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Inequality in French Schools

Tuesday 10 December 2019

The French school system is one of the most unequal on the planet, and one in which pupils perceive the least support from their teachers.

Earlier this month the triennial PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey on educational attainment carried out by the OECD was published.

With 600,000 15-year-old students surveyed in 79 countries (6,300 pupils in 252 schools in France), the survey is the most comprehensive of its kind. It uses three tests (written, mathematical and scientific skills) to establish a score, in points, for each country.

According to the results, in terms of reading performance (the main test this year), France has a score above the OECD average, between 20th and 26th position, a level of imprecision that is given to take account of statistical aberrations.

In reading, the average score for all the countries surveyed is 487. France is slightly above (493), but remains well behind countries with the highest scores - Singapore, Macao, Hong Kong, South Korea, who had scores well above 500.

In science and mathematics, the French scores were slightly better (493 and 495 points respectively), but again, they did not reach those of the best performing countries.

The United Kingdom recorded marginally over 500 points in all three tests.

However, the stand-out figures from the report is the level of inequality in the French school system, where the social origin of students has a more profound impact on results than elsewhere.

While the difference in points between pupils from the richest and most disadvantaged backgrounds is an average of 88 in the OECD, it is 107 points in France.

This makes France one of the most unequal countries in the OECD, along with Israel and Luxembourg. It is a pattern of inequality that has remained unchanged for many years.

According to the OECD, one of the main causes of these inequalities in France is the lack of social diversity in schools: pupils from poor backgrounds do not attend the same schools as those from richer backgrounds, and a pupil from a disadvantaged background has "only one chance in six to attend the same school" as a pupil from a richer background.

President Macron has made it one of his priorities to tackle educational deprivation, with particular emphasis on investment in primary schools, to reduce class sizes, increase the number of teachers, the use of doubling of years, and making education compulsory from the age of 3 years. There has also been a reform of the baccalaureate.

The reports also shows that French pupils do not consider they are adequately supported by their teachers, with only 57% stating that support was satisfactory, against an average of 70% in the OECD. Fewer than two in five students in France – compared to almost one in two students on average across OECD countries – reported that they think that their teacher usually helps them improve.

Commenting in Les Echoes on that finding, Eric Charbonnier, the French representative on the OECD committee, pointed to the elitist nature of the school system in France, stating that: "It is the most privileged students who say they lack the most support," with "a lot of literature on elitist schools showing there is a breakage." That research considers "teachers are prisoners of the school curriculum and work for the best students".

Students in France reported great concern about the disciplinary climate at school. One in two students in France reported that there is noise and disorder in most or every lesson, compared with fewer than one in three students who reported so on average across OECD countries.

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