“We are building a two

“I might like the school, but the school didn’t like me; I considered it an evil place; I am convinced that if I had grown up elsewhere, I would not have had this career path; my daughter had the same worries as me and I tell myself that it is my fault”: in a book of testimonies (1), activists from ATD Fourth World talk about their schooling. Their words illustrate a “terribly unequal” system that does not respect the “republican promise to allow everyone to choose their path and thereby their future”, comments in the introduction the president of the association, Marie-Aleth Grard. But “school is the bedrock of our democracy,” she insists.

She defends a social and educational mix that will make society “more open and tolerant”. And advocates teacher training for extreme poverty. “The teacher and the parent from a popular background, it’s as if we didn’t live on the same planet”, Vincent says in the book, drawing the same observation against political leaders.

Former local elected official Marie-Aleth Grard asks mayors “not to ignore extreme poverty”. And to the Minister of National Education, Pap Ndiaye, to translate into action his declarations in favor of a “more just school, first of all for children from disadvantaged backgrounds”. In the book, she evokes the call launched by the founder of ATD Fourth World, Joseph Wresinski, that “no child should fail in school” within ten years. The drawing dates from 1977.

What was the trigger for this book?

Vincent Peillon, the former Minister of National Education (between 2012 and 2014, editor’s note), came to get me. He asked me to write a book about the school for the collection he directs. I first replied that “My life, my work” would not interest anyone. After reflection, I offered him this book based on a series of testimonies from ATD Fourth World activists. It is in a way a continuation of the work that I carried out at the Cese, in particular the opinion of May 2015 entitled “A school of success for all”, of which I was the rapporteur, which highlights a close link between social origins and educational inequalities. However, it is clear, as I write in the introduction, that our education system continues to favor the wealthiest, who have the codes, and to leave the most fragile on the side of the road. We hear about an inclusive school, but in reality, we exclude. It is estimated that 2.9 million minors come from families living below the poverty line, of whom 1.6 million are in extreme poverty.

In France, in 2022, school children live on the streets or in emergency accommodation. How do you expect to learn in good conditions at school and do your homework properly in the evening when you live with four other people in a hotel room? How, under these conditions, dare to tell your comrades where you live? So we can’t invite them. It’s very violent for them and for their families. It’s unbearable, it absolutely has to change.

“The French school system tends to reproduce birth inequalities”, deplores, like you, the Minister of National Education, Pap Ndiaye, who defends “a fairer school, first of all for children from disadvantaged backgrounds »…

It’s good that he says it, but we expect him to act to show that he really takes these inequalities into account. However, for the moment, we have not seen such measures. I would even say, quoting for example the reform of the vocational high school, that we persist in building a two-tier school: for those who will go on to major studies and for the others.

We are also told about diversity, but that is a decoy. The schools located in the priority education network are sometimes absolutely unbelievably segregated: you only see one kind of population, disadvantaged or very disadvantaged.

After three meetings postponed since his appointment, a lightness that had shocked us, we were finally able to meet Tuesday, January 3, the Minister of National Education, Pap Ndiaye. He assured us that he would listen to our concerns. But the question is: will he be able to move the institution under his supervision. Because the fight against extreme poverty at school cannot wait any longer.

What do you expect from local elected officials in this fight?

The people testifying in this book think they are not understood because their experience of extreme poverty is different from the lives of others. One of them even says that “we need a minister who has known poverty”. This applies to elected officials, who must grasp the interest of pursuing policies targeting the poorest so as not to forget anyone. We put a plaster on a wooden leg by developing emergency accommodation, but forgetting to build very social housing. This reveals a short-term view.

Citizens must feel mistreated by their elected officials given the state of their children’s school. A mayor cannot ignore extreme poverty. I hope that the Minister for Towns and Housing and former Mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, Olivier Klein, whom I know well and whose duties also cover “educational policies in underprivileged neighborhoods in order to act on the social mix by combining improvement of the living environment with quality of the school offer”, will succeed in advancing the subject.

We could in many points affix a layer between the opinion of the Cese of 2015 and the current situation. What inspires you?

Yes, it’s awful. Because we continue to sort the children, rather than letting them mix. However, I am totally convinced of the benefits of social and educational diversity. If our society is so compartmentalized, it is partly because of this. When, young, we don’t learn together, we don’t think together, we don’t develop our critical thinking together, when we have such different backgrounds, it creates gaps and, later, it’s hard to understand the ‘other. It is unfortunate and damaging to our society.

ATD Fourth World trains teachers in the knowledge of extreme poverty – approximately 50,000 to date – which is what National Education is supposed to do… It is not a question of transforming them into social workers, but of acculturating them to what parents and children experience in precariousness, the humiliation they suffer every day, in the eyes of others…

As part of a research program aimed at flushing out social biases in educational guidance, we intervene in schools by involving the entire educational community, including Atsem, whose role is also very important. We have to put an end to a social determinism rooted to the point that, when we look at a child, we say to ourselves: “That one, he’s not going to succeed. This is a subject that I would like to discuss one day with Pap Ndiaye. And school medicine too, whose state is catastrophic, with dramatic consequences for the poorest students.


Rating 01

“The equal dignity of the invisible – When the voiceless talk about school”, Le Bord de l’eau in co-edition with Editions Quart Monde, November 2022. Back to text

“We are building a two-speed school” – Marie-Aleth Grard