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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Base élèves rectifiée sous la pression

by Marie-Noëlle Bertrand

French Pupil Database Amended Following Massive Protest

Translated Wednesday 24 October 2007, by Isabelle Métral

A pupil’s nationality and date of entry into France will no longer be specified in the pupil database, the ministry of education recently decided. But alarm over the danger inherent in the base itself has not abated.

The announcement was made unobtrusively but it is bound to find an echo in schools all over the country. The minister of education has decided to remove the items relative to a pupil’s origins from the database that has been developed from 2005 onwards. The boxes concerning a pupil’s nationality, his or her date of entry into French territory, and native culture and language will be scrapped from the form that headmasters are required to fill in. A circular that was to be sent on October 3 specifies that the changes will be implemented by the end of the month and all the data already collected considered null and void.

A dangerous means of control

The news was broken on the France Info radio channel and confirmed by the ministry’s services. It brought relief to all those who had expressed concern about the base. For as it developed(1), all the questions relative to the children’s origins met with vehement protest, especially as concerns the children of parents without residence permits. It was obvious to many people that this means of control was a safety hazard to foreign children especially. Many teachers simply refused the injunction to “turn informers” as they saw it and opted for civil disobedience despite their hierarchy’s pressure: they just did not fill in the boxes.

Relief was the instant reaction. Faride Hamana, the president of the parents’ association (FCPE) said “I am quite pleased that we’ve eventually been able to make ourselves heard. For all the information relative to nationality had nothing to do with education proper and besides it might have been misinterpreted.” François Nadiras, a member of the Toulon branch of the Human Rights League (LDH) and a pioneer in the fight, also said he was relieved, but added pointedly that “it was not observance of the law that had saved democracy.” The same point was made by the main teachers’ union (SNUIPP-FSU) who put the victory down “mostly to the teachers’ mobilization”.

And the minister’s retreat does not mean the conflict is over. For the very principle of the pupil database is open to criticism at a time when the setting up of multiple databases raises ethical questions now hotly debated.

The pupil database is an on-line program accessible through passwords, which collects items relative to the pupils’ identity, the full record of their present and past schooling, with potential specifications about the years they have repeated, or their absenteeism, or the psychological support or counselling they have received. The ministry says the base is simply meant to facilitate the management of the pupils’ schooling and to improve statistics. Opponents see in it a means of keeping tabs on children all through their schooling and are alarmed at the possible uses of the base, if not right now, at least in the future.

As Alain Gerber, the secretary of the Savoie branch of the SUD-éducation teachers’ union explains, “the pupils’ traceability is questionable if it does not allow children the benefit of a ’clean record’ when they start a new course.” How long then should the data be kept? And what about the possibility of crossing the data with those of other administrative services, like the family allowance office (CAF) now that parents forfeit their right to child benefit when the children are convicted of absenteeism? How to make sure the data will not be made available to the police even? Granted that the cross-referencing is illegal under the Code of Education, it is perfectly legal under the law on the prevention of crime voted in March 2005, precisely a few months after the launching of the experimental pupils’ base.

No wonder the associations and unions demand a suspension of the base as long as all the proper safeguards have not been set up. In their view, suspicion is legitimate until all the ambiguities are cleared.

(1)T he base should be completed countrywide by September 2009.

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