It’s the hot topic in the mountains, it’s hit international headlines and resulted in people losing their jobs, being arrested and taken to court.
Just who should be able to teach skiing/snowboarding, and guide groups on the mountain, in France?
In most countries, instructors can get by with a British Level 2 (of 4) instructor qualification. Anything above that allows you to teach more advanced skiers and snowboarders – and usually earn more money.
France, however, is sticking to a much stricter system which doesn’t allow anyone without the top qualification to teach – unless you’re being trained by an approved school to become fully qualified. This system is backed up by law and, the country has made clear, enforced by police.
Things came to a head when ski school owner Simon Butler, who has instructed in France for over 30 years, was arrested in February 2014. His school employed English instructors that weren’t qualified to Level 4, nor were they in the French system as trainees or ‘stagieres’ – and there were questions over whether Butler’s own qualifications met current French standards.
Butler claimed European law on the free movement of labour supports instructors’ rights to teach anywhere on the continent using their British qualifications. The headlines in Britain accused France of waging a ‘piste war’ on foreign instructors, and even London mayor Boris Johnson waded in describing the arrest as a ‘shameless and unrepentant breach, by France, of the principles of the European Single Market’. Butler lost the case, was fined €30,000 by the French court and faced 200 days jail time if he failed to pay up. On top of that he was told by the judge that he might like to try working in Switzerland, where the qualification level is much lower. Ouch. He’s now preparing to take his case to the higher European Court.
“Is a Eurotest pass the best way to choose instructors?”
So just what does it take to teach skiing and snowboarding in France? As well as having to achieve the top instructing qualification, since 2004 skiers also need to pass the notorious Eurotest (also known as the speed test). This means they must complete a Giant Slalom course in 18% (24% for women) of the time of a world championship racer. Snowboarders face similar tests – they must earn a certain amount of FIS (Federation International du Ski) points through either racing or freestyle to prove their ability.
Recent events have prompted the question of French snowsports authorities: Why so serious? Is it necessary for instructors to pass gruelling (and expensive) exams to become semi-professional racers when they’ll spend most of their time teaching children how to snowplough?
Most instructors in resort will tell you it is. The fact that they all have to reach the high technical level it takes to complete the Eurotest means pupils of all abilities can be assured of the best tuition, they argue. BASI (the British Association of Snowsport Instructors) agrees: “No matter what level is being taught, having a more knowledgeable, skilled and highly qualified instructor will make the learning experience more enjoyable and effective. There are industry figures suggesting that many first time skiers do not return to the sport, so having more highly qualified instructors teaching complete beginners is possibly a good way to keep them involved.”
The real question is: Is a Eurotest pass the best way to choose instructors? Most people who book in for lessons are not hoping to be taught by someone who can reach 130kph on a pair of skis – but someone who can encourage them to feel confident, explain technique well and make it fun. After all, does a faster instructor really make a better instructor? The best skier in the world is not guaranteed to make a good teacher – helping people reach their potential is an entirely different skill to haring down The Face.
Ski Guides Banned
The problem is that the French system is all or nothing; stagieres have to pass the Eurotest within 4 years or lose their training place. There’s no room for a sudden influx of Europeans working to their own, less strict qualifications. But whether you agree with it or not, it’s currently law – and many British ski schools doing it by the book are thriving. To make their position clear, BASI removed Butler’s membership of the association for flouting French law and putting his staff in danger of prosecution.
However, it’s not just instructors that French police are cracking down on here in the mountains. Ever been shown around the piste by a friendly chalet host? Unless they were a fully qualified ski instructor, they could have been breaking the law. Many holiday companies, as well as the Ski Club of Great Britain, used to offer a ski guide’s services for free – someone local to show people new to the area a few good routes and the best places to stop for a hot chocolate. But they’ve had to stop after the French courts banned anyone other than fully qualified instructors leading organised groups around the mountain.
They feared it was an accident waiting to happen – having untrained seasonnaires responsible for people on the hill, making on-the-spot decisions that could lead them into danger.
Training System Compromise?
On the other hand; as most people won’t be too keen on paying instructors’ prices essentially for someone to point them in the right direction, the consequence is that more holiday skiers will venture out unaccompanied. Guides brought valuable local knowledge of routes and snow conditions – so does the French ban on them really make groups safer? Or could there be a compromise to be made by creating a regulated training system, teaching essential skills like mountain awareness and rescue techniques?
France may end up having to compromise on this, as guiding was such a popular service it’s possible the ban will sway holidaymakers into choosing other destinations in countries that do allow it. Ski Sunday presenter Graham Bell says: “I fully support the fact that you need to be fully qualified if you’re going to instruct and obey the qualification process in place for the country you intend to work in; it’s only fair. I’m less convinced about the hosting regulations and think it’s going to hurt the industry. There’s a big difference between skiing socially with a guide and trying to teach people to ski and improve their technique. No-one’s ever said ski guides and hosts are instructors.”
Tour operators are appealing the judges’ decision and, as all these issues are thrashed out though the courts and in the media, we’re all left to form our own opinions. We can only hope the fallout in the meantime doesn’t cost us talented instructors or put people off holidaying in some of the best resorts in the world here in France.