French children playing during break at Ernest Renan Primary School, Casablanca, Morocco. Facebook

‘Who are the great apes?’ French school in Morocco stirs up controversy

Confusion, anger, incomprehension… The parents of students at the French primary school Ernest Renan in Morocco were somewhat taken aback. On Thursday March 25, their children received a peculiar science exercise.

Published: March 31, 2021, 5:29 am

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    The Ernest Renan school in Casablanca, which is part of the network of the French mission in Morocco, has been at the heart of the scandal. In question, is an “educational” exercise which aroused unanimous condemnation. The question “Who are the great apes?” was asked as part of a natural science class to CM2 students (10-11 years old), and for their answer they were asked to link illustrations with their name and then with their natural habitat. But the details are staggering. Alongside a gorilla, an orangutan, a bonobo and a chimpanzee, a sub-Saharan woman was among the illustrations included.

    Revolted by the content considered both racist and misogynist in this exercise, the parents of young schoolchildren quickly sounded the alarm. They do not understand how such a question could arise in a supposedly educational setting.

    Shared profusely on social networks in the space of a few hours, the strange “lesson” triggered a huge wave of indignation which continues to stir up emotions. Association activists, parents and teachers denounced the racism and sexism that persist in the country, especially through the school content taught to children.

    The Parity and Diversity committee of 2M, the second Moroccan television channel, denounced the “indecency” and an “unacceptable attack on human dignity”.

    In the afternoon of Thursday, March 25, the director of the establishment, Sébastian Galard, reacted to the controversy by sending an email to the parents concerned. He mentioned “an exercise that could rightly shock”. He described it “as an inadmissible blunder which can refer to amalgamations completely contrary to the values” that the school claims to defend. The director concluded his email with an apology on behalf of the school and its teachers. Except that he only added fuel to the fire.

    By republishing his email, several Internet users denounced his insincere apology, a “euphemism” which in no way compensates for the racism and misogyny of the exercise.

    Later that evening, another email appeared which was immediately widely shared. This time, the message received by the parents came from Paris. It was signed by the Agency for French Education Abroad (AEFE), a network which manages 540 French establishments abroad including the Ernest Renan School in Morocco. In an attempt to extinguish the flames of anger and controversy, the tone was much firmer.

    The email evoked the “consternation” of the AEFE in view of the racist and sexist content. The AEFE then announced that it had decided to “open an administrative investigation” after this “serious fault”. It insisted on continuing the transmission of “republican values ​​in French education abroad, foremost among which is equality and the fight against all forms of racism”. As soon as it was received by the parents, the AEFE message was quickly published by the primary school concerned on its website.

    Within the Association of Parents of French Education Abroad (APEEF), the reaction was mixed:

    “Regarding the pedagogical incident which took place at the Ernest Renan School, we recognize that the director and the AEFE had a rapid and effective reaction which we welcome”, they commented in a press release. “We will avoid further controversy and will follow the AEFE investigation and the corrective actions that will have to be taken,” they added.

    Since the outbreak of this affair, the accused teacher has been laid off pending the conclusions of the administrative investigation opened by the AEFE. The penalties can range from temporary suspension to retirement or dismissal of the faculty, Russian news outlet Sputnik learned from sources familiar with the matter.

    In the meantime, the source of the controversial exercise has been traced, showing that it was taken from the French platform “La main à la Pâte” for science education. Created in 2011 by the École nationale supérieure (ENS) and the Academy of Sciences, this foundation provides teachers, in France and elsewhere, with educational tools for their science courses. This exercise was reportedly submitted by a black teaching assistant in Gabon.

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