Jean-Christophe Torres, Headmaster of the Lycée franco-éthiopien Guebre-Mariam is a man of many talents. Not only was he a professor of philosophy before becoming headmaster, he also trained teachers, headmasters and inspectors and was a school-business correspondent in Montpellier. A prolific writer, he has published nine books in philosophy and pedagogy. He also served on the editorial board of a journal specializing in educational administration (the French magazine “administration et éducation”).
He talked with Capital about being a headmaster, how it feels to work in Ethiopia, and what’s special about Lycée franco-éthiopien, Excerpts;
Capital: How do you describe 70 years of excellence?
Jean-Christophe Torres: Lycée Franco-Ethiopian Guébré-Mariam welcomed its first students in March 1948. During the seventy years of its existence, it, has adapted to the multiple changes of a country that has experienced a strong demographic and economic growth while maintaining its status of an international reference school for many Ethiopians. The name of the school (passed in everyday language) is reminiscent of the struggle against fascism and for freedom: a struggle in which the Emperor and the French Laic Mission recognized in each other. This long-term success of Lycée is due to the quality of its educational offer, the central role played in the country in spreading the French language and the importance of the Francophonie for a State that hosts the headquarters of the African Union.
The French educational system has adapted its requirements and methods and satisfies a public always very attentive and rigorous in Ethiopia.
Capital: What are the major challenges in running the school?
Jean-Christophe Torres: The most important challenge is first and foremost educational: to further develop training in line with the expectations and requirements of the families we welcome, to strive for excellence in all our students and to transmit to them the values that France shares with Ethiopia.
We aim to develop o students by offering them, in addition to educational support, a large number of sports and cultural activities. We will have in the course of the year a new gymnasium that will offer multiple opportunities for new sports (climbing walls, basketball courts – volleyball – hand couvert , and a dance hall). Our football stadium is also much appreciated by parents and alumni!
For the new school year, new educational activities will also be offered. There will be new languages such as German, but also ancient Latin and Greek. Audiovisual activities will also be co-hosted by a French teacher and a film professional who tours with the French actor Gerard Depardieu: high school newscast club, a short film competition, and production of citizen videos. However, the most important challenge is to accompany students, many of whom are not French-speaking, to the baccalaureate exam. At the beginning of the academic year, we will develop pedagogical methods adapted to these particular non francophone audiences: the French-language approach to schooling. The teachers will all benefit from specific training provided by an academic who will intervene punctually in the school.
Capital: What major achievements have you accomplished so far?
Jean-Christophe Torres: This year, Lycée Guébré Mariam has obtained the accreditation to pass Cambridge certifications. This certificate, issued by the English university internationally recognized within the framework of the European reference system for languages skills. We are the only facility in Ethiopia to be eligible to pass this test.
Students’ final exam results are once again excellent, with a record of 74% passing students with honors and a 99% graduation rate. This year we started this to implement individualized support schemes for students who were having difficulty (tutoring, support) to better take into account the academic difficulty. Lycée Guébré Mariam must accompany all students to success – including the most fragile.
We started a major restructuring phase. After the gymnasium, we will begin restructuring the primary school to have a completely renovated infrastructure within three years.
Capital: What would you say makes this Lycee unique? Where does it stand compared to other Lycees in the world?
Jean-Christophe Torres: Guebre Mariam High School is first of all a Franco-Ethiopian high school. We are associated with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education through a 1966 cooperation agreement (amended in 2012) that sets the framework for a truly unique educational partnership in the world. It was at the request of Emperor Haile Selassie himself that the French secular mission opened the establishment in 1948. The aim was to train elite students for the country in the process of modernization. Today, the school continues to carry out this mission while being democratized and open to more diverse audiences.
Guebre Mariam High School also has the distinction of having two administrative supervisory authorities. It is primarily an establishment of the Mission Laïque Française, and it is also under agreement with the Agency for the Abroad French Teaching (AEFE): this allows it to benefit from many professors seconded and recruited in France.
The school has a very close link with the Embassy of France, the fruit of a historical connection. The fact that the LGM provides schooling for many children of diplomats from 45 countries is a responsibility and an honor that obliges the school to play an indirect role of influence. This responsibility is a strong issue for us and obliges us even more with our public.
Capital: Do you support low income communities by giving scholarships?
Jean-Christophe Torres: We have an important scholarship and support policy for the most vulnerable families. Out of 1,800 schoolchildren, we have about 300 families receiving social benefits. We are very sensitive about this. The French education system is based on two major principles: the individual excellence of the pupil and the equality of chances. We are not a commercial enterprise focused on the profitability of the establishment. We are here – the French presence is there – in an initial spirit of educational cooperation. The Ethiopian and French governments have set the institution’s course for its history: to contribute to the rapprochement between our two countries and to support the educational effort made by the Ethiopian government by developing collaboration in a spirit of sharing and reciprocity. This is why we educate 70% of Ethiopian students, offer an Ethiopian curriculum and support by internal scholarships many families who otherwise could not afford the education of their children in high school.
Capital: The main problem here in Ethiopia is quality of education. How do you ensure that you give quality education to your students?
Jean-Christophe Torres: We offer our students an educational quality based on the French system. Many of our teachers are trained and recruited in France, our methods and our programs are (regardless of the Ethiopian curriculum that is followed in addition by the students concerned) those of France. We are very rigorous in respecting educational rules and approaches. The success rates of our students in terminal exams show that we are doing so perfectly. The future of the students after the baccalaureate also certifies it: all pursue studies in very good schools: in France or elsewhere (United States, Canada essentially). It is safe to say that the LGM is a high school of educational excellence.
Capital: Do you have plans to branch out? Open another Lycee? Or any other plans to expand this one?
Jean-Christophe Torres: As I told you, we have a major project to restructure the school. This also involves the educational offer which will have to open up even more to the teaching of foreign languages (European section, Chinese …) and digital (learning-lab in science, teaching in computer programming from the start of the eleventh grade). We also develop students’ autonomy by opening a high school students’ home: this is an association hosted by the high school where students can have projects, manage a budget, take initiatives and practice freedom of expression. This is part of the educational objectives of the French system and all learning is also intended to help the student become an accomplished citizen
Capital: How do you see your students’ achievement after they leave the school?
Jean-Christophe Torres: Our students continue their studies in all types of institutions: business schools, engineering, medicine … The target countries are first France, but also the United States and Canada. The returns we have indicate that they are doing very well. In France, there are two poles of attractiveness in which there is an important diaspora: the region of Lyon and that of Toulouse. Our students are very well prepared for further studies and the embassy services accompany them at the end of the journey to obtain a VISA.
Capital: Tell us about yourself, where you were before joining this lycee and what you have done so far.
Jean-Christophe Torres: The LGM is the fourth institution where I have exercised my responsibilities as headmaster. I was in France in Grenoble, Montpellier and Limoges where I ran very different high schools: downtown and rural, with professional training or general training. My last school was a high school with preparatory classes: that is to say, post-baccalaureate courses which prepare people to pass the contests of the grandes écoles (polytechnic, central, normal sup).
A long time ago I was a (15 years …) professor of philosophy before passing the competition of headmaster. I was a trainer of teachers, then of headmasters and of inspectors, and I was also school-business correspondent in Montpellier (my mission was to organize joint actions between high schools and companies, to develop joint projects). I also like to write and I have published to date nine books: in the fields of philosophy and sciences of education. I was also a member of the editorial board of a journal specialized in educational administration (the French magazine “administration et éducation”).
I am very happy with my arrival in Ethiopia and fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead for the establishment. But the quality of the teams and the overall dynamism that I feel in my professional environment make me very confident for the future.