FRANCE. As far as education is concerned, it’s not a question of making small adjustments. Radical changes must be made, following six main principles.
Education is the main issue for democracies and the most effective way of getting out of the crisis they are going through – a crisis of a gravity that has not been seen since the 1930s. It is the key factor in productivity, which depends on human capital in a knowledge-based economy, in social cohesion, in reducing inequality, and in making people trust their institutions.
The collapse of the French education system is a major hindrance to rebuilding the country, and one of the most disturbing weaknesses for the future. It is a systemic crisis. Since 2000, France has slipped back from 15th and 11th in the Pisa rankings in reading and mathematics to 23rd and 25th respectively. 40% of children in the first year of secondary school (age 11) no longer have basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. There is also a marked fall in standards in higher education, where the fall in the quality of research has meant a drop from 5th to 12th place in world ranking with regard to contributions to the most frequently referenced publications.
The reasons for the mess that the French education system has got into do not lie in a lack of resources but in their misuse within an obsolete organization. France spends 6.7% of its GDP on education, which is higher than average for developed countries. But schools take up 5.2% of GDP as opposed to 4.9% in OECD countries, whilst only 1.5% goes on higher education with its 2.7 million students, as opposed to 1.7% for the UK and 2.5% for the USA. The real reasons, as the Cour des Comptes [the Court of Audit] has pointed out, are the paralyzing centralization of the system, the lack of autonomy for individual establishments, the archaic and rigid system governing teachers’ status, and in inadequate testing.
The reforms carried out during Emmanuel Macron’s presidency have had contrasting effects and have tended to make the situation worse. Two of them have been excellent: the facility for children in primary schools in deprived areas to repeat their first years, and the spectacular relaunch of apprenticeships. However, these cannot compensate for the disastrous secondary school reform that split classes and ruined the teaching of maths and science: only 37% of children in their final year of high school are still studying maths, which has fallen by 18% in terms of hours taught in secondary education as a whole. After abandoning the humanities and ancient languages, all the areas of excellence have been liquidated. This has had the effect of drying up recruitment for the classes préparatoires [preparatory classes for the grandes écoles, see below], and therefore auguring the eventual disappearance of the grandes écoles [higher education institutes that are more prestigious than universities]. Lastly, teachers have been given considerable salary increases without any increase in working hours, hours of presence, or time spent in team-working.
The extent of the damage to the educational system have finally come to light after having been concealed for years. More and more teachers are resigning, which worsens the growing problem of attracting new talent, particularly in science subjects. The economy’s productivity, and thus its growth, is condemned to stagnate whilst one out of two jobs in the the private sector is filled by someone who is underskilled. Illiteracy and innumeracy abound, accentuating France’s disengagement with the democracies of America, Asia and Northern Europe.
It’s not a question of making small adjustments. Radical changes must be made, following six main principles:
- A programming act that combines more effective spending on schools and investment in higher education to the tune of 2% of GDP, in return for the loosening up of enrolment regulations;
- Recognition that schools and universities should have full autonomy;
- Removal of the 20% ceiling (in terms of a percentage of all educational facilities) placed on private schools at all levels, as private schools produce far better results and yet recruit from the same pool of teachers and over the same geographical area;
- Better training for teachers, and annualization of working hours
- Reintroducing appreciation of work, excellence and merit;
- Defense of academic freedom, as defined by respect for knowledge as the objective, and for the scientific method.
Leibniz rightly said that “education is able to do everything” and that the one who masters education can change the world. Education is, more than ever, the most productive investment for a country and the best way of putting France back among the major powers of the 21st century.
(Column published in Le Figaron 10th January 2022)