Françoise Balossier : “Our students are talented”Photography : Photokiff - Text : Elisabeth Grosdhomme
Amyot d’Inville High School in Senlis is a vocational high school with 600 students taking classes from entry level certification to higher level technical proficiency, supplemented by a boarding house with a capacity of 250. When Françoise Balossier was named its principal, six years ago, she gave herself one objective : to erase the stigma that is still often associated, in France, with vocational training and to make this high school, in its field, an place of excellence.
A few years later, results start speaking for themselves : in 2015, for the first time, the school had one of its students pass the baccalaureate with first class honours ; in 2016, there were three. Partnerships signed with the University of Picardie – Jules Verne and ESIEE-Amiens now allow the graduates of the Energy Training Track to move on to a bachelor’s degree at the university or a master of science at ESIEE engineering school. So many signs of recognition which, even if there is still a long way to go, hail a new dynamic.
In order to fully appreciate the scale of the challenge, one needs to remember one thing : in the context of the French education system, students applying to a vocational training course do not always choose to do so ; more often than not, they put up with it for lack of other options, just because, due to poor academic results, they have been told that they can’t make the general program, nor even the technological baccalaureate. Reciprocally, the school does not select its students : the principal and professors discover the list at the start of the school year, in September, without having met the students, nor even seen any of their records.
But Françoise Balossier is well experienced in all this. She has dedicated her entire career to « specialised education », i.e. teaching tailored to disadvantaged students. « Our students have difficulties, true, but they also have talents », she says. In reality, the challenges that they face are hardy ever linked to cognitive inadequacies ; they are socially constructed, indeed often induced by other people’s prejudices about them, surreptitiously letting them know that they do or don’t belong here or there.
To Françoise Balossier, we need a shift in logic : to change from an exclusionary system to an inclusive one. « Since we cannot play upon selection, we need to build motivation. » That principle is implemented through multiple actions : letting candidates discover what this high school is up to through open days and all sorts of events, so that students no longer apply by chance or for want of a better option ; putting together an induction programme so that freshmen can think through their personal aspirations and define their own project, or if need be explore possible alternatives via internships ; and consistently celebrating students’ accomplishments – including through a dedicated page on the school’s website, « Our students have talent ».
And morevover, simply maintaining an orderly and mutually respectful atmosphere. At Amyot d’Inville High School, students get up when the principal walks into class, they say hello when they meet her in the yard. If this sounds simple, just remember that in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, back in early 2015, the school made the pages of the local press because of an agression carried out by a few of its students on their peers from a neighbouring high school, the general education facility Hugues Capet – a serious event of course, which led to disciplinary sanctions, but wrongly publicised as a guerilla between the pro- and anti-Charlie before a more in-depth investigation brought back the facts to their real meaning.
Things are still sensitive, nothing can ever be taken for granted, but today the atmosphere is more peaceful : the two formerly rival high schools now share not only a common dining room, the boarding house and medical and social services, but also musical and theater clubs attracting participants from both sides.
Françoise Balossier was born in Senlis, « a city I have always found to be beautiful ». She spent her childhood here before moving to Beauvais because, as a working-class child, going to a teacher training college right from the 10th grade was the only way to reach superior education while her family couldn’t have paid for it. Over the course of her career, she then went from school to school across the whole Picardie region, before coming back to Senlis as the head of Amyot d’Inville High School.
When she sees how the city and the school system have transformed through all those years, Françoise Balossier readily imagines what the next step could be. As regards the local school system, the obvious thing to do would be to gather the city’s two neighbouring high schools into a single education campus, much like how it works in Chantilly : to save on operational costs but mostly for integration purposes, to foster more fluid development paths for students and to build on the progress of vocational classes towards respected pride and excellence. More broadly, at the city scale, people should wake up to the fact that Senlis is becoming a student town : without a university, for sure, but with degree courses in each of the three high schools of the city and the opportunity to create a facility for students’ social life on the premises of the newly founded research and innovation campus CEEBIOS.