Could the arrival of a new minister at National Education really change the school?

Normalien, a specialist in United States social history, Pap Ndiaye was appointed Secretary of National Education and Youth on Friday, May 20. His career and positions mark a break from those of his predecessor, political observers say. But what impact will a change at the head of National Education have on the ground? How much room for maneuver does a minister actually have when he arrives, since the administration does not change? Putting things into perspective with three questions to Claude Lelièvre, educational historian.


The talk: Dad Ndiaye is a historian. How does its field of research fit into a tradition of the Ministry of National Education?

Claude Lelievre: Two historians were two great ministers of public education: François Guizot, famous for his important law of 1833 on primary education, which organizes a public school system, and Victor Duruy, known for his law of 1865 on special education. , a kind of technological secondary. This is what has given credence to a “tradition” of appointing historians to the head of this ministry. In reality they are few.

During the Fifth Republic, before the appointment of Pap Ndiaye, ten ex-professors had been appointed as Minister of National Education (out of about thirty): four associates – from higher education – in law or political science (Edgar Faure, Jack Lang, Luc Ferry, Jean-Michel Blanquer); three graduates of classical literature (Lucien Paye, François Bayrou, Xavier Darcos), one graduate of philosophy (Vincent Peillon), one graduate of geography (René Haby) and a single graduate of history (Louis Joxe). It should be noted that everything happens as if there were no teachers of another “rank” at the head of the Ministry of National Education. And Pap Ndiaye, the eleventh professor just appointed head of the ministry, is indeed an agrégé (in history) and no exception to the rule.

The Historian of Minorities Pap Ndiaye, The Surprise at National Education (France 24).

On the other hand, he distinguishes himself from the ten others who, before being appointed Minister of National Education, had experience in the administration of the Ministry – two of them were rectors, another chairman of the National Council of Programs – or in politics, for seven of them.

This appointment is therefore truly exceptional and clearly entails a risk that had to be taken into account. In particular, we can hypothesize that Pap Ndiaye’s trajectory, works, and argued and measured positions on certain sensitive issues related to “republican values” (and thus to the main goal of “re-establishing the school”, namely “forging republican minds”) could play a major, even decisive role. It should have been clear, to Emmanuel Macron, that it was not about implementing a line carried by personalities who attacked everything “Islamo-left”, “separatism” against the “cancel culture” or even “wokism”. And at this level, Pap Ndiaye can act as a guarantor of seriousness, poise, and determination regarding “Republican values”; at least in the eyes of the newly re-elected President of the Republic.

TC: What is the mission of the Ministry of National Education regarding French schools? Does the ministry have more weight in France than in other countries where the administration is less centralized?

CL: Indeed, the school is more centralized in France than in many other comparable countries, and its ministry has more weight there. This is undoubtedly due to the general centralization of the administration in France, but also has specific reasons which essentially refer to the fact that France was seen as “the land of revolutions” and “regime changes”. A central school turned out to be a central tool for coping with the risks of instability. The three great founders of this school are very clear about that.

When Napoleon founded the university in 1806 (that is, not higher education, but the mode of organization and state management of schools in France), he made no secret of the deep purpose of the operation. According to Fourcroy’s report of February 27, 1806, in which he reports his words:

“There will be no fixed political state if there is no educational organization with fixed principles. Until we learn from childhood whether we should be republican or monarchical, catholic or non-religious, the state will not form a nation; it will rest on uncertain and vague foundations; it will be constantly exposed to disorder and change.”

The central state becomes an educator so that order — its order — rules. He must therefore subordinate the local, ‘put it back in its place’. As Guizot says in his famous Letter to teachers of 16 July 1833 concerning the law on primary education: “It is not for the municipality and in a purely local interest” […] † it is also for the state itself. Universal primary education is now indeed one of the guarantees of social order and stability. […]† It is to ensure the realm and duration of the constitutional monarchy. †

Jules Ferry also subscribes to this doctrine of the (central) state of education, in his Program speech to the Chamber of Deputies from June 26, 1879:

“When we talk about state action in education, we attribute to the state the only role it can have in the field of education and education. If it suits him in the public interest to reward chemists, physiologists, if it suits him to reward professors, that is not the creation of scientific truths; it is not for that reason that he is concerned with education: he is concerned with maintaining a certain morality of the state, certain doctrines of the state necessary for its preservation. †

From the beginning of the IIIe Republic, it is mainly about consolidating the republican regime. Emmanuel Macron has just stated that it was necessary to “re-establish the school”. And he also clearly endorsed the state educator’s line, emphasizing during his May 7 speech the need to “act for an increasingly inclusive school, training in fundamental knowledge and forging Republican spirits.” From there we can situate the surprising appointment of Pap Ndiaye.

TC: If the ministers change, the administrations stay. What is the leeway of the Minister of National Education?

CL: When a minister arrives, he knows that the governance of his ministry is essentially permanent and that fundamental changes (particularly cultural and pedagogical) are difficult and generally take a long time. But he does not know how long he will remain at the head of the ministry, even though he may know that the average duration is below V.e Republic.

“Islamo left”, “blackface”… Between Pap Ndiaye and Jean-Michel Blanquer, the great divide of ideas (The Huffington Post, May 2022).

There is also a powerful DGESCO (Directorate General School Education) within the ministry that has gathered since the early 21st century.e century most services that were previously structured by educational level (schools, colleges, secondary schools, etc.). This situation is such that the director of the DGESCO is sometimes referred to as a “deputy minister”, especially if he goes beyond the normal skills of this position, namely that of first implementer (or main pivot) to also become a designer or even a strategist of the education policy pursued. This was the case, for example, when Jean-Michel Blanquer was DGESCO of Minister Luc Chatel, reducing his role to that of the Ministry’s main communicator rather than a real minister.

Jean-Marc Huart has just been appointed director of the cabinet of the new Minister of National Education Pap Ndiaye, with the help of the Elysée, as is common practice. Previously, he was DGESCO at the beginning of the Ministry of Jean-Michel Blanquer. Some already see it as a de facto supervision of the new minister. But that is by no means self-evident, because Jean-Marc Huart did not show himself at all in the light of a “deputy minister” (designer and strategist) when he was DGESCO, but in that of faithful execution. Above all, we can think that he was appointed there for what he knows best, as evidenced by the course of his career, namely the vocational training sector, that is, for the other project to which Emmanuel Macron is also very attached, namely the reform of secondary vocational schools and bodies or orientation methods.

Ministers of National Education under the Ve Republic, an effective room for maneuver if they focus on a few decisive dossiers, without spreading themselves, and that they have the firm support of the head of state for this – in this case he will act for Pap Ndiaye to renew the dialogue , soothe the spirits and investing in the issue of “forging Republicans”.

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