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Why 'streaming' in French schools is causing controversy (and strikes)

The Local France
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Why 'streaming' in French schools is causing controversy (and strikes)
A French state school classroom (Photo by MYCHELE DANIAU / AFP)

An initiative by the French government to introduce streaming by academic ability in schools has sparked controversy and even a strike amongst teachers and unions in France.


The policy of 'streaming' (or 'tracking') which involves separating kids based on aptitude and putting them into different classes is not common practice in the French state school system.

However, starting in September 2024, pupils in 6ème and 5ème (the first two years of collège, or middle school) will be streamed into groups "based on the needs of students", according to the decree published in France's Journal Officiel on Sunday.

By 2025, it will be extended to the upper two years of collège (4ème and 3ème).

In response, teachers and teaching unions have come out against the proposal, with many criticising it as unequal and an attempt at a tri social (social sorting). 

A teachers' strike on Tuesday listed the plans as among the causes of the walk-out.

What does the proposal entail exactly?

France's education ministry says the changes will only apply to mathematics and French courses - for all other subjects children will remain in their regular classes.

Pupils will still spend periods of time - between one to ten weeks a year - with their general (non-streamed) class, while other periods will be in specialised groups. Pupils will be able to change groups throughout the school year, depending on their progress.

While the French Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, had reportedly been planning for several months to introduce new programmes to improve mathematics and reading skills, the initial announcement came shortly after the results of the OECD's international student assessment report (the PISA) were released in December.

While several countries recorded decreases in student achievement in maths, reading and science drop due to the pandemic, France saw a significant change.

The French PISA mathematics score went down by 21 percentage points between 2018 and 2022, and its reading comprehension score dropped by 19 points.


Between 2012 and 2022, the drop in maths achievement was widespread across France, and as of 2022 almost a third (29 percent) of pupils were struggling with maths, with just seven percent judged to be doing ‘very well’.

READ MORE: How do private schools work in France?

Why is streaming controversial in France?

While streaming might be standard practice in the US and UK, in France pupils learn together without any level-groups for the majority of their education.

Later, in upper-secondary school (lycée) they are separated into vocational or academic schools, based in part on a recommendation (proposition d'orientation) from the class council (conseil de classe).

A large part of the opposition to academic tracking is the claim that it opposes the French principles of equality and solidarity.

The theory is that the more able children help the weaker ones in mixed classes - but there is also a deeper belief that schools should prepare children to take their place as citizens of the republic, and the classroom should therefore be a mirror of the world, with students interacting with all ability groups. 


Sophie Vénétitay, a representative from the Snes-FSU, which is the main teachers' union for secondary schools, told French media: "In spirit, level groups go against the idea that pupils succeed by working together and being confronted with diversity.

"Now we're going to be sorting out pupils from the age of 11, by assigning them to their academic level, which is often correlated with their social background."

"Those who are most against it are the teachers and teaching unions", John Lichfield, veteran journalist and French politics, told The Local.

"For whatever reason, French teaching unions and teachers don't like the idea of streaming (...) some people say it makes more work for them, others say it has to do with a deep, republican belief in the equal nature of the French system and that all pupils should be treated equally and be given equal chances.

"[They would say] if you stream them, then you are declaring some as ineffective from the beginning."

However, the PISA results found that France already stands out among OECD countries for a large gap in ability between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, particularly in mathematics.

For example, well-off kids scored 113 points higher than disadvantaged pupils in the PISA mathematics exam. This is above the OECD average of 94 points in difference based on socioeconomic status, and teachers worry that tracking could exacerbate these existing inequalities.

For many teachers and unions, the initiative does not address more pressing concerns related to staffing shortages and low wages.

Jean-Paul Delahaye, the former head of school education (directeur général de l'enseignement scolaire), told Franceinfo: "In practical terms, I put myself in the shoes of a principal. Three groups means three rooms: where are they going to find the space? The teachers also need to be able to coordinate with each other, so will there be time in their timetable for consultation?"


How do parents feel?

There has also been pushback from parents' associations, like the FCPE (Association de Parents d'élèves adhérents). The chairman, Grégoire Ensel, told French daily Ouest France that sorting “devalues the self-confidence" of pupils.

He said: "The best will continue to progress and the least good will continue to drop out. In reality, it's the overcrowded classes that are holding back academic success."

READ MORE: Explained: Why is school uniform controversial in France?

The Local reached out to readers to hear their perspectives on the proposal, and the results were somewhat split.

One parent, Louise, told us she supports introducing streaming to French schools. She said "I think it's a good idea - everyone can learn something rather than having some in the middle who understand enough, some students who already know everything and are bored, and others who are struggling and cannot keep up."

Louise added: "we were asked if our daughter would like to skip a year and we said no as we did not like the idea of sending a ten year old to college. She finds school easy so would benefit from being in a "set".


"[Our] daughter is currently in CM1 in public school. She has been asked to skip a year every year since petite section but we have always refused. She will go to private school for college as the level is higher than our local public college."

Another parent, Helen Shaw, told The Local agreed with the proposal to add streaming.

She said: “My 12 year old son has a learning disability, and attends a school specially adapted for motor-disabled children. My son is capable of learning, but not as quickly as others, so I fully support this type of scheme, the aim being to prepare him as well as possible for the brevet exam in 4 years' time.”

However, others were more sceptical.

One reader, Seb Rocco, said that "[streaming] doesn't particularly help the best achievers and harms the others."

He added a bit about his personal experience with the French school system. "My daughter was bullied because of her leaning difficulties - this would've just made it worse," he said.

One former French school teacher, Jean Lhuillery, responded: "It would be interesting if there were enough teachers and fewer pupils. It can't be organised without these conditions (...) It all depends on the above conditions."


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