Author Peter Gumbel wrote this critique of the French schools system in August 2015, but he tells The Local that one year on, the same issues still blight France's education system.
French schools, once the pride of the nation, are in crisis.
Today one in four pupils fails to complete his or her secondary education successfully, according to official statistics. The number of students who struggle with basic reading, writing and maths has grown rapidly in the past 15 years.
At the same time, the social inequalities of the system have increased to the point where the gap between the performance of children from well-off families and poor ones is now one of the biggest in the world, larger than in all other Western European countries or the United States.
While there is much agonizing about what has gone wrong, actually trying to fix the system is much harder. Most efforts to introduce reform tend to set off a political storm, and so far the relatively modest changes that have been introduced have failed to reverse the decline.
Here's what needs to be done:
1. Train teachers to teach
(Teachers meet before the start of term, but France should do more to train them to actually teach. Photo: AFP)
This may sound really obvious as a solution, but so far the French haven't cottoned on to it. French teachers are selected almost entirely on their knowledge of the subjects they will be teaching, and whether they will be any good in a classroom is neither here nor there. Teacher training colleges have such a bad reputation that they were shut down entirely by former President Sarkozy. Under President Hollande they have reopened, but it's not obvious that they are doing a better job.
Unlike in many other countries, teachers in France don't learn about how to manage a classroom with differing levels of ability. They certainly aren't trained to spot and help kids with learning difficulties. If the French school crisis is to be overcome, an essential starting point is to give teachers as much practical experience as possible before they're allowed into classrooms.
2. Stop being horrible to the kids
(Are teachers too strict in France? Photo: AFP)
For foreigners, one of the most striking aspects of the French school system is its sheer nastiness. Nursery schools are where you learn to sit down and shut up. Being creative is frowned upon. Making mistakes is unforgivable. The notion of positive reinforcement—that children will do better if they are encouraged—is long-established elsewhere but seems largely unknown here. Of course there are exceptions: some teachers are nurturing and very good.
But the pitiless nature of French schools is baked into the system. For example, a preferred course of action for children who are having trouble keeping up is to make them repeat the year. On average, 28 percent of French school children have to repeat at least one grade during their schooling. That's more than double the international average of 12 percent calculated by the OECD. There is a mass of scientific evidence, both in and outside France, that “redoublement” just demoralizes the pupils who are held back and doesn't help them.
3. Encourage progress and success
(The feared baccalaureate exam. Photo: AFP)
Again, this sounds blindingly obvious, but in France there are very few mechanisms for encouraging progress and success—and lots of ways to discourage them. Pupils are rarely sent to the school director to be congratulated; they only go to be punished. Graduation ceremonies are only held in a few private schools in France, mainly the international ones. Everywhere else, pupils customarily celebrate the end of their schooling by trashing their classroom.
The marking system out of 20 is an egregious offender. It's very hard, if not impossible, to get 20 out of 20 in most subjects—but very easy to get below 10, which is a failing grade. The biggest problem is that there are no incentives to improve. If you get a comfortable passing grade of say 13, and know that you'll never do better than 16, why bother to even try? For the baccalauréat, there's no selection on entry to get into French universities, so it makes no difference how well you do as long as you pass.
4. Turn school into a community
(Parents talk to Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, but are they involved enough in French schools?. Photo: AFP)
One of the most striking differences between schools in France and in the rest of the world is the lack of identification among pupils with the institution where they spend so much of their youth. PISA studies of 15 year olds in more than 60 countries ask pupils whether they “feel like they belong at school”, or whether they feel like outsiders. On average in the 34-country OECD (which is much of Europe, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan) about 81 percent of pupils say they feel they belong. In France, that figure is just 47 percent—by far the lowest.
The question of why the French are such exceptions has exercised sociologists, psychologists and education experts for years. Among the possible reasons: 1) Parents are almost completely shut out of school in France. They simply aren't welcome and have a very minimal role compared with other countries. 2) School is all about learning, to the exclusion of other activities. Sports teams are rare, extracurricular events and activities even rarer. So school is never a positive bonding experience. 3) Relations between teachers and pupils are on the whole worse in France than in many other countries, according to PISA data. (To understand why, see items 1 and 2 on this list).
5. Send the best teachers to the worst schools
(A map of France's priority education zones, many of which are in poor suburbs.)
For French policy-makers, the really worrisome part of the schools' crisis is the increasing failure and drop-out rates of pupils from poor areas, especially the banlieues on the edge of Paris, Marseille, Lille and other big cities. For three decades, the Education Ministry has experimented with “priority education zones” known in French by the acronym ZEP, which are allocated extra financial resources and are supposed to stop the rot, but have failed to do so.
The French should try a technique that has worked well elsewhere, including in Finland, Korea and China. This involves sending the best and most experienced teachers to the most difficult schools. Instead, under the centralized HR system run by the Ministry of Education, things are usually the other way round: the least experienced teachers, and quite often those who are just starting out, usually end up in these difficult schools.
