Collège Sévigné is a nonprofit organization committed to the history of republican and secular education
"The true spirit of Sévigné is its sense of modernity"
Interview with Mr Attali, Honorary Inspector General of Classics; Honorary Chair of the Board of Directors of the Collège Sévigné Association
During this interview in November 2015, Alain Attali talked about the spirit that led to founding Collège Sévigné, its commitment to secular education, the institution's modern teaching methods and its open attitude towards the world. He also referred to the privileged (but not exclusive) role of literary studies at the school and, more generally, on the meaning of the teaching profession today, the commitment that this implies, and the importance of transmitting Humanities in a world that has become ever more complex, multipolar and changing.
The challenge faced by the founders
Collège Sévigné opened November 3, 1880 at 10 rue de Condé in Paris, under the direction of Miss Marchef-Girard. The school's founders wanted girls to have access to a serious, secular education during a period of major restructuring of school and university education in France, under the undeniable influence of convinced and militant republicans. The Camille Sée law establishing high schools for girls had been filed two years previous, while the École Normale of Fontenay-aux-Roses for young ladies had opened a year earlier, in 1879.
The founding members of Collège Sévigné established a "Society for the Propagation of Education among Women". Among them was Michel Bréal, graduate of the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure, linguist, inventor of "semantics", teacher and active researcher among those preparing the school and university teaching reform in the 1880s; he also founded the École Alsacienne in Paris for boys. Among the other founding members were Louis Petit de Julleville, lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure; Frédéric Passy, who later won the Nobel Prize in 1901 and Paul Bert, secular activist who became Minister of Education and Religious Affairs the following year.
Sévigné was the first secular secondary school for girls created in France. It was the first time a school in France had set out to provide the same curriculums for both girls and boys. The first public high school for girls - Lycée Fenelon - was not founded until three years later.
Very early on in its history, Collège Sévigné began preparing its students for the entrance examinations of the most prestigious higher education schools. In 1882, began preparation for entry to the École Normale Supérieure for girls in Sèvres; in 1885, began preparation for teaching at girls' high schools and entry to the École Normale Supérieure of Fontenay. It was also in 1885 that began preparation for Agrégations, the most prestigious and selective competitive examinations for secondary and higher education teacher training. Collège Sévigné offered preparation for the Agrégation in Humanities and History, still offered today and which continues to be a resounding success.
The influence of Mathilde Salomon
Mathilde Salomon, an active personality in the community, took charge of Collège Sévigné in 1883. She worked hard to promote girls’ education in a secular school structure. A native of the Lorraine region, Mathilde was an activist, member of the League of Human Rights, involved in the Dreyfus Affair and member of the Higher Council of Public Education. Encouraged by the new-thinking academics of the Third Republic, she truly helped build the soul of Collège Sévigné. A collective book on her action and commitment is soon to be released by Presses Universitaires de Rennes (ed. J. Prévotat).
Commitment to education
Sévigné has never wavered in its values of tolerance, freedom and secularism, even during the difficult years of war. Pierre Brossolette, who entered the Panthéon in 2015, taught at Collège Sévigné from September 1941. He taught History for the Agrégation teacher training examinations and for the entrance examinations of the École Normale Supérieure. His request for reinstatement after the armistice as a professor of History was denied. Destitute, forced to open a book and stationery store, Brossolette divided his time between giving classes at Sévigné and working at the used bookstore. He was contacted by Louis Francis, who belonged to the Confrérie Notre-Dame and also gave classes at Collège Sévigné. They were looking for a specialist in Nazi information and in the fight against Nazi propaganda. In 1942, both Louis Francis and Pierre Brossolette engaged in the Forces Françaises Libres [Free French Forces].
On the school notice board was written, "Young ladies, Mr. Brossolette will not give class today" (source: The Centenary book).
This spirit and commitment were summarized by Jacqueline de Romilly during her speech at the Sévigné centenary celebrations.
"I know it is far from fashionable to talk about moral values, but that won't stop me from doing so. The very contrary in fact! Facts show that - in this case - moral values are not just a whimsical concept. It is not by chance that Sévigné has always conducted itself remarkably in times of great crisis: 1914 (WWI), 1918 (with the subsidiary founded in Strasbourg) and 1940 (the French Resistance). Nor is it by chance that even in times of peace and generally in daily life, the Sévigné alumni form a spiritual family, linked by a common past and shared values".
