France and PISA: spurring reform?

©AFP/Pascal Pavani

The results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, which assesses competence of 15-years-old students in maths, reading and science in 65 countries, delivered a rather unsatisfactory report card for France. PISA lands at a time when the debate on the future of the French educational system has heated up, with key reforms in the pipeline. Will the 2012 PISA survey help? We asked Education Minister Vincent Peillon to highlight the main lessons.

What do you make of the PISA study, and what is France doing in particular to improve student performance?

The PISA 2012 findings confirm the trends that have been emerging for several years now from other national and international assessments of the state of the French education system: despite a massive opening-up of secondary education, we have been unable to help all of our students reach a satisfactory level. Too many students are experiencing difficulties–and that proportion has even grown over the past 10 years–and what our schools are doing is worse than perpetuating social inequalities; they are actually exacerbating those inequalities.

Over the past year and a half we have undertaken a profound overhaul of our school system, with the aim of reducing inequalities and promoting successful schooling for all. PISA 2012 corroborates our analysis and highlights the fact that we are heading in the right direction; in fact, it prompts us to speed up our reforms.

To stop the declining average level of our students, the first task is to take care of those in greatest difficulty. It is important to understand that the attention paid to students experiencing the greatest difficulties does not adversely affect those who do well–quite the opposite. Indeed, the best students do not need others to fail in order to succeed. Moreover, the teaching methods that have been developed to guide those struggling to learn are a benefit to all. PISA comparisons bear this out: the systems that are most egalitarian, that are most effective in combating forms of social determinism and differential educational levels, are in many cases the ones that perform the best–I am thinking here of Canada or Finland.

We have therefore decided to concentrate the new resources at our disposal on combating difficulty at school and social inequalities. We know that seeds of academic failure are sown when basic skills are not assimilated during early years. Therefore we are assigning top priority to primary schools. This priority has led to several thousand new primary-school teaching positions, making it possible to institute innovative and effective teaching methods: for example, we are allocating more teachers than classes in some schools to monitor students’ progress as closely as possible; we are increasing the enrolment of children under 3 years of age, to foster language learning and prepare very young children for the acquisition of basic skills, especially in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

What teacher-specific measures could make a difference?

The OECD emphasises this in all of its reports: well-trained teachers are the main key to success. We are therefore re-orienting teacher training towards pedagogical skills so that new teachers can ease gradually into their profession. To get results more quickly, we are also devoting substantial effort to continuing training, using digital technology in particular. In addition, the current curricula do not enable teachers to ensure that their students master the most basic core skills. Henceforth, curricula will be formulated in cycles, and their complete overhaul will make them coherent and effective tools which teachers can put to practical use, rather than catalogues of knowledge and skills to be acquired. And the ongoing discussions on the teaching profession will lead to better recognition of teachers’ commitments, within the schools, to their students’ success.

What are the main virtues of the French education system, and how do you plan to leverage them?

You are right to draw attention to this; our system has some great strengths which warrant recognition and should be developed. I am thinking in particular of our nursery schools, which need backing in their missions. Clearly, our policy towards schooling in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is facing many difficulties, but it constitutes an essential sphere of innovation; we shall be improving working conditions for the educators concerned. This is a project that I shall be launching next January. Lastly, we have achieved highly encouraging results in combatting early school-leaving, which we expect to see continuing.

See how France got on in the 2012 PISA survey at

See also


© OECD Observer Q4 2013

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