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Why French schools are falling in global table
Why is France slipping down the global education rankings and why is inequality increasing? Photo: Fred Duffour/AFP

Why French schools are falling in global table

Ben McPartland · 3 Dec 2013, 15:24

Published: 03 Dec 2013 15:24 GMT+01:00

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It only took a matter of hours before the expected blame game began.

The publication of the latest OECD study into the performance of 15-year-olds, which is taken as a reference of the quality of a country’s education system, has been eagerly awaited in France.

In a country that holds its education system in high regard and has a much-admired global network of lycée schools the OECD’s 2012 Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) report has given cause for yet more soul searching. Education Minister Vincent Peillon called the OECD's end of year report on France "unacceptable".

Although France, ranked 25th out of 65 countries, stands above the UK (26th) and the US (36th), the fact it has dropped three places overall and has seen the performance of its pupils in maths deteriorate over the last three years is no doubt cause for concern in Paris. So too is the widening equality gap between the performances of well-off French pupils and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, that the OECD drew particular attention to.

The opposition UMP party immediately blamed the socialists and the system. “The French system tries to treat all students the same way and this uniform system in secondary schools has harmed both those who need stimulating and those who need support,” said former UMP minister Laurent Wauqiez.

Naturally the Socialists hit back with former Socialist minister Jack Lang blasting the policies of the UMP when they were in power. “They abolished teacher training, increased the numbers of students per class, and took away thousands of teaching jobs. We are now paying the price.”

To shed a little light on what may be going wrong for the schools system in France The Local asked  French sociologist Professor and education expert Marie Duru-Bellat, a lecturer at Sciences-Po university in Paris to shed some light on the issues.

“In recent years in France reports like the OECD’s Pisa study have been greeted with scepticism and have not been taken seriously, whereas in other countries the findings have been used as the basis for reforms.

“We always think we have the best system because we think our curriculum is the most demanding. That is the broad view and it should be challenged. Other countries like our neighbours Germany and the Netherlands for example have a much more experimental approach towards education whereas France has maintained an ideological one.

“In the US for example there have been a lot of experiments and trials with various teaching methods aimed at helping the weakest pupils, but in France there is a real lack of research on education.

“The problem in France for a long time has been that the curriculum is elitist. This importance on elitism is deep-rooted in the French mind-set and in our history and it is very difficult to change.

“We have always been obsessed with the elite. We have our Grandes Écoles, which are unique to France, where the best students go to. This can change but it will be slow. Thanks to studies like Pisa we realize that other countries, who have a more effective system of education, do not have this culture of elitism.

Story continues below…

“For the best pupils the French system is great. Our best students are as good as those in Korea or Finland (two countries at the top of the OECD rankings). But it is a problem for the weakest.

“French students have a lot of anxiety because they know that if they fail they will not be able to get access to a number of jobs. Having a degree is very important in our country.

“Some of the government reforms are going in the right direction for example the move to make teachers undergo specific teacher training. The government is also giving more money to primary schools than secondary level, which is important.

“The hardest thing, however, will be assessing the impact of these changes to see whether they have really had any benefit.”

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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