Primary Schools

During the period of revolutionary government, the Jacobins had introduced the idea of universal, free, secular education provided by the state. The Jacobins conceived of education not only as a means of improving the citizenry’s skill level for economic purposes but also, and more important, as a means of rooting out tradition (i.e., Christianity) and implanting enlightened, revolutionary values as a strategy of ensuring broad support for the Republic among future generations. The Thermidorean Convention and the Directory preserved and even expanded on this goal, legislating a system of public primary education for all girls and boys, to be taught by instructors chosen for their merit, paid by the state (rather than their students’ families), and committed to imparting knowledge and republican values. The decree creating primary schools, was promulgated by the Convention on 17 November 1794 [27 Brumaire, Year III].


Decree relative to Primary Schools

17 November 1794 (27 Brumaire, Year III)

Chapter I. Institution of Primary Schools

1. The primary schools shall have as their aim the provision, for children of both sexes, of the instruction necessary for free peoples.

2. The primary schools shall be distributed throughout the territory of the Republic in proportion to population; accordingly, there shall be one primary school for every 1,000 inhabitants.

3. In places where the population is too scattered, a second primary school may be established, on the motivated request of the district administration, and following a decree of the National Assembly.

4. In places where the population is congested, a second school may be established only when the population increases to 2,000, a third for 3,000, and so on.

5. In all communes of the Republic, the former parsonages which have not been sold for the benefit of the Republic shall be placed at the disposal of the municipalities, in order to serve both as a lodging for the teacher and as a school building; accordingly, all existing leases are cancelled.

6. In communes where there are no longer any former parsonages at the disposal of the nation, an appropriate site for the primary school shall be granted on the request of the district administrations.

7. Each primary school shall be divided into two sections, one for boys and one for girls; accordingly, there shall be one man teacher and one woman teacher.

Chapter II. Jury of Instruction

1. The teachers shall be chosen by the people; nevertheless, throughout the duration of the Revolutionary Government, they shall be examined, selected, and supervised by a jury of instruction, composed of three members designated by the district administration, and chosen from among the fathers of families of the district.

2. The jury of instruction shall be renewed by one-third every six months.

The outgoing commissioner may be re-elected.

Chapter III. Teachers

1. Appointments of teachers selected by the jury of instruction shall be submitted to the district administration.

2. If the administration refuses to accept the appointment made by the jury, the jury may make another choice.

3. When the jury persists in its appointment and the administration in its refusal, the latter shall designate for the vacant position the person whom it believes to merit the preference; the two choices shall be sent to the Committee on Public Instruction, which shall pronounce definitively between the administration and the jury.

4. Complaints against teachers shall be made directly to the jury of instruction.

5. When the complaint is a serious one, and after the accused has been heard, if the jury deems that there is ground for dismissal, its decision shall be referred to the general council of the district administration for confirmation.

6. If the decision of the general council is at variance with the opinion of the jury, the matter shall be referred to the Committee on Public Instruction, which shall pronounce definitively.

7. The teachers in primary schools shall be required to teach their pupils by means of the elementary books written and published by order of the National Convention.

8. They may not receive at their houses as boarders, or give special lessons to, any of their pupils: the teacher owes his entire self to all.

9. The nation shall grant to citizens who have rendered long service to their country in the profession of teaching a pension to provide for their old age.

10. The salary of teachers shall be uniform throughout the Republic; it is established at 1,200 livres for men, and 1,000 livres for women. Nevertheless, in communes where the population is in excess of 20,000 inhabitants, the pay of men teachers shall be 1,500 livres, and that of women 1,200 livres.

Chapter IV. Instruction in and Regulation of Primary Schools

1. Pupils shall not be admitted to primary schools before the age of fully six years.

2. In both sections of each school the pupils shall be taught: 1st, reading and writing, and the reading selections shall make them conscious of their rights and duties; 2nd, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the Constitution of the French Republic; 3rd, elementary instruction in republican morality; 4th, the elements of the French language, both spoken and written; 5th, the rules of simple calculation and land measurement; 6th, the elements of geography and of the history of free peoples; 7th, instruction concerning the major natural phenomena and the most common natural resources. They shall be taught the miscellany of heroic deeds and triumphal songs.

3. Teaching shall be done in the French language; the local idiom may be used only as an auxiliary device.

4. The pupils shall be instructed in those exercises most suitable for maintaining their health and for developing strength and agility of body; accordingly, the boys shall take military exercises, under an officer of the National Guard appointed by the jury of instruction.

5. If circumstances permit, they shall be trained in swimming. This exercise shall be directed and supervised by citizens appointed by the jury of instruction, on the recommendation of the respective municipalities.

6. Instructions shall be published to determine the nature and distribution of other gymnastic exercises suitable for producing strength and agility of body, such as running, wrestling, etc.

7. The pupils of the primary schools shall visit the nearest almshouses several times a year, with their teachers and under the guidance of a magistrate of the people.

8. On the same days they shall aid the old people and the relatives of defenders of the Patrie in their work in both house and field.

9. Occasionally they shall be taken to factories and shops, where merchandise for common use is manufactured, so that they will have some idea of the benefits of human industry and will acquire a taste for the useful arts.

10. A part of the time destined for the schools shall be devoted to useful and common handicrafts of different sorts.

11. An instruction to facilitate the execution of the two preceding articles shall be published, so as to render the visiting of shops and the handicrafts really useful to the pupils.

12. Prizes of encouragement shall be distributed annually to the pupils, in public, at the Festival of Youth.

13. The Committee on Public Instruction is responsible for publishing, without delay, regulations on the administration and the internal discipline of the primary schools.

14. Young citizens who have not attended said schools shall be examined, in public, at the Festival of Youth; and if it is apparent that they do not possess the knowledge necessary for French citizens, until they have acquired same, they shall be barred from all public functions.

Source: John Hall Stewart, A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 616–19.