14 January 2010

Noumea takes control of education

The article New Caledonia Congress Endorses Further Autonomy originally published by Oceania Flash raised considerable interest in terms of devolution of power from the cosmopole to the overseas territories. An excellent analysis of this transfer of power from France to New Caledonia, consistent with the Noumea Accord, has been written by premier Pacific expert Nic Maclellan. The analysis has been made available to OTR with permission of the author.

By Nic Maclellan
Islands Business

In a massive shift of staffing and financial resources, the local government in New Caledonia will take control of secondary education from France in 2012. On November 30, members of New Caledonia’s Congress voted unanimously to accept the transfer of key powers from Paris to Noumea, including the regulation of maritime and domestic air traffic and—most importantly—control of secondary and private primary education.

In 2006, New Caledonia gained authority over government-run primary schools. But the decision to take on the secondary system means a doubling of the Pacific nation’s budget, with thousands of new staff coming under local authority. With 43,000 students in 180 schools, the number of teachers under Noumea’s control will leap to 4,500 (more than three times the current number). If the local government was to pay all the bills, the education budget would be 46 billion French Pacific francs (A$626 million), so sustainable and ongoing funding has been at the centre of negotiations with Paris for months.

Noumea Accord

The education reforms are part of the ongoing transfer of powers from Paris to Noumea under the Noumea Accord. The accord, signed in May 1998, set out a twenty-year transition towards a referendum on self-determination. Under the agreement, powers currently held by the French State are being transferred to New Caledonia in stages, supported by ongoing funding from France. Unlike France’s autonomy statute for French Polynesia, these powers cannot revert to Paris once transferred. There needs to be a 3/5 majority in New Caledonia’s Congress to approve the transfer, and all powers must be transferred by 2014, except for the key elements of nationhood—justice, public order, defence, finance and currency.

The transfer of these five remaining “sovereign powers” will be decided in a referendum on self-determination. According to the Noumea Accord, this vote on New Caledonia’s political status will be held between 2014 and 2018 and will focus on “the transfer of sovereign powers to New Caledonia, accession to an international status of full responsibility and transformation from citizenship to nationality.”

In the first government established under the Noumea Accord between 1999 and 2004, very little was done to address the transfer of powers: the government was dominated by the anti-independence Rassemblement UMP party, which continues to see New Caledonia as an integral part of the French republic. But after the 2004 local elections, the incoming government led by the Avenir Ensemble (Future Together) party began to negotiate the transfer of a series of powers.

Rewriting the Colonial Curriculum

The transfer of primary education provides an example of the challenge facing New Caledonia as it takes on responsibility for secondary education. Between 2002 and 2006, teachers, parents and a range of educational experts had to debate major changes to the education curriculum. In subjects like history and geography, there was a need to completely rewrite school textbooks, to reflect New Caledonia’s place as a Melanesian nation in the South Pacific, rather than a distant suburb of Paris!

There was extensive debate over whether to make Kanak vernacular languages compulsory for primary students (a proposal eventually abandoned because of concerns over the cost of teacher training and the availability of texts for the 28 Kanak languages). Teachers’ unions had to be persuaded to change the rules so non-qualified personnel could teach in the classroom, allowing older members of the indigenous Kanak community to help young school children learn their languages, history and culture.

Over the next two years, a similar process will be undertaken for secondary schools, with education coming under Noumea’s control from 1 January 2012.  At present, 30 percent of students, mainly Kanak, drop out or are pushed out of school without obtaining any qualifications, so localisation of curriculum and teaching is vital.

For the FLNKS representatives in Congress, speaking in support of the reforms, the French colonial education system had soured successive generations of young people away from a joy of learning: “How many Kanak parents continue to feel resentment towards schools that so often bullied or rejected them? How many young people today still feel so uneasy in our schools, that they leave them with a deep hatred of the system? How else can we explain the regular violent attacks on school buildings and teachers? There is a fundamental problem: what can we do so that New Caledonians of all cultures are proud of their schools?”

According to New Caledonia’s President Philippe Gomes: “The process we’re undertaking must feed into a truly New Caledonian education system. That’s the reason we’re taking two years to implement the changes. In 2010, we will undertake an audit of our education system, to be followed by a great debate across the territory about education. Then in 2011 we’ll develop legislation for the school programme. Our aim is to end up with a more efficient education system that is better suited to our country.”

For months, New Caledonia’s government has been negotiating with the French authorities to guarantee the ongoing funding which will make the transfer possible. France currently funds teachers’ salaries and this has enormous budgetary implications if Noumea has to pay the bills in future years.

Rassemblement UMP leader Pierre Frogier, who serves as one of New Caledonia representatives in the French National Assembly, argued the change should only occur with guaranteed French funding: “Concerning secondary education, we must be assured that the French State will support us in a reasonable manner, to allow New Caledonia to ensure that the quality of its education system is at least as good as currently exists. This especially involves the free provision of staffing and the financing of two new high schools at Mont-Dore and Pouembout, which we have been waiting for many years.”

In a compromise to gain support from anti-independence politicians—worried that education standards will fall—Kanak leaders accepted that France should retain control of some aspects of education policy. Paris has retained authority over teacher qualification, issuing diplomas and approving the final school curriculum.

More powers to come

There’s more changes to come. Under the latest decision, control of maritime affairs in New Caledonia’s territorial waters will take effect on January 1, 2011 and control of domestic air transport and airport police in January 2013 (however the international airport at Tontouta will remain under French control).

By December 2011, the congress must decide on the transfer of other areas, including civil and commercial law, civil security and control of key statutory bodies including the land mobilisation and development office Agence pour le développement rural et l’aménagement foncier (ADRAF) and the Agence pour le développement de la culture Kanak (ADCK), which runs cultural programs and the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. Before 2014, Noumea must appeal to Paris for authority over tertiary education, television and radio and the financial governance of local councils.

While conservative members of the government of New Caledonia see this process as a shift to greater local autonomy within the French Republic, the FLNKS independence movement sees the changes as a vital step on the path to decolonisation. Gerard Regnier from the Union Calédonienne party states: “For us in FLNKS, the transfer of powers must be well organised and the timetable must be maintained. You must remember that the position of FLNKS is that all powers must be transferred before 2014, except of course the sovereign powers.”