Patrice Corre, Director of Lycée Henri-IV
Patrice Corre, a geography teacher by training, is headmaster at the Henri IV lycée, which is situated beside the Pantheon in the heart of Paris’s Latin quarter. Henri IV is one of most prestigious schools in France, known for its history, its excellent results at the baccalaureat (bac) school-leaving exam, as well as its classes préparatoires – the post-bac course that precedes admission into the elite grandes écoles. Patrice Corre started out as a primary school teacher, but he could equally have become a farmer like his parents. Today he is also a board-member at the Carla Bruni-Sarkozy Foundation. Here he looks back briefly over his career, and at somewhat greater length over the qualities that have distinguished the Henri IV lycée.
Where are you from?
I come from a modest background. My parents were small farmers in the Auvergne. What does that mean, farmer? I’ll tell you: not just a job, it’s a life. It’s a job you can’t cheat on. A farmer has to keep his mind on everything, constantly. And it’s from farming that I learned the values of time, of patience, of persistence, and of disappointment too when results were not up to expectations. When you teach, time is also important. It’s pointless trying to go too fast. What matters is that the time is right. Sometimes parents come to me and say their gifted 12 year-old son wants to go up to seconde class (normally for 15 year-olds) , but I have to disappoint them. I tell them there is no rush, that school is not a race, that each child needs time to mature. Choosing your path is for the child, not the parents. No-one ever asks at what age you took the bac, but what you did afterwards.
You seem very attached to your parents’ work. Did you ever try to become a farmer?
No. I could have done, it’s true, because I loved the work. But we were three children. A small farm like that cannot support three people. In the end my story is quite simple. I was the eldest of the children and I was good at school. I always told myself that should I fail at my studies, I would then follow my parents into farming. But I certainly did not regard that option as a social disgrace. We were very proud to be farmers, and I am still today angered by the negative view that some people have of farming.
So you continued your studies at school. That must have made your parents proud.
In our house, there was always the highest respect for reading. My primary teachers and then the head of my middle-school all encouraged me to continue my studies and to prepare for the competitive exam to go to teacher-training college. In those days you could pass the exam at department (county) level at the age of 15. It was all paid for by the state, and in return you were committed to staying for 10 years in public service. There was a rush to sign up – we were all the children of workers, or small farmers or craftsmen. No question of not doing it. For us it was like the ultimate, like a rural Oxbridge (Ivy League). After sitting the bac, my professors allowed me to go on to university. So eventually I became a middle-school teacher in the countryside, and at the same time I kept going with my studies so that I eventually got my agrégation (the top teaching diploma).
One has the impression that a lot of people took care to encourage you along the way. Given your background, I suppose there could also have been people trying to discourage you from going into higher studies.
When you are the first ever person in a family to get the bac, it’s breaking new ground. And that can be stressful. Youngsters whose parents have already gone down that road are lucky, because they know the course. It’s as if they have the road-map, they know where the route lies. I never lost sight of that, which is why when it was my turn to be in charge of schools I always took care to support the endeavours of all the children.
What would you say are the big differences between the Henri IV lycée and your previous posts, especially in vocational schools?
Henri IV is a big school. It has 2,600 pupils. Above all though it’s a place marked by tradition and history. It’s one of the first four lycées created by Napoleon. And the school-buildings are built around the former abbey of Sainte-Geneviève, where the first king of France – Clovis – was buried. It’s also where the university of Paris was born in the 12th century. King Philippe-Auguste wanted to keep the university seals here. We are guardians of a wonderful heritage which we must work hard to maintain.
The Henri IV lycée is a symbol of elitism. However in September 2006 a special class was created to allow bright pupils from poor backgrounds to reach the required standard of ‘general culture’ so they can go on to the grandes écoles. How has this experiment in social mixity worked out in practice?
