Who Are We ?

Founded in March 2000, the association "Sauver les lettres" brings together both unionized and non-unionized primary and secondary school teachers, as well as parents. The association’s members share the ideal of elite education for all – education in which some knowledge is not reserved for an elite, but where each individual is given an equal chance to acquire it. Our aim is to save education, as the foundation of rationally based social relations and as a prerequisite for all effective participation in political and social life. The association defends the project of a republican education of the future, as conceived by Condorcet.

Elite education for all

The aim of such education should be to raise the entire population to a high core level of knowledge. This means establishing adequate curricula and standard national teaching hours, and to give sufficient funding to insure high-level training and large-scale recruitment of teachers. Pupils should be able to repeat a school year when they have not acquired the knowledge demanded and not wait until weaknesses have had time to build up at the end of each cycle [1]. There should be remedial classes for pupils in difficulty (small groups, reorientation classes). Finally, we need large-scale recruitment of non-teaching staff, who play a vital role in the running of schools and in the supervision of pupils. The association believes that a return to coherent teaching programmes makes no sense unless there is also a redefinition of pupil orientation and the conditions of supervision. That is why we are attached to a national public service of education and opposed to measures of decentralisation that accentuate social and territorial inequalities and discharge the state from its political mission.

It is easy to see that the education we want can only be opposed to free market philosophies, since we reject the "inevitable" reproduction of social inequality. We exclude from our terms of reference the ‘free’ play of supply and demand, which necessarily leads to an education system in which the sole priority is managing variations in pupil numbers and which is subordinated to the sole aim of students’ immediate employability.

Save French language teaching, to save education

But if our aim is to preserve a truly democratic republic by saving public education worthy of the name, then why should we make the teaching of French a priority? The association believes that a mastery of language is the basis of all learning, a prerequisite of all thought and reasoning, and the condition of all language-based relations. Without an early and firm mastery of their native language, individuals have no access to the symbolic, conceptual world which is the only safeguard of human interactions without violence. Nor can they partake in literary culture, a source of critical and collective memory and aesthetic enjoyment. The association’s aim is thus to oppose the ideological, political and economic measures that are, at the present time, reducing the place of French in the curriculum, weakening its acquisition by pupils, lowering literary and cultural standards and misdirecting its aim towards basic communication, thereby threatening authentic teaching, a thorough knowledge of the language and the development of thought, all of which schools owe their pupils. For these reasons, we condemn recent reforms that have lowered the intellectual ambitions of education still further. By abandoning a truly national policy on education, democratic equality of opportunity is sacrificed to the needs of providing a mass education in which the lowest common dominator prevails, so that fee-paying private schools are left with the task of providing in-depth instruction, leading to the reproduction of classes, castes, and even communities, religious denominations and sects.

Urgent measures

In primary school, the association deplores the reduction in French teaching time by two hours a week since September 2002 in CE2, CM1 and CM2 [2], resulting from the introduction of a foreign language. We believe that the order of priorities should be respected: first the fundamentals – French, mathematics, history and elementary sciences – must be acquired by all children before any attempt is made to broaden the field of knowledge. Children cannot approach and understand new learning profitably unless they have mastered the vocabulary and the syntax of their own language.

In the fight against illiteracy, which successive education ministers have placed among their highest priorities, the association calls for the reestablishment of a timetable for French that will give children the time to acquire solid reading skills. The number of hours spent on reading has continually fallen over the past thirty years, even though the quality of learning is linked to the time spent on it.

The association also takes issue with ‘transversal’ doctrines, which hold that French should be learned in all the other subjects at primary school. Experience shows that pupils obtain a good grasp of the language only when it is treated as a discipline in its own right, with systematic learning and memorisation of the morphology and syntax of the language.

The same concerns lie behind the association’s criticism of the new primary school programmes, which define teaching methods but which are empty of all content. We need, on the contrary, to demand high levels of knowledge from pupils and to trust teachers to find the appropriate methods.

For the collège [3], the association is opposed to the "Itinéraires de découverte[4] in the fifth and fourth years [5], which lead to a reduction in the teaching time in other subjects, especially in French, which has lost an hour per week in the sixth year, an hour-and-a-half in the fifth year and half-an-hour in the fourth year since the school year beginning September 2002. The "activities" that have taken their place vary from one school to another, thereby undermining the nationwide nature of the curriculum and running contrary to a concern to give pupils genuine and disciplined knowledge.

