The French school, champion of social inequalities?

Until the dawn of the twenty-first century, we could believe, and some believed, that we had the best school in the world. With the PISA surveys implemented under the aegis of the OECD from 2000, this belief collapsed. The performance of young French children, compared to neighboring countries, is certainly average, and we are in fact little different from others if we take into account the margins of error of these surveys. On the other hand, we distinguish ourselves by the fact that with us, the performances of the pupils are much more than elsewhere dependent on their family environment of origin. So what ?

To particularly in our country, that there are social inequalities at school is taken for granted: the sociologists Bourdieu and Passeron and a whole relatively fruitful sociology of education1 amply describes how inequalities in success are combined - students being unequal in the face of school requirements, and strategies which amplify them, carried by parents who are more or less familiar with school matters. But if international research shows that there are educational social inequalities in all countries, they are more or less strong, which calls into question the relative fatalism that prevails in France.

International comparisons

What is particularly intriguing, given international comparisons, is that there is no automatic relationship between the extent of social inequalities between families and the extent of social inequalities in school. Admittedly, the model of the reproduction of social inequalities by the school is not an invention of Bourdieu and Passeron; it is true in a number of countries, when we observe both strong income inequalities and strong educational inequalities: this is particularly the case in the United States.

This also applies, conversely, when low educational and social inequalities are combined, mainly in the Scandinavian countries. But there are a priori less expected situations. Either - in Canada or Japan in particular - educational inequalities appear low while income inequalities are much more marked, or, on the contrary, educational inequalities are quite high while income inequalities are relatively moderate, which is the case for France. This suggests that the school institution is not a pure transmission belt: the school can accentuate or, on the contrary, attenuate the consequences of social inequalities on educational inequalities.

What egalitarian / unequal systems do ...

Even if the comparison is not correct - what the pupils know does not depend only on the school - it would be guilty not to put into perspective the performance of our neighbors and the organization of their school. Among the characteristics of the systems associated with varying degrees of social inequalities in school, one of the most constant is the length of the common core during which all the pupils are educated together. Conversely, countries with courses from the age of 14 (or even earlier) systematically have the most unequal school systems while most often having mediocre average performance. Selecting students early is therefore not, far from it, a guarantee of efficiency.

Inequalities among students also depend on the extent of social and educational segregation between schools, which in turn is a function of both school policies and the level of spatial segregation. School and social segregation between schools, always a vector of strong inequalities, can itself result from educational policies, such as the free choice of school. In contrast, in the less unequal systems, the educational offer is homogeneous, the choice of school is regulated, decentralization is supervised and the share of the private sector is low.

In the middle of the ford

These observations, recalled in broad outline, provide a better understanding of the situation of the French school. Since the Haby reform (1975), we have established a common core in college, which is a priori favorable factor. But we remained in the middle of the ford, while in the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon countries, from the 1960s, “comprehensive schools” without a course developed and with programs centered on what students must master at the end of the year. 'mandatory school. With us, the programs (and also the teachers) of the old high schools have been transferred, admittedly with some adjustments, to the college, and the pupils are rarely educated in these heterogeneous classes provided for by the "single college", even if the old courses have faded away.

Moreover, even if international research shows its ineffectiveness, repetition - admittedly on the decline - is still widespread, and it is difficult to "treat" differently the pupils in difficulty, more often from disadvantaged social backgrounds. This pulls the average level down and social inequalities up in surveys such as PISA which compare 15-year-old students since these, in our country, can be educated at different educational levels (55% are in class of 2nde, the others are still in college).

Relations between teachers and pupils

Other factors also play a role, such as our system of grandes écoles - a lock on access to the elite - which toughens competition from secondary school, and promotes very academic training content: you have to study in high school which will be useful. in preparatory classes, and in college which will be useful in high school, and also make the strategic choices that will allow you to be in the best classes and the best establishments. This is worth to us a high school more expensive than elsewhere (so many options which make the play of these strategies are numerous), and in the end a primary education, much less richly endowed than the higher levels whereas it is at this point. level that freezes inequalities.

Another French specificity concerns the training of teachers: while it was even imagined a few years ago to completely eliminate it, it remains today dominated by disciplinary training, in a context where pedagogical questions are readily disregarded. . Not unrelated no doubt, relations between teachers and pupils are much worse in France than elsewhere, whereas we now know that the well-being of pupils is not contradictory, on the contrary, with their educational success. in these different areas, we have control and real possibilities for improvement ...

This column is the first of two columns on educational inequalities.

Last published work: “Ten proposals for changing schools”, Seuil, 2015, with François Dubet.The Conversation

Marie Duru Bellat, University professor emeritus in sociology, Sciences Po - USPC

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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