Is the French School System in a Crisis?


Article by: Anonymous

The French school system has been subjected to much criticism recently. The situation has gone from bad to worse in many French public schools, and the government has failed to turn things around, according to Peter Gumbel, an expert on the French education system, writing in the New York Times.

Consider the facts – 25% of students fail to complete their secondary education. A significant number of students struggle with math and elementary reading and writing. There is a wide performance gap between children from upper-middle-class families and those from poor and working-class families. These discrepancies are even worse than the gap that exists in the USA.

The government has introduced some reforms, but most of them have been nothing more than minor changes which have failed to have any real impact.

Teachers are a major political vote bank in France, and no government wants to alienate them. However, the teachers are a part of the problem. Teacher strikes for better pay are frequent in France, despite the fact that French public school teachers enjoy many privileges compared to the rest of the population.

The teachers’ unions exercise too much power and influence, and they have managed to bargain for some benefits for their members successfully. A teaching job in France is primarily a job for life; there is no competition and no pressure to perform. This lack of competition and pressure to perform means the most significant opposition to any significant reforms in the education system comes from teachers, as they would not like their privileged position to be impacted in any form or manner.

Consider this: The most prominent teachers’ union in France called for a significant protest rally and a day-long strike when the government tried something as harmless as modernizing the middle school curriculum. That goes to show how much resistance there is to any reform in the French school system, which explains in part why the system is now falling apart.

However, it is unfair to blame the teachers alone for the current mess in the French education system. By European standards, French teachers are poorly paid. They are not given any real incentives for improving the academic performance of students. They suffer from a severe lack of motivation but want the status quo to be maintained as they do not want their privileges to be affected.

All this is not to say that the entire French school system is in a crisis – for those who can afford to pay the high fees, many expensive schools in France provide excellent education with highly qualified, super-motivated teachers. These schools are described as “égalité” and are targeted at the elite sections of the society.

These schools for the elite are a new development in a country where the best schools have always been public and free. The rise of schools for the children of the privileged has only reinforced the divide in the society, with kids from such schools getting privileges of which other children can only dream. These privileges for the well-off has created wealthy kids vs. poor kids divide in a country that is already grappling with socially severe inequities.