School architecture emerged with the assertion of the public nature of education in the 1791 Constitution. Up until the Third Republic, these new buildings which combined hygiene, safety and comfort aroused interest among architects but remained discreet due to economic and ideological reasons as opinions differed on the development of education: should it be based on the traditional teaching structures of the clergy or break away from these?
The matter was decided by the Jules Ferry Laws on free, secular and mandatory education (1881-1882). At the instigation of primary school teachers, who were themselves carefully trained in higher teacher training colleges (known as écoles normales), schools asserted themselves by countering the traditional omnipresence of the Church in education.
School architecture, governed by public regulations as of 1880, symbolised the separation of politics and religion through the adoption of a specific style: abandoning the historicism of religious buildings, the architects turned to a simplified decorative vocabulary, derived from the use of exposed polychrome materials. This stemmed from the rationalist approach of Viollet-le-Duc, a great champion of republican secular values.
Architecture and secularism (II): republican architecture for secondary schools.
At the same time as establishing free, secular and mandatory education, Jules Ferry strengthened the network of secondary schools founded by Napoleon I in 1802. Several dozen secondary school institutions, designed to weaken the teaching of religious congregations, were constructed at the end of the century under the architectural supervision of the Commission des bâtiments des lycées et collèges (Commission for secondary school buildings), composed of architects who had inherited the ideas of Viollet-le-Duc, such as Anatole de Baudot and Emile Vaudremer.
The style of the Jules Ferry schools based on the decorative use of polychrome materials owes much to the Collège Chaptal - an educational institution intended to act as the link between primary and secondary school - designed by Eugène Train under the Second Empire. This building also inspired the secondary schools of the Third Republic, even though they adopted a sober and monumental style as a guarantee of the serious nature of the teaching provided there.
While the importance of the debate on secularism at the end of the 19th century gave school architecture an important ideological role, the republicans also ensured that all of these public monuments carried symbolical weight, as illustrated by the use of the famous acronym RF, for République Française (French Republic).