By Jean-Luc Massalon, former school principal, coordinator of Localised Educational Inclusion Units (ULIS) with the collaboration of Daniel April (GEM Report, UNESCO)
Inclusion doesn’t exist by default, it is only when someone is excluded that inclusion becomes an issue. In the education sector, people are excluded because of their gender, origin, religion or political affiliation. Others are excluded because of their physical or intellectual disability or because of their socio-economic background. Location can also be a factor of exclusion and can limit access to quality public services. This is particularly true in peri-urban areas, neglected neighbourhoods and rural areas as in the case of Ponthoile, France, a village whose primary school was closed in 2018.
Mobilisation around the closure of the Ponthoile school
Ponthoile is a French commune located in the Hauts-de-France region. The town’s population stood at 615 persons in 2017. Ponthoile’s primary school closed its two classes in 2018 following a decision by the Inspection académique de la Somme. The official reason given was that there was a decrease in enrolment, although the number of pupils had increased between 2017/18 (24 pupils) and 2018/19 (30 pupils).
Protestors: Students protesting in front of their school. Image Karine Michaux
Following the closure, parents, elected officials and teachers made numerous attempts at mediation, filed an appeal with the administrative court and carried out advocacy work. They wrapped the school in the style of the artist Christo, with the aim of “hiding in order to reveal” and using slogans inspired by the work of Magritte. The old village cinema was also symbolically re-opened so as to screen the film “Cinema Paradiso”, which focused on the disappearance of a cultural space in a village.
Protest activities: “The Ponthoile shipwrecked” and “School night”. Image: Stéphanie Tinseaux
One evening, I (Jean-Luc) wrote to Gauvain Sers, a committed singer-songwriter, to ask him to support us. Gauvain, himself the son of a teacher and a native of a region that is too often abandoned, decided to write the song “Les oubliés” (The Forgotten), which was quickly taken up in other institutions in rural and peri-urban areas also threatened with closure. A series of four video documentaries were produced and a concert held in the schoolyard.
Since these actions, the government has backed down on school closures without the mayor’s approval. However, school closures without proper community consultation are still widespread, as was the case this year for two village schools in Ponthieu-Marquenterre.
Benefits of keeping schools open in rural areas
Those who support the consolidation of rural schools believe that savings will be made, with simplified staff management, fewer buildings to maintain and grouped canteens. However, the costs of new buildings, school transport and indirect employment (supervisory staff) are often overlooked. Henri Poupart, mayor of Ponthoile, feels that the closure of the village school has led to significant public expenditure, including new building works in place of the renovation of existing structures.
In the Hauts de France, the region in metropolitan France most affected by poor literacy skills, the Académie d’Amiens (which groups together the school complexes of the Somme), has had the highest rates of young people with reading difficulties for several years. So why close their schools?
Existing studies cite the advantages of small schools over large schools. Even though the lack of pupil enrolment was given as the main reason for the closure of the Ponthoile school, evidence shows that small enrolments promote student success while higher pupil/teacher ratios can have a negative impact on learning. Karine Michaux, mother of three children who attended the Ponthoile school, reports that her children’s class sizes have swelled to 28 pupils; she also has concerns over the suitability of their new school premises. She reports a more distant parent-teacher relationship at their new school, with parents disinclined to consult with teachers unless there is a problem. Valérie Mairesse, also a parent from Ponthoile, has concerns that her daughter no longer benefits from the differentiated teaching method that was naturally introduced in the multi-level class at Ponthoile school.
As the 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report outlined in its analysis of the impacts of rural school closures, the maintenance of schools in rural areas strengthens social ties. These schools are meeting places that facilitate the integration of new arrivals, which contributes to student success. Rural schools help to establish important links with the surrounding nature and with local communities. As the Mayor of Ponthoile commented, without the school as a coordinating agent, organising events involving young people is hard, as is encouraging young couple to settle there. This phenomenon is addressed in one of the most influential French films of the last two decades, To Be and To Have (Être et avoir), which deals with the reality of rural classes that bring together, around the same teacher, all the children of the same village, from kindergarten to CM2.
1. Support teachers in rural areas
The choice to keep rural schools open must be combined with increased support for rural teachers so that they are well equipped to teach in a multigrade classroom. In particular, this requires specific training that should be provided from initial training and enriched throughout their careers.
2. Pool resources
The dynamism of small schools can be maintained by the existence of rural school networks. Collaboration between teachers and pupils from different classes and schools, both face-to-face and virtual, should be encouraged. It should also be possible to pool materials available in schools. This cooperation can enable each school to benefit from the contributions of others, while preserving their identity.
3. Establish a consultation process
There should be a genuine dialogue between parents, students, parent-teacher councils, community organisations, teachers and trade unions before any decisions are taken. In the event of unavoidable closures, the size of clusters should be limited in terms of pupils and municipalities in order to reduce transport time for pupils.
The first years of education are crucial in shaping young people’s civic and citizenship skills and their vision of the world. Quality education must be provided for all students everywhere, and it must ensure inclusion by banishing exclusion… this applies to rural areas too.
We thank Gauvain Sers (singer-songwriter), Henri Poupart (mayor), Karine Michaux and Valérie Mairesse (parents) for their testimonies.