Algerian Schools: French Colonial Era

Figure 1.--This is the 3rd class Lycée E.F Gautier during 1955-56 academic year. The boys all wear European-stle clothes, both short and long pants as well as knickers. It looks like all the students are French boys. Most Algerian boys did not have the necessary French skills to win admission to secondary schools. 

Most of our informaion on Algeria at this time comes from the colonial era. France was the colonial power. The French introduced the first schools in Algeria. Until the arrival of the French, education in Algetria as very limited. There was some limited education conducted through the mosques, but the curriculum was largely limited to reading Arabic and memorization of Koranic tects. Education in French controlled Algeria followed trends in metroploitan France. Thus secular schools were opened with high European standards. These schools were open to Algerians, but many Algerian parents were suspicious of what was being taught. Thus few Algerians away from the coastal cities attended the French schools. This was especially true for Algerian girls. We have acquired some images from European schools that existed in the country before independence. The school clothing reflects the clothing worn by contemporary European boys--there is little evidence of Algerian clothing styles. Some schools appear to have restricted the entry of Algerian boys, but we have view details about this. A more important factor may be the attitudes of Algerian parents. Algerians fought a long and brutal war during the 1950s and early 60s, at times looking more like a civil war, to achieve independemcein 1962 ( Accord de Genèvre ).

Colonial Algeria

France was the colonial power. The French colonoized Algeria in 1830. Many sources describe this action as an invasion. This is not entirely fair in that Algerian and other North African ports hs been pirte dens for centuries with ecomomies based on piracy. While there was Algerian military resistance until the 1870s, the French presence lasted over 100 years until 1962 ( Accord de Genèvre ). French citizens settled in Algeria, primarily in the cities, and some Algerians adopted French customs and dress. The styles worn were very similar to the popular styles in Metropolitan France. Algerians fought a long and brutal war during the 1950s and early 60s, at times looking more like a civil war, to achieve independemce.


We had thought that very few Algerian children received any kind of education before the arrival of the French (1830). As far as we know the only education available before the French arrived was at madrasas attached to mosques. This needs to be confirmed, but that is all we know about at this time. We have noted claims that a very substantial part of the population was literate. One source suggests 40 percent which is exceptionally high given the fact thatbgirls were not educated. We are very suspious of these estimates. This would have provided instruction in Arabic and the Koran, but very little else. We have no idea how many Algerian children attended these schools, but believe it was very small and of course only consisted of boys. Girls were not educated unless taught at home. We notice that some authors claim that there was a decline in literacy during the early colonial era. We are not sure if that was the case. As far as we know there are no real verifiable statistics on literacy before the arrival of the French. There is a tendency among some author to paint the French colonial administration in as negative a role as possible. We do not know to what extent colonial officials interfered with the existing madrasas. Some authors report that about half of the madrasaas closed, but we can not yet cinfirm this. If it is true that some half of the madrasas closed, them Arabic literacy would have declined. It is unclear how rapidly French schools wre established to replace them. This is especially the case as France (and other Catholic countries) lagged behind the Protestant countries in establishing public school systems. Thus it is unlukely that any major effort wouuld have been made to set up a public school system for Algerian children on the early years of Frebch colonial rule. We do know that the madrasas continued to function. And the quality of insytruction seems to have expaned beyond just memorizing the Koranny te late-19th century. This of course varied from madrasa to madrasa.

Colonial System

We have little information on schools in French colonial Algeria at this time. Some schools appear to have restricted the entry of Algerian boys, but we have view details about this. A French reader tells us that school was compulsory for all children. This included both French and Algerian children. I am not sure. but I think all state schools were taught in French. In rural regions or in the mountain it was a difficul to enforce compulsory attendance rules. I am not sure how authorities dealt with Algerian parents who did not want to send their children to French schools. Nor do French auhorities seem all that interested in educating Algerian children, especially in the 19th and early-20th century. There seems to have been a segregated system with separate schools for the French and Algerian children, I believce both were tauhght in French. Some privlidged Algerians close to the colonial administration may have been allowed to attend the French schools. And few Algerian parents seems to have had any desire to send their girls to school. We arevnot sure how much this changed by the mod-20th century. I'm not sure to what extent children attended madrasas which continued to operate. During the colonial era it was not easy to enter secondary school. Standards were very high. Only about 15-20 percent of French students earned a place in a secondary school after completing primary school. As most Algerian children had more limited French-language skills, it was much more difficult for them. Thus while there were Algerian children in primary schools, few Algerian students earned places in secondary schools unless their parents were close to the French colonia administration..


