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French students still affected by social inequality despite egalitarian ‘façade’

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France is still one of the countries where student performance is most affected by their economic and social background, the OECDs Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found in its survey published on Tuesday. It confirms an old tendency: although France's public school system is feted abroad, it does very little to solve social inequalities at home.

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Since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) started its scholastic study – the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – in 2000, France has always been a poor student when it comes to tackling inequality in school.

And this year's PISA survey, published Tuesday, is no different: according to the OECD, French student performance is still more affected by their social and economic situation than most of their foreign counterparts.

The survey, based on two-hour tests taken by 600,000 15-year-old students, also revealed that teenagers from four large Chinese regions (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang) for the first time outperformed their contemporaries in Western nations and shared the top rankings with Singapore in reading, mathematics and science.

According to this study which is published every three years, the performance of 15-year-old French students is very slightly superior to the average of other developed countries, figuring on the same level as Germans, Belgians, British and Portuguese.

But French "underprivileged students are overrepresented when it comes to pupils in difficulty", OECD analyst Pauline Givord told AFP. Around 20 percent of privileged students are among the best performing in reading. A figure that drops to 2.4 percent among underprivileged ones.

"France is one of the countries where the students' social background most determines their performance, and we are talking about 15-year-olds," Julien Grenet, an economics of education professor and researcher at the Paris School of Economics, a research and higher education public institution, told FRANCE 24.

Record number in private schools

This reality contrasts sharply with France's proud image of its free public education system. "There is a façade where the French system fights inequalities, because all schools are supposed to be organised in the same way.

"But this façade does not really hide inequalities between institutions: you can have two secondary schools, which are organized in the very same way, but that in fact have students from completely different social backgrounds. And who will perform completely differently," Grenet said.

"This inequality is most striking during high school," which includes students aged 11 to 15, Grenet said. "Parents consider this a key moment that can determine if their child manages to get into a prestigious secondary school and renowned university afterwards, and so on. So they build strategies and dig deep into their pockets. In Paris, around 35 percent of teenagers attend private schools, which is a record for a capital city."

'Very little has been done'

According to the OECD, socio-economic inequalities in France have not worsened over the past 10 years. "But their level is still worrying," OECD analyst Eric Charbonnier told AFP. "The government must make this battle a priority."

"Very little has actually been done," Grenet said. Since 2012, French governments have tried to solve the issue: Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has decided to double the number of CP and CE1 classes (5 to 7-year-olds) in certain neighbourhoods, lowering the students-per-teacher ratio.

"This is positive, but it will take years until we see its results. And nothing has been done at the high school level: on the contrary, this government has not maintained the precedent government's efforts to tackle inequality," he said.

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