Lycée Autogéré web siteHeike Freire

In 1982 Alain Savary, then François Mitterrand’s minister of education, having listened to the petitions from various teams of teachers in state schools, decided to set up four experimental colleges in Paris, Saint Nazaire, Héronville and Oléron. His objective was to permit and promote the participation of pupils and teachers in the actions and decisions relating to the life of the college. The educational project at the Lycée Autogéré de Paris (LAP), which is based on Freinet, Fernand Oury’s Institutional Pedagogy and the experience of the Experimental Institute of Oslo, has been evolving through the years with the different people who have built it up. Two principles, however, have remain constant all the time; collective, direct and egalitarian government of the school by all its members, and, for the students, voluntary attendance at lessons. The centre offers preparation for the baccalaureate specialising in Natural Sciences, Economics and Society and Literature (languages, drama, creative arts and cinema). Since its foundation it has enjoyed economic and pedagogical freedom with a budget of about 112,000 Euros (excluding teachers’ pay, which comes directly from the Ministry of Education), but it depends from an administrative point of view on another institution: the Liceo Jean Lurçat de Paris. 
Heike Freire, a Spanish journalist, visited it in 2009..

Practical democracy in the self-governing lycée in Paris.

For 27 years the Lycée Autogéré in Paris has offered individual and collective self-government.

At the age of sixteen, Simon had been expelled from two schools for truancy and undisciplined behaviour towards the head. ‘I couldn’t go back to the conventional schools,’ he declares. ‘I was fed up, I was no good for anything. The system was boring and slow and it didn’t interest me in the least.’

Florianne wanted to repeat a course at a private school, but because of the small number of places in the subject she was studying they made her go on to the next level. ‘I ended the year with very bad marks and a great hatred for the lessons and for the majority of the teachers,’ she recalls.

After five years teaching French in a state lycée, Vincent felt weary and disillusioned. The rigidity of the hierarchical structure oppressed him and he missed a more human contact with the kids, so he began to look for alternatives. ‘I could have adapted to my career,’ he comments, ‘but I wasn’t happy.’

Stressed and unsatisfied, Maeva decided to leave her former college. When, six months later, she tried to return to her studies, she applied to several schools without success. ‘I had stayed at home and I did not have a good behaviour record,’ she relates.

Anne Marie had been teaching science for some years when she heard about the creation of self-governing schools and immediately applied for a job. ‘I had the feeling that I was only working to earn my living and I needed to get much more involved. If I had had to go on like that, I would certainly have given up teaching,’ she declares.

Chloé was following a special European course for advanced students, where they had been studying three languages from year six; but the high level of competition between the students was stretching her: ‘I was fed up with the marks, the continual evaluations and assessments,’ she explains.

Like the characters in The Class, the famous film by Laurent Cantet, all these people had, at some moment in their lives, felt that they were prisoners of an excessively rigid and disciplinarian system which was unable to satisfy their needs for recognition, dialogue, participation, liberty and responsibility, and ended up excluding them. Like them, many other students find themselves forced to accept 'their' failure, 'their' unsuitability for education and in consequence they have to face up to the loss of their self-esteem and confidence in themselves, the anxiety of their immediate family, the risk of stigmatisation and the prospect of an uncertain future.

Do school achievements have to be the only criterion for evaluating someone, wonders Marie Angel, a former pupil of the Lycée Autogéré of Paris (LAP), a public teaching centre which offers a different kind of education to 230 young people, the majority of whom have had difficulties in conventional schools.

Maladjusted students or young people in search of their identity?

‘Our mission is to reconcile young people to the world of learning,’ declares Wolfgang, teacher of English and current head of LAP. ‘Some of them were in despair, they had no choice and were showing symptoms of school phobia.’

‘In France if you have bad marks you can only go to technical college,’ explains Vincent, ‘. . . a sort of punishment, if we take into account that most of blue-collar jobs have a low social standing.'

I can hear someone playing the piano in the cafeteria of this typical eighteenth century Parisian building: it has two floors, big windows and a beautiful garden presided over by an allegedly hundred-year-old chestnut tree. Downstairs are also the library, the function room, the music studio and the gymnasium. Upstairs there are various multi-purpose rooms, a small office, the IT room, the photographic laboratory, the creative arts workshop and the video room. ‘Would you say that I am an outsider?’ asks a tall young man with brown hair, smiling, as he walks past. Wolfgang returns his smile, remembering another student who had not been able to go into classrooms: "We had to give him a chair outside, and he tried to follow the classes through the doorway."

‘But we don’t consider them to be “problem students,”’ points out Anne Marie, the science teacher, ‘but rather as people who, like us, have voluntarily chosen to experience school in a different way.’

This constructively critical inversion of the adult view lays the responsibility for failure at the door of the very system that has created it and clearly results in helping the young people to regain their self-esteem.