6. End the highly-centralised micromanagement
(Should the Education Minister relinquish some control over schools? Photo: AFP)
The national education system is huge and highly centralized. With more than 1 million personnel, it's now bigger than the Russian Armed Forces—and it's run a bit like an army, in a rigid hierarchical manner that relies on command and control. Teachers are the grunts in the trenches who carry out orders, rather than respected professionals who are able to use their discretion and judgment. The curriculum, the timetable, the school hours, the allocation of finance and other resources and the decisions about which teachers should work in which schools are all decided by bureaucrats from the central authority, with the Minister of Education at its head.
The growing schools' crisis is powerful evidence that this structure needs a massive overhaul. In countries with more successful schools, the power is usually devolved to a regional, district or even more local level, where people on the ground who know the situation make key decisions, and then must account for the outcomes. In the current French system, there simply is no accountability. To start with, schools should be set up as more autonomous entities, with a director being able to pick a team of teachers and given freedom to make choices about the educational style and priorities.
For now this is extremely difficult in France; a school principal is more of a paper-shuffler than a leader, and has no authority over the teachers at the school. Moreover, if a school wants to hire a particular teacher, it needs an official exemption from current HR rules, which function on the basis of seniority.
7. Let a thousand schools bloom
(Is there a need for alternatives to classic French state schools? Photo: AFP)
Given the growing problems of the state system, parents are increasingly looking for alternatives. The main one is the network of private Catholic schools, which have about 2 million pupils, or 16 percent of the total. But the Catholic schools slavishly follow the national curriculum and have many of the same flaws as state schools. To find other methods, you really have to look quite hard.
There's a mini-boom of Montessori schools taking place, especially around Paris, and a few Waldorf ones here and there. In the past eight years, a network of new independent schools has started to take shape. But there's still nothing like the charter school movement in the US or the free schools in the UK and Sweden. All the “alternative”schools complain that they face immense bureaucratic obstacles, not least nasty visits from the national system's school inspectors who complain when these schools do things differently from the state ones.
Which is, of course, the whole point. As part of a bigger decentralization, these alternative schools should be encouraged. A good start would be to spin the Schools Inspectorate out of the Education Ministry, turning it into a separate agency (as is the case in the UK).
8. Make the curriculum more fun
(French pupils are easily bored it seems. Photo: AFP)
School can be boring everywhere, but in France the boredom factor is massive. Even in primary school, the national programme leaves little room for fun and creativity. Take French classes. Especially for primary school children, there are lots of stimulating books that are begging to be read, poems to be written, speeches to be given or plays to be acted out. But you'll look in vain in the French curriculum for more than a tiny amount of creative writing, theatre or reading for pleasure. Reading tends to be a collective class exercise done largely to teach grammar.
Already from the age of eight, children spend hours of class time struggling to identify grammatical and linguistic structures, which they then must learn to call by the correct technical name. (In the classroom, this is known as learning the “nature and function of words”). That's all well and good for those who want to go on to study linguistics in later life, but it's horribly tedious and repetitive for most, and, at worst, can put them off reading for life.
Things get even worse in secondary school, where there are endless mathematical rules, historical dates, chemical formulas and parts of speech to be learned by heart. The French curriculum badly needs an overhaul to make it a little more playful and less dry. Google can take care of much of the rote stuff.
9. Recognize that children can struggle with learning
(Children with learning difficulties are not given enough support. Photo: AFP)
One of the most cruel failings of the French system is the plight of children with learning disorders. These can range from mild dyslexia to full-blown dyspraxia (which inhibits basic motor skills like writing), or ADHD. French teachers simply aren't trained to identify these difficulties or to know how to begin helping the children afflicted with them.
France has some of the world's best-known neuroscientists who are investigating the links between how the brain functions and educational performance, including Stanislas Dehaene at the Collège de France, but unless teachers read up about it by themselves, they are singularly uninformed about cognitive science.
The result is often a nightmare for pupils with these learning difficulties, and years of anxiety and stress for their parents. Even children who don't have such serious problems can sometimes struggle with a subject or a topic without getting adequate support. As part of a revamped teacher-training system it's essential that teachers learn about these issues. Some should be able to specialize, as happens in other countries such as Finland.
10. Pupils should give feedback to their teachers
(Should pupils in France give marks to their teachers? Photo: AFP)
Another anomaly of French education that emerges from PISA and other international surveys is the pupils'sense of not having a voice. This is the case in the classroom where, by international standards, a relatively large proportion of students complain their teachers are not interested in, and rarely solicit, their opinions.
The most striking statistic concerns the degree of pupil feedback about their teachers, their lessons and the resources at their schools. In the PISA 2012 survey, just over 60 percent of pupils on average in the 34 OECD countries gave such written feedback. In New Zealand, that proportion is a huge 96 percent but even in countries including Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the UK, the figure is over 70 percent. In France, it's just 13 percent, which puts the French way at the bottom of the list of 34 countries, and by a long way.
Students need to be able to voice their opinions, and be listened to, if the French education system is ever to get out of its crisis. Teachers shouldn't be scared of pupil feedback, but should take note of it to improve their methods and effectiveness.
Peter Gumbel, a Paris-based British journalist and author, published a best-selling critique of the French school system in 2010, called “They Shoot School Kids, Don't They.” He has just published a sequel, “French School Without Tears”(in French: Ces écoles pas comme les autres), about alternatives to state schools.
You can also follow him on Twitter @petergumbel
This article was first published in August 2015.