This is now part of our school structure from seconde (class for 15 year-olds: technically the first year of lycée. Before that the pupils are in collège or middle-school). Any pupil from anywhere in the Paris region can apply to get into the lycée, in just the same way as a pupil from our own collège. Selection is based on merit. Parents send in school-reports, assessments, and a note from the headmaster or mistress. This year, not counting pupils from the Henri IV collège (we take about half of the children from troisième, so about 70), there are 190 places available. In 2009 we had 1,200 applications. Three years ago, we had only 600. If two children have the same overall marks, we will prefer the one who has grown up in less privileged circumstances. So today our 270 pupils in seconde (there are eight classes altogether in the year) come from 110 different collèges, of which 15 percent are in Educational Priority Zones (i.e. ‘difficult’ neighbourhoods). The results are entirely positive. A youngster from Seine-Saint-Denis (high-immigration area of northern Paris) can meet people he or she would never normally come across. It is about recognising people’s merits. When we decide who to let in, we take into account the way pupils view their work – their taste for it, their passion for it. Some of the ones who make it in have been monitored since entering collège by various charitable foundations. So to sum up, I would say that our goal at the Henri IV lycée is to maintain the tradition of republican elitism and make the school as accessible as possible.
Just as a sports company like Adidas buys the equipment for sports teams, should the French education system be able to accept money from private sources?
That way of presenting things is too black-and-white. It’s almost a caricature. The role of private funds must be looked at in the wider context. At the start of the decade, we sensed that the work being carried out in the Educational Priority Zones was not sufficient. Much public money had been invested, but something else was needed. Other players needed to get involved. Studies by sociologists have established a clear connection between the French concept of ‘elitism’ and the outbreaks of violence in the quartiers (poor high-immigration suburbs). So the private sector does have a part to play. The private sector already makes a contribution in the form of the taxe d’apprentissage (a tax on business that goes on vocational training). But its role could also be carried out via foundations representing the general interest. These foundations can organise private donations which go towards the public good, all in accordance with the law. The state is the regulator of a smooth-running society, so it is the ultimate guarantor. But it’s not like in Napoleon’s day when only a minority of the population went through education. Today the state cannot get involved in every last detail. Back then we wanted to train up an elite intelligentsia in service of the state. But that has changed. Equality of opportunity is one of the cornerstones of our constitution. And because school is the last state institution which caters to the entire population, it plays a vital role in promoting social cohesion.
What kind of society would it be if every school was a Henri IV lycée?
My view is that excellence comes in different guises, and that every school can make its contribution depending on its specific characteristics. As long as certain basic principles are respected – taking pleasure in work, the desire to progress and to surpass oneself – school can easily fulfil its role of promoting every child. Learning requires effort and attention. It is a process of building that takes time. It is an attitude. Here at Henri IV, classes start the minute the bell rings. An hour in class is an hour of lessons. Success at school also requires close cooperation from parents, who too must show their confidence in this fundamental institution of the Republic. School equips for life – first a qualification, then a diploma, then a job.
A society like ours lays such stress on excellence, but isn’t what it really needs a regular turnover of dunces – people who are never going to pass the bac, but who will carry out all those menial jobs on which society depends?
No. It’s in the law. Up to the end of collège, school is compulsory. It’s a challenge we’ve met as far as numbers attending are concerned, but perhaps not yet when it comes to the quality of the education. Today we try to define education differently from the mere accumulation of defined knowledge. In 2005 François Fillon presented an education law, following on from the one presented by Lionel Jospin in 1989. Setting out to define what is meant by the ‘common basis of knowledge and competences’ to be acquired by the end of compulsory schooling, the law said that it was what everyone would need to know in order to acquire a minimal qualification and in order to lead the life of a free, independent citizen. In other words, our society does not only need super-graduates. It also needs people to carry out more modest functions, sweeping, digging.
Should we not then give these functions more recognition – have schools for sweeping and digging? Should we not have schools for all the technical and manual skills, where people could go without feeling they are being marginalised from society?
Certainly, but we have not reached that point yet. That kind of optimism was in the air in the 1960s. I remember people used to think the ideal would be if every street-sweeper had the bac. But that was utopia. Someone who has learned ancient Greek does not want to sweep streets. In every secular society there is a self-image which creates a hierarchy of trades. Sadly, in that self-image manual labourers continue to be considered as intellectual inferiors. Even a top-quality furniture maker. Chefs seem to come out better for some reason!
