French students most affected by social inequality, OECD finds

Christophe Archambault, AFP | Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem speaks at a press conference about the PISA results on December 6 at the OECD in Paris.

The OECD’s international scholastic study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), released on Tuesday found that students in France were most affected by their economic and social circumstances.


The highly anticipated PISA study, which is conducted once every three years, found that 15-year-old French students perform at around the OECD average in science, mathematics and literacy. The 6,000 French pupils tested in the spring of 2015 received a score of 495 points in science (493 is the OECD average), a ranking similar to that of Austria, the United States and Sweden.

Overall French scholastic scores have remained relatively steady since the 2006 study was carried out. But France has emerged as the OECD country where a pupil's social, economic and cultural environment has the greatest effect on academic performance.

In addition to the competency tests, PISA asks pupils to fill in a "context" questionnaire about their family backgrounds (including parents’ education levels and occupations) to quantify their economic, social and cultural status. An increase of one point on this index is accompanied by a 57-point increase in a French student’s performance in mathematics – equivalent to more than a year of education – compared with only a 38-point increase on average across the OECD.

France has the highest such differential in the 72 countries that took part in the 2015 survey.

Moreover, nearly 40 percent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in France are considered to be struggling, compared with only 34 percent for the OECD average. Only 2 percent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds rank among the country’s top performers (versus 3 percent for the OECD average).

Socioeconomic background affects a student's academic achievement in all countries, but some nations do better than others in mitigating this effect. Notably Canada, South Korea, Estonia, Finland and Japan have introduced policies to minimise the effects of social circumstance.

The study’s results showed that this gap had not widened in France since the release of the 2006 results, but nor had it shrunk in the decade since.

The children of immigrants, which account for 13 percent of 15-year-olds in France, also scored lower than their counterparts. Their science scores are 62 percentage points lower than those of non-immigrant children, whereas the children of immigrants in other PISA nations score 43 points below the OECD average.

Many nations have seen recent improvements in this regard, however. The differential in scores between children from immigrant families and their native counterparts decreased by 9 percent on average between 2006 and 2015 among OECD countries.

Results spark political blame game

Reacting to the PISA results at a press conference on Tuesday, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem urged France to stick with the reforms introduced by the Socialist government of François Hollande.

"By continuing to increase teacher recruitment and training – and ameliorating wages and working conditions – we will be able to shore up the weaknesses of the French education system,” she said. Vallaud-Belkacem said that the opposition Les Républicains party, by contrast, merely offers a continuation of the decline that the French school system has seen in recent decades.

France’s current policies “are in line overall with the recommendations that the OECD has made for the past 20 years", noted Eric Charbonnier, a French specialist in education at the OECD. Educational reforms are bringing about improvements "over the long term", he said.

Nevertheless, Vallaud-Belkacem came in for her share of criticism from members of Les Républicains.

MP Annie Genevard, in charge of education issues for the opposition, criticised Vallaud-Belkacem on Twitter for the Socialist government's “failures”. "France retains its sad title as champion of social inequalities at school," she wrote. 

Les Républicains Senator Bruno Retailleau said that France was on the wrong path and that it was “urgent” for France’s approach to education reform to change course.

“Najat Vallaud-Belkacem’s reforms, following in a straight line from past errors, have only exacerbated these inequalities,” he said in a statement on his website. “It is the most disadvantaged children who are the first victims.”

“There is an urgent need for a return to common sense,” he said, adding: “The poor test results of French children are one of the greatest failures of the left’s good intentions.”

The proportion of students in France who are exceptionally high achievers remained stable between 2006 and 2015 at 8 percent (the OECD average) while its percentage of high-performing students was at 21 percent, slightly higher than the OECD average of 19 percent.

Predictably, the OECD found that students from countries that did not offer regular instruction in science scored poorly in this subject – around 6 percent of students in OECD countries said they did not receive regular science lessons. The problem was particularly acute in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Slovakia and Taiwan.

The study suggested that the key to success in teaching science was how much time was devoted to the subject, rather than how well-equipped or well-staffed the departments were. Moreover, the report found that large amounts of homework did not significantly help students master the sciences.

"School systems where students spend more time learning after school, by doing homework, receiving additional instruction or in private study, tend to perform less well in science," the study said.

Students in Singapore ranked higher in all three disciplines rated by the PISA survey. Its students scored an average of 556 points, compared with the average OECD score of 493. Canada, Estonia, Finland and Japan rounded out the top five countries in the rankings.

Across the OECD countries, more than 20 percent fall short of what it calls "baseline proficiency" for 15-year-old students. Only in Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Macao, Singapore and Viet Nam have nine out of 10 students mastered these basic skills.

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