Managing “Pupil's Cases”? an Ethnography of Professional and Institutional Tensions in a French High School
Since the 1980's, French education policies have intended to tackle the issues of school failure and early school leaving. Framed in terms of fairness, they require, among other things, to “personalise” public education and take account of pupils as “whole-persons”. For examples, because they have “personal issues”, school staff can allow a pupil not to attend some assignments on a regular basis while the rest of the class has to.
This sometimes generates tensions between fairness and equality, tensions that are managed by school staff. Indeed, the public demand for both equality and fairness leans more and more on school institutions and staff's ability to frame the situations they are confronted to. How can school staff manage individuals when they are embedded in an institution that was built for groups?
This communication is based on an ethnographic investigation (observations and interviews) lead in a French public high school (“Lavoisier”) between 2014 and 2016 as part of an ongoing PhD research. It demonstrates the ways in which school staff deal with the tensions they are confronted to in the organisation's everyday life. It shows the institutional cobbling-together in the management of “pupils' cases”, that is to say pupils (often with “personal issues”) who challenge the school order. Although Lavoisier's management staff intend to build and spread a fairness-inspired frame of action, the ethnographic observations have revealed the importance of informal relational clusters in the ways that staff manage the tensions when dealing with “pupils' cases”.