At the lycée [6], the association calls for the revision of the French programmes published between 1999 and 2001. They give weight to a taxonomic, formal and simplistic view of literature, seen as a source of codified forms and social attitudes that must be transmitted to pupils, rather than a way to use language and themes to open up new, unique worlds and ideas. By introducing argumentation as a way into the texts and promoting opinion at the expense of thought, the programmes also threaten the development of independent critical thought, which we owe to teenage pupils, soon to become citizens. The false debates and fake democracy inscribed in the ECJS [7], and the so-called "inter-disciplinary" notions linked to the TPE [8], which, in most cases, promote a short-attention span, distract pupils from what is essential and give them the illusion they can express themselves without knowing how to think or develop their arguments. The association calls for the suppression of these fake disciplines that aim either to format the citizen or else cynically to increase the baccalaureate pass rate.

The association is also opposed to the recently announced obligation for French secondary school teachers to organise their teaching in "sequences". We defend teachers’ total pedagogical freedom, the only real requirement being that dictated by the subject and its requirements.

The reform of French baccalaureate exams, begun in 2002, by introducing what are in fact descriptive, reductive and subjective visions of each subject into the exam, is a threat to pupils’ education. In particular the introduction of the "sujet d’invention" ("inventive subject") should be reconsidered: this "creative" subject generally forces pupils to express, in a rigid form, an opinion that is given beforehand, and runs counter to all idea of constructed learning. This subject cannot serve as an instrument for evaluating the literary and intellectual knowledge expected at an exam that constitutes the first step towards university education.

In the same spirit, the definition of oral exams should be re-examined, since, under the pretext of condemning "parroting", pupils are placed in the difficult and unequal position of commenting on a text from an unexpected (and formal) angle. It is impossible seriously to prepare all possible situations that might arise during the exam and practicing for an prescribed oral exam leads either to "cramming", which is contrary to the assimilation of knowledge, or to an improvisation exercise that accentuates social inequalities.

An education for intellectual and social emancipation

In conclusion, we reject the prolonged childishness produced by pursuing primary school methods into secondary education, with the aim of hiding study under games, by considering all intellectual rules and institutional norms as infringements of freedom and rights, and by regarding all judgement and selective orientation as a form of segregation.

The association calls for reforms that can contribute to real democratisation. Pupils need education that can give them solid knowledge. The aberrant ideology of the recent reforms must be abolished: by continually treating knowledge with suspicion and accusing teachers of "colonising the child", by claiming to let pupils "construct their own knowledge", and by diluting the content of what all pupils need to master by the age of sixteen, we end up only by adapting education to an increasingly unequal society and in the process destroy its real aim. As a result, intellectual standards are only maintained by family education and top private schools.

The association believes, on the contrary, that education can partially compensate socio-economic and cultural inequalities and can transmit a common and universal heritage of knowledge to all pupils in its care. We believe that all children can be brought to master reasoning and critical thought, enabling them to become mature citizens. But education of this kind must take care not to prevent more able pupils from going further, since we owe each child a full realisation of his or her potential.

We contest both the naively optimistic theories peddled by educational sciences – and which have been taken up by a large part of the left – and the social-darwinism adopted by many free-marketeers on the right, who merely ask schools to undertake a selection process among children.

1. In France, primary and secondary school curricula are organised in cycles. At the end of a two or three year cycle, a pupil is meant to have acquired the necessary level to be able to start the next cycle.
2. The last three years of primary school in France for 8 to 10 year olds.
3. The first four years of secondary school (ages 11-14).
4. Itinéraires de découverte: weekly two-hour multi-disciplinary activities for 12 and 13 year-olds.
5. Second and third years of secondary school (ages 12-13).
6. The last three years of secondary school (ages 15-17).
7. ECJS: Éducation Civique, Juridique et Sociale. The French equivalent of citizenship classes.
8. TPE: Travaux Personnels Encadrés. Research projects undertaken by pupils in small groups.

" Sauver les Lettres "
10, rue de Nesle
75006 Paris
[Traduction de "Qui sommes-nous ?", par Malcolm Eden, 2007]