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The Minister of Schooling, essentially the most harmful place within the authorities (evaluation)

The Education portfolio is described as a single, technical and daunting ministry. Because if it remains coveted, its inhabitant risks seeing political death up close.

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On September 12, 2019, late, Elio Di Rupo, the president of his party, calls him: “You will take the oath. As Minister of Education. Caroline Désir claims she was not afraid. Despite everything, she did not sleep. She hadn’t really asked for this morocco. But it was legitimate for her to return to her, as she has been an active member of the Education Committee in the Brussels parliament and head of public education in Ixelles. According to her, it is “the most beautiful wallet”, which one cannot refuse. All those who have approved the competence affirm it from the beginning. It is definitely sincere: in this ministry, it deals with the largest number of issues, knowledge, the future, spiritual citizenship. And the most vital files: reforms of primary, secondary, reference systems, teacher training, career improvement…

A ministry that relies on a well-oiled administrative machine that is also very political because it affects what is most important to the people, their children.. “It is one of the most delicate portfolios, because at home, and more than in Flanders, we are very critical of the school”, declared Christian Dupont, in the post for one year, between 2008 and 2009. A ministry where he reaps many blows. and some glory. Where we create a special relationship with the unions. Where we manage the first budget of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. Where we are responsible for about 125,000 unknown and doubtful souls, teachers and administrators. Which offers the resident great visibility, fame. What to reserve for him, above all, numerous pitfalls. We come out alive of course, but some former ministers have seen political death up close. Thus, long before Caroline Désir, Elio Di Rupo himself held this high-risk position. A “poisoned gift” received by its president, Guy Spitaels: “The first year, I lived in hell. Hell indeed,” he confides Elio Di Rupo: a life, a vision (ed. Roots, 2011). He will only be there for two years, like his predecessor, Yvan Ylieff, and like him, will face six consecutive weeks of strikes.

“I spent the first year in hell. Hell indeed”

The other ministers are no longer held, given the list of incumbents – thirteen, including barely two from the field, Christian Dupont (SP) and Marie-Martine Schyns (Les Engagés) – who have marched in thirty years, so that from the communitization of matter in 1989. The average lifespan in office barely exceeds three school yearseven if Laurette Onkelinx (PS) held four, the duo of Jean-Marc Nollet (Ecolo) and Pierre Hazette (MR), five, and Marie-Dominique Simonet (Les Engagés), four. Who remembers, for example, Philippe Mahoux (SP), who replaced Elio Di Rupo, parachuted into the federal government? In 1995, already, he proposed moving the holidays of Saints and Easter, as well as postponing the beginning of the school year until the end of August. There was banter from all sides, insults from parents, teachers, organizational powers of schools. And this was, for the Minister of Education, the opposite. “It is a complicated department. It was really difficult with the unions”, continues Elio Di Rupo. For this turbulent period when she was in charge of Education, between 1995 and 1999, Laurette Onkelinx assures that she was aware that the experience would be “very difficult” and that it was not going well. Make it “very popular”: “It’s part of the job.”

Is this enough to make this ministry the place of the dead within a government? Certainly not. Some, rare, have been able to maintain some form of sympathy… Sometimes even caress the profession in terms of hair., like Pierre Hazette, bringing back the possibility of repeating the first degree of high school, pleading a lot for the virtues of work, respect for authority. The teachers loved to listen to him. The difficulty in this position is to address different opinions at the same time, to talk to the general public, to the parents of the students, to the administration, to the teachers and, of course, to their unions. So be careful, because its owner risks alienating each other if he “pets” others more and vice versa.. The equation to be solved turns out to be complex because the expectations of each party do not always correspond. Thus, some of the teachers and their unions, then concerned about the spread of Covid-19, sought to strengthen the health protocol, when parents remained essentially in favor of the government’s wish: to keep schools open as much as possible. The result: Caroline Désir was accused of favoring parents and students in order to make the economic world go round, contrary to teachers.

