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To reform schools, let’s start with culture

In terms of education, international rankings follow one another and are similar for France, pointing to a strong social determinism and a deterioration in performance. What should we do? Creating measures for children from modest backgrounds, reviewing the school map, enhancing the value of the teaching profession… Nathalie Chusseau formulates her proposals.

Over the past two decades, the correlation between socioeconomic background and the academic performance of 15-year-olds has been much stronger in France than in most other OECD countries. According to the 2022 Pisa survey, socioeconomic status in France predicts 21% of the variation in students’ performance in mathematics (15% on average in the OECD), and 17% of the variation in reading comprehension (13% on average).

At the same time, this strong social determinism is accompanied by a deterioration in pupils’ performance in all the fundamental subjects assessed (reading comprehension, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy).

Catastrophic results for France

In terms of scientific skills, the TIMSS study, which has measured the level of CM1 and 4e students in mathematics and science every four years since 1995, reports catastrophic results for France. In mathematics, the average score dropped by 47 points in 1995 and 2019.

France is also characterized by a decreasing intergenerational social mobility of education, and chronic underinvestment in primary education, which does not reduce initial cultural differences related to family origin.

Finally, the French mapping of schools and colleges according to their social position index shows a concentration of children from modest backgrounds within the same establishments, and moreover within low-income municipalities or neighbourhoods.

Skills to modernize businesses

This situation is obviously problematic in several respects. First, our capacity for innovation and our industry cannot progress without scientific skills. A low level of skills prevents companies from modernising due to a lack of skilled employees and does not allow them to prepare for the digital and energy transitions.

By hindering the chances of success for children from modest backgrounds, society is depriving itself of essential talents. Indeed, skills play a central role in innovation, reindustrialisation, adaptation to globalisation, growth and full employment. Secondly, it seems obvious, but there is no future without quality training for young people, in order to enable them to fully and sustainably integrate into society, and to face the challenges that await them.

The education system needs to be reformed. Before focusing on the knowledge to be transmitted, it is necessary to teach students who do not possess it the skills necessary for its acquisition, namely the cultural prerequisites.

Promoting social diversity

It is therefore necessary to introduce education policies targeted at children from modest backgrounds from an early age. This is what Germany, Poland and Portugal did in the 2000s, which led these countries to significantly improve the academic performance of their students while reducing social determinism.

These measures must be accompanied by an increase in public spending on primary education, and a reduction in the number of pupils per class, not only in priority education areas where this policy has proven its effectiveness, but also in all neighbourhoods where a population of modest origins is concentrated.

The school map must take into account the social geography of neighbourhoods in order to promote social diversity and enhance peer effects. Social diversity must also be developed in private schools. Finally, the teaching profession must be revalued. This is obvious and we will be debating it at the next Economic Meetings in Aix-en-Provence.

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