Educational inequality in France

With a far more cohesive national education system than ours, it is tempting to assume that France is more successful in challenging social inequalities through schooling. In fact, French educators share many of our concerns about the limits of their system’s ability to overcome inequality.

This post draws on this account of a round table on ‘revealing the mechanisms of school inequality’ in the excellent French education website, Café Pedagogique:

Inequality is a constant in French education from infant school to sixth form college (lycee). Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less successful than their peers. Even if they have comparable results in the Bac they end up on less prestigious pathways.

Sociologist Francois Dubet opened the discussion. “Some countries have great social inequality combined with relatively small educational inequality. Other countries, of which France is one, have fairly small social inequality combined with great educational inequality. How can this paradox be explained?”

His answer is that behind the commitment to give all pupils the same thing, the offer is actually deeply unequal. “This is as a result of the elitist tradition of French schooling. It is good at producing elites but this priority distorts the whole system.” The highest achievers get the most and they generally come from the better off in society. “Our secondary schools are not all equal, they vary a great deal in terms of their social composition and catchment. Some offer Latin and Greek, some have younger teachers, some have more experienced teachers.”

Parental pressure is another source of inequality: “We’ve all had those conversations where the very same people who celebrate the virtues of our egalitarian republican school system are also prepared to admit to gaming the system in quite outrageous ways.” Everyone is chasing the better pathways: “German is better than English, Greek better than Latin, this school is better than that one…”

Research Director Agnes van Zanten from the Sciences Po university spoke about her research on university progression and inequalities in careers guidance based on 30 sixth form colleges (lycees) in the Paris region including more in-depth follow ups in 4 of the colleges with contrasting social profiles.

In the college where most students were from better off backgrounds, one and a half hours out of a two hour presentation about university progression were devoted to the most prestigious destinations (classes preparatoires / grandes ecoles). On the other hand, in the college with more disadvantaged students, students were mostly hearing about technical and sub-degree pathways. Similar inequalities were observed in the type of support and guidance available. The more prestigious institutions started talking to students about their options from year 11, in others this depended much more on teachers’ good will. “Combined with the fact that the better off parents are more informed and can do more to help their children, once again we are giving the most to those who have the most”.

Agnes van Zanten recommends that French colleges need to be given a statutory responsibility to provide careers advice and guidance and to provide specialist trained staff to do this and notes that France is behind many other countries in this respect.

The economist Elise Huillery, also from Sciences Po, spoke about her study of ‘social background and self-limitation’. She wanted to understand the process by which disadvantaged students with the same academic achievements demonstrate lower aspirations than their peers. In other words to what extent do young people internalise their disadvantage when they get careers advice. Her findings were “alarming”. From the start of Year 10, young people with similar achievement levels but from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to opt for the high status pathways (‘voie generale’ and ‘voie technologique’) and the more average their achievements, the wider this gap. Parental influence is also noticeable, with better off parents more likely to reject vocational pathways for their children, to the extent of being prepared for them to retake a year or move to another school. Elise Huillery adds: “In addition to parental resistance, one has to add the fact that teachers’ expectations also tend to be lower for disadvantaged students.”

According to Elise Huillery, this ‘self-limitation’ which disadvantaged students exercise originates from their own perception of the “heavy weight of their social class and the impact it has on their likely future success”. Even when their academic achievements are equal, their self-esteem is lower. She concludes: “these psychological factors are very important and need to be taken into account as part of careers information and guidance.”

Summing up, Marie-Aleth Grard, vice-chair of the ATD Quart Monde charity which works to end poverty and exclusion, referred to a recent report from the Economic Social and Environmental Council (CESE) on ‘Schooling and success for all’ published on 12th May. This clearly shows that the children of poorer families are more likely to experience failure from infant school onwards and to be steered towards special needs provision. 60% of students identified as having learning difficulties originate from the most disadvantaged families, only 6% from the most advantaged. She also pointed out that when students are referred to remedial education, a family report is commissioned, not something which would be needed to refer students to music or international options. This is a practice which the CESE report suggests should end.

The account of this discussion makes depressing reading and the inequalities faced by the French system are all too familiar to us in England. However, it does seem that because they have a more coherent national system, the French may be better placed to take action to address some of the worst inequities. Do we in our own highly atomised and marketised system have the necessary tools to rise to a similar challenge?

More from France:

Inspectors make the case for comprehensive colleges (January 2015)

What is learning? Philippe Meirieu (July 2014)

The digital college: learning from France (April 2014)


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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