Caroline Désir (SP) did not sleep the day Elio Di Rupo entrusted her with the Education portfolio.  Even if it is
Caroline Désir (SP), the current Minister of Education, did not sleep the day Elio Di Rupo entrusted her with this portfolio. Even if it is “the most beautiful”. © BELGIUM IMAGE

A distribution of power

The other difficulty lies in a kind of “dispersion” of power. In summary, in the school world, no one has all the powers. There are as many opinions as there are participants. Behind every network, there is a political vision of what the school should be, and these visions are antagonistic. Moreover, decisions are also made in other ministries (for example school buildings) and at other levels (at the federal level, for pensions). “There are not 10,000 methods, thirty-six solutions. You have to find time to understand, to listen, to hinder, to reach without pretense”, remembers Caroline Désir. This is called “cooperation”. Looking back, Régis Dohogne, former head of CSC-enseignement, believes that one of the consequences of the 1996 attacks was the establishment of a new balance of power. According to the activist, now retired, since the year no legislative text is published without prior consultation with the trade unions. “I want a real relationship of trust with those involved in education. I will never do things without warning,” the minister replies.

An essential quality if one is to survive as Minister of Education. Thus Jean-Marc Nollet, in charge of the fundamental from 1999 to 2004, signed his entry into the ministry with a deteriorated voluntarism. Sometimes impetuous and self-assured, his impatience led him to recklessness and forced him to withdraw dramatically. Saying he wanted to stop homework, he sent them all away. In the end, he limited himself to fixing them. Wanting to impose retraining hours for teachers outside of school hours, he broke the complicity, born in the 1990s, between his party and the teachers’ union. And he left the function with a mixed record.

“I want a real relationship of trust with those involved in education. I will never do things without telling them. »

“We don’t change the education system by making authoritarian decisions that teachers wouldn’t understand,” says Christian Dupont. Does this mean that, in order not to alienate everyone, the minister would essentially have only two options? The one of small steps, led by Marie-Dominique Simonet and Marie-Martine Schyns, and which consists in intelligently running the system without making too many waves, betting on the long term to allow the necessary changes to mature, even if this bottom-up approach based on evaluative experiments is slow and in danger of slipping. Or he, led by Caroline Désir, which means leaving control to the actors of the Pact, with the plea for their autonomy, returning them to their responsibilities – which makes it possible to avoid, in most cases, face to face. -face – but to be careful a policy.

Laurette Onkelinx, former Minister of Education, knew that this portfolio would not make her very popular: “It’s part of the job.”

A solitary exercise

Finally, the exercise is quite lonely. Because the school does not serve its ministers well, held accountable for everything – the lack of places, the supposedly average Pisa, the supposedly too easy CEB, the level below, not to mention the rain, ice and hail. The best ally can become the worst enemy. When lightning strikes, there are countless flips. According to the “insurance” theory, education ministers take the hits and their fortunes can change. It was, for example, that of Gérard Deprez (PSC) on the reform of school rhythms, carried out by Philippe Mahoux. A reform that he had subscribed to, with the SP and which he publicly condemns from start to finish, before the joint protests of the heads of the free school, teachers and parents. It was also that of Benoît Lutgen (Les Engagés) for the registration decree linked by Marie Arena (SP), in the face of strong criticism from the free network that considered itself particularly targeted by the text. Or that of Joëlle Milquet (Les Engagés) releasing Christian Dupont, author of the decree of social mixing. “We are forever sitting on a bomb,” declares Christian Dupont.

Morocco was the slide some predicted. The same fate, in essence, for Marie Arena (SP), landed from Education for Federal Pensions, for Yvan Ylieff (SP), sent to Science Policy, or Philippe Mahoux (SP), in the Senate. Even the wallet is never cut as a springboard. Rarely has a minister left this department except under criticism. This can be explained by a resistance to too frequent changes or too many reforms – most teachers never like innovation as much as when they are the initiators. We can also explain this because this ministry especially proves the long-term one: years pass between the moment a reform is decided and the moment it produces effects. A reform whose author’s name we will later forget.

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