These French colonial schools were open to Algerians, but many Algerian parents were suspicious of what was being taught. Thus few Algerians away from the coastal cities attended the French schools. This was especially true for Algerian girls. Some schools appear to have restricted the entry of Algerian boys, but we have view details about this. A more important factor may be the attitudes of Algerian parents. One source suggests that less than 5 percent of algerian children attended any kind of school. School attendance ws at the heart of the conflict between the French and the Algerians. The algerians resisted French dominance from the out set of French colonioal rule. There was an armed resistance fromn the onset, but this proved futile because of French militry dominance. The Algerians found ways of resisting beyond military action. They simply refused to engage in French colonialculture. And one such action was to refuse to send their chldren to the colonial schools. This was not such a defiant srtep as ine would think. Before the French, there were virtually no schools in Algeria. And one of the areas was education. The French theoretically aimed atassimilation. And the curriculum and education progam at colonial schools was entirely centered on French education and values. But it was hardly an effective effort at assimikation. The French never made the financial commitment to build schools throughout the country for Algerian children. One author writes, "... it was not too difficult for the French to in a military and political sense. But Algerians, who fought bitterly against often overwealming odds, did not readily admit defeat. Theyv simoply chose to fight vin realms other than thoe of soldiers or politics. Untik the 1880s, perhaps even up to World wr I. Algerian resistance centered around adetermined refusal ti be cffected by the conqueror's culture ...." [Heggoy]


The French replicatred the same school system they had in France to Algeria. We see all the the same grades froim materelle on up. The classes were all taught in French with the curriulum set in Paris. The actual clasess vatied over time. And the French left Algeria before the major reforms following the 1968 Paris school riots were implemnented so the old school system was used in Algeria. And the children seem to have dressed very similrly for schools that we see in Framce. The French system developed in the 19th century changed the grade system after 1968. This was part of the educational reforms following the Paris School riots. Under the old system, the French called the classes/grades by the number or the term in descending order. (This was oppsite the American grade system of ascending order.) . This meant 12ème-11éme or CP = child 6 years; 10éme-9éme or CE 1 = child 7 years; 8éme-7éme or CE2 = child 8 years; 6 éme or CM1 = child 9 year; 5 éme = child 10 years; 4 éme = child 11 years; 3 éme = child 12 years; 2 éme = child 13 years; and classe du certifificat d'étude primaire = 14 years. This important diploma don't exist anymore. A French reader tells us, "In my time we referred to the number rather than the letter terms like CP and CE. So I had began school in the 12 ème school program during in October 1949. I was only 5 years old, butbegan school early because I was a prodigy boy. In the old class photographs there is often a slate or card with the grade level indicated. Most children before World War II only went to primary school and never went on to secondary schools. A child would have his Certificat d'étude primaire (" certif ") at 14 years old, some even at 13. The school was made compulsory untill 14 years, but I'm not sure when it was made compulsory. A French reader writes, "To avoid some confusion we used in 1950s quite often the names CP CE CM and so on. Although many old class photo are written with the old number class.

School Clothing

Most of our information on Algerian school uniforms at this time comes from the colonial era. We have acquired some images from schools that existed during the French colonial period. France was just beginning go build a public school system at the time it begn to colonize Algeria. We have virtuall no information on the early period (19th century). We have arcvhived some infrmation on the 20th century, especially after World War I. The school styles reflect the clothing worn by conmtemporary French boys--there is little evidence of Algerian clothing styles. Most of the images come from French schools. The children were dressed alike those from France. We see rompers for rgecyoungest childen as well as short pants, long pnys, knickers, smocks and a tange opf other garments. This was affected by the age of the children. Many Algerian children in the cities at the time dressed like European children. In rural areas boys more common wore Algerian-styled clothes. Algerian boys, especially boys from poor families normally wore long pants.


We note changing clothing styles at schools in French Algeria over time. The styles mirrored those in France itself, especially southern France. Of course there were variations as to the class level. The school portraits taken over time are a wonderful record of the changing styles. One notable observation is the almost complete absebnce of children wearing Algerian-styled clothes in these class portraits, even in the 1950s just before independence.

Individual Schools

We have begun to collect information on individual French Algerian schools. The available photograph are all formal school portraits. The boys may have dressed up a little, but they show a cross section of the clothing styles at the time. A photograph at the Lycée de Bône (about 1946) shows most of the older boys wearing long pants suits. A few boys have short pants or knicker suits. Another school we have noted is the Lycée E.F Gautier (1955). We do not have much information about the school at this time. It looks to be school that only French boys attended. The boys are certainly wearing French styled clothing. We have no information at this time on the individual schools attended by Algerian children.


Heggoy, Alf Andrew. "Education in French Algeria: An essay on cultural conflict," Comparative Education Review Vol. 17, No. 2 (June, 1973), pp. 180-197


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Created: February 15, 2004
Last updated: 7:54 AM 8/26/2015