Autonomy in School: A User’s Guide

Posted on Sep 9. 2022, 8:27 am

The back-to-school season has just ended. For teachers and the education system as a whole, the hardest part is just beginning. Advancing students, holding their attention, making them more curious and respectful of the rules of an education that remains highly focused: a challenge in this French school that accumulates so many handicaps and frustrations. In this delicate context, he is pleased to find, among the plethora of essays that populate this literary season, a book that gives hope for the future of the school. Yes, reform is possible and the school can do better, much better than what is shown year after year by France’s poor ranking in the Pisa survey, a reference for classifying international education systems.

This is in any case the position that Monique Canto-Sperber defends. The philosopher, former director of the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, has long been interested in primary and secondary school. His book is about that, and more specifically about the autonomy that schools should be given. Autonomy is also one of the key proposals put forward by candidate Emmanuel Macron during his campaign, and it is one of the reforms he plans to implement during this five-year term.

Universal promise

But what kind of autonomy are we talking about? For its opponents, autonomy will lead schools directly to deregulation and fragmentation of the educational offer, leaving the universalist promise and equal access to education a distant memory, if this promise is still kept today. The paradox is that autonomy was nevertheless a major concern of the Republican founders of public schools in the late 1800s. The demand for autonomy went hand in hand in the spirit of, in particular, Léon Bourgeois, Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts from 1890 to 1892, with the desire to end privileges and make education accessible to everybody. “Three areas seemed to be decisive in fulfilling this requirement, writes Monique Canto-Sperber: the ‘personality’ of institutions, the share of initiative left to teachers, the role of the director”.

Specifically, this autonomy could result in the freedom given to institutions to determine a strategy of resources: the number of students in the classes varies according to their level, according to the subject taught, making it possible to have several teachers per class at the same time modulate school rhythms… The role of the head teacher, which is particularly limited in France, could also change in order to give him more privileges, in particular that of recruiting his teaching colleagues.

Sweden’s counterexample

There are many fantasies surrounding these questions, and this newfound freedom left to the actors of Education is making some people dizzy. That is understandable, after so many years in a straitjacket not always adapted to the needs of the students. The teaching profession is paradoxical in that it gives the teacher great freedom in the organization of his class, in his way of approaching this or that subject of the program, also in the rhythm of the acquisition of knowledge – even if he must adhere to the program! – and that he also forces him to a very scrupulous respect for certain exacting rules – “dictation every day for fifteen minutes and mental arithmetic and two writing exercises”, for example for primary school.

Some fears are legitimate and Monique Canto-Sperber, who defends the principle of autonomy, does not ignore them. It even sets real red lines, such as not entrusting the financial management of schools to lucrative organizations. This is what happened in Sweden, which introduced so-called “free” schools in 1992. This foreign example, like that of England and the United States, is well elaborated in the book, which makes it possible to understand its limits and risks, especially the use of public funds for the benefit of national companies or international as experienced by Sweden, which today bites its fingers. “Autonomy is not a miracle solution. It requires great vigilance on a number of well-defined points,” warns the philosopher.

In his view, the autonomy of schools does not mean that the state gives up its responsibilities. It’s the exact opposite. Providing appropriate funding, guaranteeing the training of teachers and principals, approving the project of each school, assuming control and sanctions in case of failure: all this can only be done by the state.

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