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In search of educational 'égalité,' France revamps secondary schools

French education has been evolving ever more into a case of 'haves' and 'have-nots.' But finding the solution is proving contentious for educators and parents alike.

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    Teachers and education employees march on a sign reading "School" during a demonstration to protest government plans to reform the education system, in Paris, France, Tuesday, May 19, 2015.
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France has long prided itself on being a meritocratic system, where anyone – regardless of background – can get to the top with enough hard work. But for many, France’s education system is still highly elitist.

Children of politicians and business leaders fill the seats of the country’s most prestigious schools with the most competent teachers and, eventually, enter into the country’s top companies and political circles. Meanwhile, kids in the more disenfranchised, outlying suburbs – often children of immigrants with no French at home – are taught by young, inexperienced teachers and find their choices for top schooling limited.

Last week, President François Hollande’s government proposed a series of measures to overhaul the country’s secondary education system – to howls of protest from parents and educators across the country. Key among their complaints are plans to implement greater equality – plans, they argue, that would do just the opposite, and widen the gap between France's schoolchildren.

“This reform is far from creating equality,” says Albert-Jean Mougin, the national vice-president of the SNALC teacher’s union. “It is only going to cause increasing inequality between various establishments and more teaching ‘ghettos.’ Families who have the means will send their kids to the private system, creating ever more inequality.”

Decreasing equality

Peter Gumbel, a professor of journalism at Sciences Po whose book “They Shoot School Kids, Don’t They” analyzes the shortcomings of the French education system, says that as it stands now, France's educational system clearly aggravates the discrepancy between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

“If you grow up in the banlieu, your chances of finishing school are much smaller than if you grow up in [the wealthy suburb of] Neuilly,” says Mr. Gumbel. “And your chances of actually finishing well are even smaller. Therefore, getting access to the grandes ecoles [elite schools] or the top places in French society is getting smaller and smaller.”

In a 2009 study of students by the national statistics office, children of working class fathers had a 53 percent chance of passing the national exam at the end of high school, versus between 85 percent for children of managers or CEOs.

In addition, a 2012 Pisa study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on 15-year-olds showed that the French school system is becoming increasingly unequal, as compared to the US, where the gap is narrowing – even after taking into account America's expensive private school system.

The Pisa report, which compares international education standards, also showed that 17 percent of French students leave high school without securing a diploma, according to the same study.

Will reforms help?

New Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem says that the government's reforms, which could come into effect by September 2016, are an attempt to create more equality in the French school system. Changes include a reduction of classroom hours for Classics courses and a one-year postponement of second-language learning.

Under the current system, Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem says, second-language learning is only available to a handful of gifted students. Under her reforms, all students would have the option to take a second language, but one year later.

Vallaud-Belkacem also recognizes that the French school system – with its desks lined up in a row, and focus on lecture and memorization – can be incredibly dull.

Because, as she says, “it’s not fun enough,” part of the reform will make 20 percent of the curriculum “cross-disciplinary,” giving schools more autonomy in how they allocate teaching time.

Teacher’s unions say, however, that giving schools the choice of how they teach will create differences in the education students receive across the system.

“We’re going to see inequality among schools even in the same neighborhood,” says Mr. Mougin. Unions also worry that by reducing foreign language learning, middle schools will be “dumbed down,” and families who can afford to send their children to private schools will do so, to give them a more comprehensive education.

'Too centralized'

Despite vehement criticism of the government’s newest education reforms, Gumbel says that the education system is and has been in need of an overhaul.

“The real issue is that the system is much too centralized,” he says. “They try to micromanage everything and that just doesn’t work. What they need is to have much more autonomy at a school level and at a district level, like you have in most other countries where things work better.”

Sophie Vayssettes, a Pisa analyst at the OECD, says that some of France's European neighbors could provide guidance. Finland and Germany have passed successful reforms focusing on teachers: better training, appropriate salaries, and a push towards further schooling.

By contrast, teacher-training programs in France have dwindled since former President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through his own set of education reforms in 2008.

Gumbel says that attempted reforms by previous governments have accomplished little lasting improvement, owing in part to a constant seat swapping at the education ministry. “Education is not taken seriously as a policy matter,” he says. “They’re not attacking it properly. The Left comes in [to power] and undoes what the Right has done, and vice versa, and the kids end up as guinea pigs.”

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