Before coming to the LAP last year Maeva was a cheeky and undisciplined student, who was always confronting authority. ‘In general, when people try to make me do something it doesn’t work, and most teachers don’t like that. They would rather you didn’t do anything, just kept your mouth shut and didn’t make any trouble,’ she remarks. Here, in contrast, she has been able to satisfy her need to feel himself involved and active in the life of the school. ‘I love coming to the LAP, to live from day to day. My friends find me much calmer. I think I have found my place, I don’t need to fight against everything in order to be myself,’ she declares.

According to Anne Marie a good part of the violence in schools is a result of the lack of recognition. A denial of individuality, authoritarianism, the crowding of the classrooms and the pressure to get results are some of its causes. ‘Here we give them the right to speak and the means to make changes, so that there is no need to use violence to get them,' she declares.

In spite of some extremely negative school experiences, many young people at this college do recover their confidence and a taste for learning. How do they do it? What are the keys which make it possible to go from absolute rejection, from phobia, to satisfaction and enjoyment?

Equality and difference. Towards a positive authority.

In the corridors, on the staircases and in the different rooms young people and adults chat uninhibitedly and politely, compete at table football, play the guitar, read or take advantage of the other available activities. The atmosphere is like a family, everyone calls everyone else “tu”, something which in most French schools would be taken to show a lack of respect.

Rather than being based on formulas and rules imposed from above, discipline is understood to be the result of an internal process. Respect and confidence develop within relationships, and imply a certain reciprocity. ‘The majority of the young people who apply to the school express the desire to have a different kind of relationship with adults,’ asserts Wolfgang. ‘Clearer connections that are more egalitarian, more natural.’

‘Here we can get to know the staff, talk to them and consider them as human beings, not just professionals doing a job,’ declares Simon.

Adelaide, the film tutor, who has been at the school for two years, has also noticed the difference. ‘When I used to have 24 pupils in front of me I immediately found myself automatically in a situation of conflict. Now I am one among many, I am part of the circle,’ she comments. Although it takes time to escape from the typical power relationship, the battlefield which classrooms can become, the attempt is worth the trouble.

‘When you succeed in freeing them from the fear of punishment and the arbitrary power of the adult, new opportunities open up – opportunities for exchange, sincere dialogue, co-operation and learning,’ adds Wolfgang. The key is respecting differences, without denying the authority of the adult, or defending a fictitious equality. ‘Although we are different, we have a certain number of rights and duties in common,’ concludes Anne Marie. ‘We exercise a positive authority which is the fruit of experience, knowledge and the ability to work with other people: these are qualities that the students attribute to us, but that we ourselves may also attribute to the students.’ And Simon agrees. ‘They are older than us and know more, that’s obvious, but we work with them rather than for them.’

At the LAP teachers make written comments on the students’ work, but marks are only given or exams taken if the students request it. This makes for a teacher-student relationship based on solidarity and collaboration. This liberalisation exposes the adult to criticism which may be unjust, and to verbal comments which may seem unacceptable, but it also ‘gives you as a teacher the right to be wrong, to say that you don’t know, or that you are tired, to show yourself to be more human, more vulnerable,’ asserts Vincent.

‘What would be considered insolence in other colleges,’ explains Anne Marie, ‘for us is simply a response, the starting point for a shared dialogue,’ and she adds, ‘It is clear that no one has the right to shout at other people or insult them, but it can happen that someone loses control; afterwards we talk, we look for an explanation.’

When a conflict cannot be resolved by the parties concerned, it comes before the community. ‘I had problems with a teacher and . . . a mediation team was set up to help us,’ relates Maeva. If the mediation does not work, you can appeal to the Justice Committee, which consists of five students and three teachers, democratically elected. Although just ‘Come and explain yourself’ may be enough, the Committee can also impose punishments, according to the seriousness of the crime – making an apology, repairing the damage, carrying out community work or even being expelled.

Discovering the other, advancing together

‘Self-government is an educational tool which depends on the capacity of individuals and groups for autonomous and responsible action,’ explains Wolfgang. ‘The collegiality of the staff team, voluntary attendance at classes and the right to participate in the democratic government of the lycée are the political conditions which allow an innovative approach to education.’

The staff team, chaired by a counsellor and a co-ordinator, democratically elected from its members, is entrusted with defining the educational philosophy of the centre and its relationship with the Government. The students can come to its meetings and speak, but they have no vote.

The absence of hierarchy encourages shared responsibility, more fluid exchange and a liberty of expression which is usually much appreciated. ‘We can talk of our difficulties without fear and ask for help,’ points out Anne Marie. The work in the team becomes a fundamental skill, because ‘no one has trained us,’ grumbles Vincent. ‘In the group you are necessarily less autonomous, so at first you get impatient and protest because things are not going the way you would like. Then you realise that the fundamental aim is not to go fast, but to go forward together.’

New teachers, chosen from the candidates by the staff team, have a trial year before their appointments are confirmed.

The school has no administrative staff so teachers and students are organised into “section committees”, teachers and students together take on the administrative work of the school – the maintenance of the building, admission of new students, the programme of activities, IT, reception, assessment, the budget . . . But the main structure for decision-making and participation is the Base Groups (GB – Groupes de Base), consisting of three adults and about thirty students of different ages. When they join the school the students sign an agreement that they will attend the weekly meetings of their base group: more than four consecutive absences can lead to a punishment.

