Primary education was a popular theme during this year’s presidential campaign in France. Do you think this is a priority of the incumbent government ?
Since 2010, year in which the Montaigne Institute published the report “Fighting failure in primary school”, education has increasingly established itself as a priority in public opinion and in French policy makers’ agendas.

Yet, little progress has truly been accomplished. During the 2012 presidential campaign, primary education was already considered a priority. It was dealt with through the creation of teaching jobs and through new measures, such as the "more teachers than classes" initiative. It will be complicated to assess the impact of such measures, as Vincent Peillon, former Minister of Education in France from May 2012 to March 2014, refused to implement the rigorous evaluation mechanisms required during the first part of François Hollande’s five-year mandate.

Giving priority to primary school necessarily implies budgetary funds. This requirement has been well understood by the current government, which is expected to create sustainable jobs and focus its additional resources on real strategic issues, which support children with most learning difficulties. Dividing by two first and second grade classes in priority education zones, that the Ministry coins "REP" and "REP+"areas, is a measure the Montaigne Institute has actively encouraged. It is a good first step in the right direction and must now be complemented by incentive measures regarding teachers’ pay in "REP+" areas, and strong measures preventing the appointment of the youngest teachers, who lack experience, in the most struggling classes of the country.

A long-term effort is nonetheless needed in all areas which can improve the mastering of basic skills (reading, writing, and counting), and which combat social determinism, too present in our schools. Teacher training and support, the production of educational tools derived from scientific research, the use of digital technology in classes, a subtle management at the regional level… all these elements work together and will lead to positive results contributing to the fight against academic failure.

A reform of the French Baccalaureate was mentioned before the summer break. What is at stake ? Why is it so important ?

It is not so much the Baccalauréat that poses a problem. It is obviously a complex examination, undoubtedly archaic in many respects, and which has lost all meaning regarding the pursuit of higher education. What we need to do, before anything else, is think collectively about the country’s essential needs regarding secondary education. What kind of  knowledge and which skills do we want to pass on to our children ? What share of the education should be connected to the digital revolution ? Are we going to resign ourselves to getting among the worst results in English in the European Union ? Why are group work activities or the quality of our students’ oral expression so disregarded ? And another conundrum: the Baccalauréat prevents students from choosing more freely the courses they are most interested in, and teachers from implementing the most stimulating education methods.

Personally, I have never understood how the right and left wing parties could simultaneously promote the education system’s autonomy and want to conserve an examination which directly opposes such emancipation. I far more believe in systems like the International Baccalaureate (IB), which give more freedom and responsibility to both students and their teachers. Why do we leave the monopoly of such programmes to the more affluent students ?

Thinking about the Baccalauréat’s future thus amounts to rethinking the whole functioning and purpose of our secondary system. Not to mention finding ways to improve its evaluation. Every public and private school should benefit from a comprehensive diagnosis once every three to four years, at most. It is important for parents, and for the wider school community - teachers and members of staff.

Vocational education has tended to be neglected by French public policies. Yet apprenticeship keeps being identified as a priority. It seems that these issues are not really moving forward. Can we be confident that the system will change for the better in the years to come ?

France’s current vocational education system is problematic. Over the past decades, most of the democratization process of secondary education relied on vocational schools. Yet, much remains to be done to improve their recognition and effectiveness, as vocational education and training is crucial for the future of the country. For instance, the BTS, brevet de techniciens supérieurs (the vocational training branch examination), which was taken by 179, 600 candidates in 2015 according to official statistics, should have been created within these very schools.

It is essential to bring together vocational education and opportunities for apprenticeship. Today, only 15% of the students who obtain a vocational Baccalauréat diploma go on to complete an apprenticeship. This is clearly insufficient and represents a real challenge for the future. The opening of training centers for apprentices - "Centres de Formation d’Apprentis" - in vocational high schools, the pooling of teaching teams, the involvement of professionals in schools… are just a few examples of all the possibilities that could be tested. Some have already been tested, and it is now time to evaluate their impact and to spread these practices when they are demonstrated to be relevant.

This summer, Jean-Marc Huart, who previously worked at the General Delegation for Employment and Vocation Training (DGEFP), became the new Director General of Education (DGESCO). This is a good sign, as his profile is that of someone who knows about the Ministries of both Education and Labor. His past experiences are likely to help him reconcile both sectors, which are strongly correlated.