Learning to think well
The history of Sévigné is marked by a very clear foundation in Classical Humanities while taking an uncompromisingly modern approach to education. Prestigious teachers have contributed to forging the school's reputation: Alain, Merleau-Ponty, Georges Dumézil, Pierre Lévêque, Raymond Bloch and Jacqueline de Romilly to name but a few have taught at Sévigné. The families and pupils of the school have also strongly contributed to forging the establishment's reputation: pioneer French scientist Marie Curie and her daughter Irène, early 1930s pilot Hélène Boucher and first female hospital physician Thérèse Bertrand-Fontaine. The sense of innovation and modernity not only came from the excellent education offered to young ladies, Collège Sévigné also offered undeniably excellent practical experience for members of the Supreme Council in charge of drafting education law. Collège Sévigné was opened two months before the Camille Sée law was voted in, a law establishing public and secular, secondary education for young women.
There was also a desire to experiment with new teaching methods and explore new ways of accessing knowledge. In 1909, a Kindergarten was opened at Sévigné. In 1910, "Fröbellian" lessons were introduced and "Montessori" teaching materials were used. Nothing was too ambitious to illustrate what to this day is still Collège Sévigné's motto, "learning to think well". New teaching methods for Kindergarten children were widely developed and promoted the opening of similar establishments. As such, Collège Sévigné offered the training course for children's Kindergartens and Kindergarten teaching staff until the diploma became obsolete. The school contributed to training generations of Kindergarten and primary school teachers.
Collège Sévigné today: rigor, humanism and an open outlook on the modern world
This heritage is still very much ours
Now a school for both girls and boys since 1969, Collège Sévigné welcomes pupils from ages 3 to 17 as well as students preparing for first and second level teaching certifications (CAPES and Agrégation). The school had 450 to 500 pupils and students in the 1920s. Today, it has almost 1,400 from Kindergarten children aged 3 to students preparing for higher education entrance examinations.
After almost 140 years in existence, Collège Sévigné continues to assert humanistic and rigorous teaching. From Petite section (age 3) to CM2 (age 10), Sévigné has designed a teaching program compliant with French National Education expectations but taught in both English and French. Continuing on from primary school, a French/English bilingual and bicultural stream has been created for middle school. It ends at high school with the Option Internationale du Baccalauréat (OIB) examinations, the international option of the French Baccalauréat diploma.
Our learning priorities
The school's purpose and aims have been drafted and built on the work of preparatory committees and questionnaires filled out by teachers, administrative staff, pupils and parents.
An assessment was made based on different statistics of enrolment, academic and geographical origin of pupils, examination results, school year repetition rates, entry into higher education and subject choice in higher education.
This thorough work has provided insight into the perception of Collège Sévigné; what is expected of it as well as identifying areas to be actively reinforced, strengthened or developed.
During the various committee meetings, participants noted the importance of the school's secular nature. Teaching and administrative staff reiterated their commitment to Sévigné’s values of respect and tolerance.
The "human scale" of the institution, quality of teaching, personalized monitoring of each individual’s progress and excellent examination results were also highlighted.
Everyone agreed that the school facilities needed updating. Consequently, there is an ongoing project to modernize the buildings and develop teaching materials in line with French education policy reform and the changing nature of today's society.
The outcome of our consultation has resulted in six priorities:
Higher education: new digital tools for better knowledge transmission
At higher education level, Collège Sévigné prepares students for the competitive examinations for first and second level teaching certification (CAPES and Agrégations) in Humanities and History-Geography. Collège Sévigné also prepares students for the entry test for the École du Louvre. Open to modern-day technologies, Collège Sévigné constantly adapts to its students' new needs. It offers hybrid training programs (classroom-based and distance-learning) enabling all students to build their education according to their needs and availability. Our digital library and online lessons (audio and video recordings) supplement our classroom-based teaching, as do our written lesson plans, recognized for their high quality and demanding level. For both classroom-based and distance-learning students, all is done to promote cooperation, data pooling and shared problem resolution whenever possible. The forum and library are there to promote interaction between students and bolster the spirit of cooperation we wish to develop in among our students preparing for competitive examinations.