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Zooming In On French Education 

Zooming In On French Education 
 Baptiste Larseneur
Resident Fellow and Project Manager - Education

National and international evaluations have highlighted the challenges of the French education system for over 20 years. However, the measures taken between 2017 and 2021 have set a major overhaul in motion. In the short term, the priority that the current administration has given to primary education makes it difficult to appreciate the effect of the reforms undertaken on improving the performance of French schools. The measures implemented will rather bear fruit and help reduce overall school failure in the longer term. 

With less than three months to go until the French election, this article is part of a series that looks into the achievements and drawbacks of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term. The extended analysis in French can be found here

Key Notions:

  • CP, CE1, Collège, Lycée - The French schooling system begins with Cours préparatoire (preparatory classes commonly known as CP) at 6 years old, followed by Cours élémentaire 1re année (CE1), equivalent to 2nd grade, CE2, CM1, and CM2. Middle school, or l'enseignement secondaire, is known as collège. This is followed by le lycée, or High School, which can either take the form of vocational training (comprising a CAP or BEP diploma), the Baccalauréat technologique, for technical studies or the Baccalauréat général, after which students can go to university and pursue higher education. 
  • L’éducation prioritaire - The priority education policy aims to correct the impact of social and economic inequalities on academic success by strengthening the pedagogical and educational system in schools and establishments in territories that encounter the greatest social disadvantages. The Ministry of Education classifies establishments as REP (réseau d’éducation prioritaire - priority education network) according to a "social index", which considers the respective rates of (1) disadvantaged socio-professional categories, (2) scholarship students, (3) students residing in a priority neighborhood, and (4) pupils having repeated a year before 6th grade. 
  • Conseil d'évaluation de l'École - The Independent School Evaluation Council evaluates the relevance and consistency of public education policies. By undertaking a comprehensive evaluation of schools and institutions, it aims to promote better integration into higher education, the professional world and civic society, and increase the success and well-being of students, staff, and other actors within the educational community.
  • The "dédoublement" process - This system is intended to increase students’ access to education in REPs by reducing the number of pupils per classroom.

Key Figures: 

  • From the start of the 2020 school year, 1,094 "networks" make up the priority education distribution. Each network is associated with a middle school and one or more primary schools, whose pupils are mostly from working-class backgrounds, and encounter academic and/or social difficulties. 
  • 730 collèges are classified as REP, and 364 are classified as REP+. 
  • In 2021, more than 2.7 million students were enrolled in higher education in France. Since 1980, the number of students has more than doubled. 
  • French public universities are financed by the State and welcomed more than 1.6 million students in 2021, of which the majority were following a degree course in Art and Humanities. In comparison, only 796,100 students were registered at university in France in 1980. 
  • Despite having 620 universities in 2018, France appears to be struggling when it comes to reaching the ranks of top best universities in Europe. Public spending could explain the difficulties French universities have, compared to their British counterparts for example. Even though more training is now provided in English, the French language could also have been an obstacle to attracting international prestige. However, France welcomed more than 50 thousand students from the European Union and the European Economic Area in 2012.

Evaluating the French education system:

  • Over the past 20 years, national and international analysts have expressed concern over the state of the French education system. The measures adopted by Emmanuel Macron’s government between 2017 and 2021 represent a significant overhaul. The government’s prioritization of primary education makes it difficult to appreciate the impact of reforms on school performance in the short term. However, the scope and formulation of these reforms are clear and appear to be widely understood by the general public. On a medium to long term scale, the measures implemented should reduce school failure and its associated social inequalities. 
  • In order to evaluate the success of Emmanuel Macron’s education policy since 2017, there are several structural aspects that should be recalled.
  1. The rapid implementation of structural reforms: 10,800 new classes have been initiated in less than three years, with the dédoublement reduction of CP and CE1 classes. This class reduction policy has been equally applied to kindergarten. Furthermore, the baccalaureate, previously considered ‘unreformable’, has been effectively transformed in two years.
  2. The government’s prioritization of elementary school - a dominant backdrop for school dropouts and socio-economic inequalities - was founded on in-depth, scientific research, paving the way for an ambitious, coherent and continuous education policy throughout the five-year term. By 2022, around 1 million children will have benefited from the policy of dédoublement classes in priority education networks, and from caps on class sizes outside of priority education. The REP+ schools have particularly benefited from the concentration of resources during this term, with the implementation of the dédoublement policy on the one hand, and the commitment of gradually improving staff compensation on the other. This policy, which aims to serve the least privileged students and schools, has further made it possible to strengthen the appeal of teaching positions. 
  • The priority given to the most disadvantaged students has been implemented through a series of educational and social measures, including the €1 dining hall meal, school breakfasts, the Wednesday Plan (a framework that offers children a high quality educational leisure facility every Wednesday), apprenticeship vacation schemes, and the introduction of the "Homework done at school" scheme. The latter consists in free accompanied study time for pupils at their school, aiming to provide them with a calm and favorable environment for them to complete their homework. 
  • The government’s dual-strategy of prioritizing the most vulnerable students and creating unique pathways for the most successful ones has resulted in the re-establishment of bilingual and European pathways during secondary school. It has also led to the teaching of Greek and Latin, as well as the introduction of several specialization classes during high school.
  • To improve the management of France’s education system, evaluation criteria have been introduced through several measures: the introduction of standardized evaluations in the first years of each education level (CP, sixth grade, 10th grade) in order to measure student progress, the creation of the School Evaluation Council, whose role is to independently evaluate the organization and results of school education, and the publication of statistics on the employment rate of young people coming from the vocational pathway.
  • Finally, the government’s prioritization of education has been evident in consistent budget increases, as well as the President’s speech on October 14, 2020, which expressed the imperative to keep schools and educational establishments open during the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Many reforms and actions have been undertaken during this presidential term, yet the capacity for France’s educational system to evolve has undoubtedly been weakened by Covid-19. A significant proportion of the reforms was therefore achieved before March 2020, simultaneous to the president’s management of the public health crisis. 
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