number of schools

in the 19thand century, the laws of Guizot (1833) and Goblet (1886) obliged all municipalities with more than 500 inhabitants to maintain a school. But from the 1960s onwards, the demographic decline in rural areas encouraged political authorities to reduce the number of small settlements. For example, the circular of 28 July 1964 recommends closing classes or schools with fewer than sixteen pupils. As this orientation later softened, confronted with the realities on the ground – especially in mountainous areas – there was a tendency from the 1970s to encourage small businesses to cluster to survive.

This is how “Intermunicipal Education Groups” (RPI) were created that encouraged municipalities with few school enrollments to work together. The grouping can be more or less formal, depending on the agreement signed between the municipalities and based on “dispersed” buildings (kindergarten and CP in the school of one municipality, from CE1 to CM2 in another) or “concentrated” (a single building has been maintained and maintained by several municipalities).

Despite this consolidation policy, there are still many small institutions: there are 3,483 one-class public schools, 5,204 two-class schools, and 5,890 three-class schools.

From the 1980s, RPI developed strongly in rural and urban areas. We deviate from the logic that every municipality should have its own school. Especially since the 1992 Mauger report argued for the generalization of three-class schools, arguing the lack of efficiency of single classes or grouped levels that characterize small institutions. When a moratorium is introduced in October 1993, whereby any closure of the public service requires the consent of the municipalities concerned, there is clearly a tendency for the number of small schools to fall.

In the 2000s, a massive plan to modernize public administration (the “General Public Policy Review,” RGPP), resulted in major job losses in the public service, including schools. In 2003, the law provides for the mandatory creation of an RPI for all municipalities with fewer than 15 pupils, forcing municipalities less than 3 kilometers away to regroup on a school basis. “In the first degree, while local elected officials are involved in the process, it is the state actors in the decentralized school administrations who are responsible for assessing needs and keeping control over the number of teaching posts. Removing one or more positions allows them to close a class or school, without necessarily seeking the consent of elected city officials.explains Malorie Ferrand, historian of school development in the area associated with the University of Lyon-II.

If the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, has often expressed his desire to… “Don’t close a primary school in the countryside without the mayor’s permission”continues the current trend of avoiding small schools and leaning towards “territorial equality”† In addition, some objectives that have emerged over the past five years, such as the division of classes into priority education networks and the maximum threshold, throughout France, of twenty-four students per class in major sections, CP and CE1 .

For example, the school of Ponthoile, a village in the Somme of 611 inhabitants, no longer fit in the boxes. “We had two classes, one went from kindergarten to CP, the other from CE1 to CM2. The numbers have gradually decreased to a total of twenty-five students in 2017”, remembers Mayor Henri Poupart. The ax falls in 2018: the academic inspectorate decides to delete a post, the school is doomed. ‘We tried to regroup with other municipalities, but that didn’t work’regrets the councilor, who especially regrets losing the thread with the youthMedia attention doesn’t change that. Despite the song’s success the forgotten by Gauvain Sers, whose clip was shot within the walls of the school, is closed and will be transformed into a cultural center.

  • Major territorial differences

The result of this historical dynamic is an area that is characterized by great differences, even within rural areas. A fat report on education in rural areas, submitted by Socialist Senator Alain Duran in 2016, already underlined this† “Rural municipalities as a whole have not lost any population in thirty years, the ‘rural migration’ has been completed since the 1970s. But they only gain in population if they are near a city, and all the more so because this city is large”citing an INSEE report, Mr Duran points out before insisting on the rapid increase in the number of municipalities that have been out of school since the 1990s, especially in rural academies.

According to our data, some departments are seeing their network of schools shrink drastically. Between 1990 and 2018, Orne recorded a 27% drop in the number of children under 10 to 29,350 children, while the number of registered schools fell by 58% to 175 institutions. In the East, the number of children in Haute-Marne fell by 39% (17,482 children under ten) and the number of schools to 162, a decrease of 59%. Cantal saw the number of children decrease by 27% during the same period and the number of schools decreased by 45% to 144 schools.

This “rationalization” continues. Witness the history of La Cabanasse, a town of 681 inhabitants in the mountainous part of the Pyrénées-Orientales (department whose number of 0-10 year olds increased by 18% between 1990 and 2018, but where the number of schools is by 10% taken off). It currently belongs to a “dispersed inter-municipal educational group” of four small schools, in neighboring villages, each of which has its own premises and direction. These are coming soon “merged” in the words of the director of the school La Cabanasse, Ingrid Sarda, a transformation that was initially planned for the beginning of the 2023 school year, but was postponed due to the health crisis. “Our schools will close and we will be transferred to a single new building built in La Cabanasse, a standard children’s center, equipped with a canteen and a nursery”, says the teacher. The agreement was not easy to find, as the congregations that lost their schools were concerned about a general decline in their congregation.

“Pedagogically there are pros and cons. There will be only one position of branch director, so less stacking of positions. Isolated colleagues will be less so, learning difficulties are sometimes easier to understand. But the risk is that you will end up in a spiral that leads to class closures. If we have an average of twenty students per class when the national target is twenty-four, we may lose a place. Locally, it’s always a difficult event to make money.”she’s concerned.

When questioning the national education system, from the ministry to the headmasters of academies, no one denies it. “Even when long-term workforce changes are expected and discussed, job loss decisions are never easy to make”says Catherine Moalic, inspector of the Ardennes Academy. “It is therefore crucial to make clear that we operate with a concern for equality between the territories”, she explains. In his department of the Ardennes, where the number of children has been falling continuously since the 1990s, the “transformation” into group schools is thus almost complete. Of the 449 municipalities, only 130 have a school. No one is closing this year.

Update on May 18: Removal of a statement that the surveillance rate was equal in areas of a different nature.

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