You speak of an image which has settled on the human mind, and on the structures of society. Are you working to change it?
Yes of course, as are many of my colleagues. We all come across students in collège who have to handle theory and abstraction, but who would blossom in manual trades where the creative task depends on concrete physical processes.
In the utopian village, it is clear that a hierarchy of jobs is inevitable. Plumbers are needed as well as thinkers.
Thinker and plumber should each have his place without it being necessary to classify them. The problem lies in the way manual trades have such a lowly position in society’s self-image that they are only ever chosen as a least-bad option. But this does not reflect for a minute where people’s real aptitudes lie.
Could Henri IV include a technical stream, to be taught alongside the regular classes?
Personally I would like to see (post-bac) classes préparatoires not limited to maths and physics, but also including more applied technology like the engineering sciences. So far I have not won any converts. But there I’m not talking about having an additional class, but about letting pupils with a wider range of aptitudes finish their studies at Henri IV without being obliged to go elsewhere. Manual work – being the most concrete manifestation of science and technology – requires much reflection, calculation, culture. In the past I used to teach for the bac professionel (a non-academic version of the baccalauréat). I remember telling students who were really struggling with the regular bac that they should think about going down the professionel route, and using that to get into higher education.
When a foundation chooses a student to back, should it expect a return on its investment?
It would be wrong to look on its involvement in such a way, even if there is one automatic positive effect for the foundation in the form of image-building. A student is not a rider in the Tour de France. On the other hand, a foundation can help the student to enter into life independent, fully-formed, and – regardless of whether or not the path he has chosen is one of prestige – capable of exercising freedom in his judgments and in his choices. In education, nothing is undertaken without risk. The same goes for parents. If you go through life waiting for your children to say how grateful they are, you are in for major disappointment. However if what you want is for your children to take responsibility for themselves, for them simply to grow – then you have understood.
The objective of the Carla Bruni-Sarkozy Foundation is to fight exclusion via access to culture and knowledge. Can we come back to this question of the rift between manual and intellectual work? This is the way increasingly things are seen in our chaotic, devastated urban neighbourhoods, what you call the quartiers. But does it not in fact reflect the inevitability of injustice in society?
Society should be just. It cannot be egalitarian. Too often these two ideas are confused. Perfect equality does not exist — except in law. That’s the guarantee given to our democratic society by article one of the (1789) Declaration of the Rights of Man – which goes on, by the way, to make clear that inequalities are bound to exist in terms of individual merit, position in society and so on. But such inequalities – in body, in aptitude and so on - must not be allowed to deteriorate or to exclude from society. Egalitarianism has been tried by certain political systems. It doesn’t work. Our Republic has never tried simplistically to eradicate inequality, what it can do is tend towards a greater social justice. That is the reason why the state acts to redistribute wealth. However today this system has shown its limits. Too much is expected of it. A sub-group of society now depends on public aid. It is in a highly fragile condition. For me one of the aims of the Foundation must be to allow people who are no longer part of society to get back into it and to stand on their own feet.
Do you see yourself as a ‘raiser’ of children?
No, I do not ‘raise’ them. I help them to raise themselves. I have seen all their files. I have read the letters of motivation, of those who wrote them. I attend all the teacher-student meetings in seconde. Sometimes the students can act a bit conceited. If they do, then I tell them that one thing they need above all else is a sense of modesty towards the work that lies ahead. And I add that if their ambition really is to go on to a position of responsibility in society – to one of more than average responsibility – then they will discover they have not more rights than their fellow citizens, but many more duties.
The digital school-desk
Necessary, but just one tool among many. We need to safeguard the craft of actual writing. Free-will comes from mastering one’s tools.
Artificial intelligence (Robot teachers; talking, seeing Google)
There again, a necessary evil. But we need to develop a counter-force. Technology can seem like liberation, but in fact we may be enslaving our minds. In the end we all think the same way. So it’s not a question of being anti the new technology, but of understanding its implications. In the future, education will not mean possessing a defined body of knowledge, but knowing how to analyse things, how to make choices. And anyone who has not mastered the traditional methods will be left out.