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French Education System Slammed by OECD

Wednesday 15 December 2010

France has an elitist education system that fails those pupils with difficulties, according to a recent report from the OECD.

PISA*, conducted by the OECD, is a set of standardized tests that measures reading comprehension, mathematics and science, taken by a representative sample of 15-year-olds in 65 countries (34 OECD countries plus others).

Since the last tri-annual study was published in 2006, France has slipped down the OECD league table of performance, dropping from 12th to 18th in mathematics, 13th to 16st in written comprehension, although it remains 21st in sciences.

Overall. the country has an average rating, but it is only brought up to this level by the strong results of its most able pupils.

While the number of pupils in France recording an above average result in written comprehension increased from 8.5% in 2000 to 9.6%% in 2009, the number falling below the average increased from 15% to 20% (OECD 18.8%) over the past nine years.

There were similar constrasting trends between the best and the worst performing pupils in mathematics and sciences.

The report considers that the social and ethic origins of the pupils in France was a more important factor in determining their performance than for the average of other countries in the study. Socio-economic factors accounted for 28% of the variation of performance in France, whereas it was an average of 22% in the rest of the study.

‘'The French education system is more and more dichotomous, with an increase in pupils failing at school, with little chance of obtaining a baccalaureate. The system is saved thanks to its elite, but the social inequalities continue to increase’', says Eric Charbonier, responsible for the study in France.

Many of the characteristics of unsuccessful systems identified in the study – doubling up of years, emphasis on testing, and lack of autonomy for schools - are all present in France. Indeed, France is the champion of re-sitting of school years, with 38% of school pupils who do so.

School systems considered successful in the study tended to prioritise teachers’ pay over smaller classes. In France teachers' pay is not high, and class sizes are often large.

Countries with the best results also sent their best teachers into the worst schools. Again, in France, the contrary often happens, with young recently qualified teachers being sent into the banlieues to teach, who are often only there for a short period.

L'empereur est Nu

The report will come as a shock to a country that prides itself on claiming to have an egalitarian system of education that acts as an important unifying symbol of the nation. It seems from this study that the contrary is the case; rather than correcting social injustice, the education system in France seems to reinforce it.

Nevertheless, French politicians should soon be getting used to receiving bad school reports, for the OECD study follows on from a severely critical report on the failures of the education system from the French national audit office, the Cour de Comptes.

They characterised the system as expensive and inefficient, and that it aggravated existing inequalities by privileging children without difficulties.

Most controversially, they argued that there should be an end to le redoublement, and that the education of pupils should be more focused on their needs rather than a standardised offer.

Many readers will also be familiar with the critical work recently published by Peter Gumbel, a British academic based in Paris, and author of On achève bien les écoliers? (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don't They?). He argued that French schools humiliated children and made them feel worthless (a somewhat melodramatic assessment that was not universally shared).

According to Bernard Hugonnier, assistant director of education at the OECD, it is not necessary to make a trade off between quality and equity. ‘Those countries achieving the best results had both a high quality of education and a higher level of equity’ he stated.

Shanghai Tops the List

The following table shows an extract of the results for OECD countries, which is dominated by Korea and Finland.

Nevertheless, outside of the OECD, both countries were outperformed by Shanghai-China, who took top spot in the study. This is the first time that China's richest city has participated in the study.

The UK came marginally behind France in writing and mathematics, but ahead in sciences, capturing 11th place amongst OECD countries. The results were all inferior to those achieved in 2006.

4New Zealand

18France (12 in 2006)
20United Kingdom

16France (13 in 2006)
19United Kingdom
21United States
4New Zealand

21France (21 in 2006)

*Program for International Students Assessment – PISA

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