A meeting of Base Group 5

Nicolas, one of the two delegates elected by GB5, writes the agenda on a slate, which includes, among other subjects, information about the Justice Committee’s decision to expel a student for selling drugs to another one, request for permission to paint a wall blue for a photographic project, the visit of a Spanish journalist, an invitation to take part in a demonstration in support of immigrants 'without papers' and the process of selecting students for the next year. The chair proposes a rota of speakers to put forward other possible topics and the group begins to debate the different points. Nicolas offers more information about the judgement by the Justice Committee; the student who bought the drug is being allowed to stay at the school under two conditions – a weekly interview with his tutor and daily work in the cafeteria. Various young people question the autonomy of the reception committee in deciding about visits from outsiders. The high number of researchers, evaluators and journalists who regularly turn up at the LAP make them feel ‘as if we were in a zoo.’ ‘Is there some problem with self-directed education?’ Simon asks, with irony. But it is the process for the selection of new students that occupies the attention of the group for longest. Usually it consists of two elimination stages, one based on analysis of the candidate’s history and motivation plan and a literacy test (there is no consideration of the academic record) and the other on a trial period at the centre. The problem this year is the increased number of applicants – about 600, when the centre only has around 100 places available. ‘We would have to eliminate at least half of them to be left with 200 or 250 for the trial visits,’ declares Marion. ‘What criteria are we going to use to reject so many people?’ asks Eric. Antoine suggests reducing the trial visits to one day, so that everyone can take part, but this solution seems difficult to organise. To enlarge the list of hopefuls does not seem practical either. They decide to produce new written forms to get more information about the applicants.

Later in the General Meeting of the Groups (RGG), the delegates will combine the conclusions of the GBs, create a general synthesis, unify criteria and then inform their respective groups, in a complex collective process of decision-
making.

The School Meeting, which unites the whole community, can be called by any member in order to pass on information or to deal with some urgent topic.

Participation in these different ways allows the government of the college to proceed and develops a feeling of ownership and a responsible and cooperative group culture. But for many students these are not easily learnt. ‘They are used to being passive and its costs them something to adapt,’ comments Anne Marie.. ‘Some of them have personal problems and don’t feel comfortable and so that makes it difficult to entrust yourself to the collective.’

To encourage the process of learning, they begin by accepting simple things like preparing the budget for a project, buying what is needed, etc. The desire to do things, to make contact with others, to ‘feel that you are also contributing something, not only receiving,’ explains Maeva, are usually the principal driver for a participation which is not always straightforward. ‘The individual will does not easily fit in with collective action,” warns Simon, “and it is common to find yourself meeting resistance, feeling frustrated, but life’s like that.”

As well as these frustrations they get valuable experiences. ‘I learnt to express myself without violence, using arguments,’ declares Maeva, ‘and to respect an opinion although I don’t share it, and to lead a group.’ And Simon concludes: ‘Self-government has helped me to discover other people, to throw myself into creating something with other people, talking a lot, debating, reaching agreements. I don’t think you can really be human if you can’t communicate with your equals.’

Education in responsibility

For the individual student voluntary attendance at classes is an invitation to personal responsibility, the recognition that young people are able to construct their own identity and direct their own lives.

‘It helps you to know what is good for you, to take your own decisions and to commit yourself,’ explains Marie Angel. ‘It’s a preparation for life.’

‘I have learnt to follow my own criteria, and to make myself responsible for my own mistakes too,’ declares Florianne.

For many of the students, this just means liberation from the imprisonment that they have hitherto experienced, but sooner or later they begin to develop an idea of what to do with this freedom; a learning which takes time and produces reactions which are sometimes difficult to understand. ‘Some students get highly involved in the principles of the place and then stop going to classes. Others do all kinds of stupid things at first and then understand, grow up and get fully involved in the dynamic,’ comments Vincent.

The question of future employability often interests families, and the baccalaureate, (which in France requires passing a national exam) seems to be an essential qualification to get a worthwhile job. ‘You hear it from all sides: without the bac you can’t do anything,’ remarks Maeva, ‘but isn’t it more important to know what you really want?’

The logic of the baccalaureate, centred on results and with an identical rhythm for everybody, seems incompatible with the construction of an identity, for which the process is slower but more personal.

Marie Angel, a radio journalist, passed her certificate when she was twenty-seven, after failing the exam twice when she was at the LAP; now she is proud of her 'atypical' career. ’People think that a career has to be measured in millimetres and seconds, when you can always change and make use of your previous experiences,” she declares.

However, not all the students are capable of making good use of their liberty by learning to direct their own lives. Some, like Chloé, feel lost and prefer to be told what to do. ‘I am afraid of not passing the bac; for that reason I have decided to go back to a conventional school,’ she confesses.

Although self-directed education does not suit every student, it could be the answer to the needs of the growing number of young people who are looking for alternatives.

’Let us point out the need for a system of free, diverse and tolerant education which reflects the ideological plurality of a democratic society,’ concludes Wolfgang.

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