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The following OECD assessment and recommendations summarise Chapter 3 of the Economic survey of France published on 27 June 2007.
The education system plays a key role in determining the rates of human capital formation and long term potential growth and the average standard of living. It also aims to contribute to a reduction in inequality, although this is difficult, since parental influence comes into play at every stage of a child’s development. Pre school education for all children does reduce a large proportion of inequalities and is highly developed in France, where all children are enrolled in public pre schools at age 3, and the beneficial effects on equity seem apparent up until secondary school. Inequalities between students appear to become more marked at secondary level.
Educational expenditure per student at secondary level is high compared with other OECD countries. Recent OECD studies do not suggest that the system has any major shortcomings, but there are nevertheless a number of countries that achieve better results with comparable resource levels. To improve results, it is first necessary to be able to measure them properly. Measurements of “value added” already exist and are publicly available for upper secondary schools (lycées), but these need to be improved and extended to lower secondary schools (collèges). Once these measures are available, it will be difficult for schools to avoid responding to any indications of poor performance.
A traditional feature of the French system has been the lack of autonomy given to school heads, at least in public schools. They have little say as to the recruitment of teachers or their pay, while the curriculum is drawn up in some detail at national level. Improving secondary school results will require either that the education authorities be more responsive when a school’s performance is inadequate, or that school heads be given more autonomy and made accountable for finding solutions, within the constraints of clear national standards for pupils’ achievement. It is difficult to know which approach is preferable, but the OECD PISA study findings would seem to show that it is the systems with the most autonomy that give the best results. Certain reforms and experiments are already giving schools more autonomy, and these programmes should be continued while at the same time gauging their effectiveness.
The role played by competition between public schools is insignificant. As a rule, following egalitarian principles, pupils are assigned to schools on the basis of set geographic catchment areas (the “carte scolaire”). In practice, a small proportion of well informed parents do succeed in getting round the constraints of their catchment area, and some upper secondary schools have managed to introduce more or less explicit selection for high ability children. Furthermore, given the geographic concentration of poverty and exclusion already mentioned, some schools have a very high proportion of difficult to handle children, and the social mixing that the carte scolaire is meant to achieve is limited. Both of these phenomena tend to undermine equity and lead to calls for relaxation of the role of the catchment areas and (which need not mean the same thing) greater school choice. Free school choice could worsen the problem of segregation, given the advantage of better off well informed families, and lead to cream skimming by schools. To avoid these problems, fundamental reforms would be needed to ensure that resources allocated to public schools reflect families’ choices. In the absence of such reforms, the “carte scolaire” should be retained.
In any event, the responsiveness of the current system, with major decision making concentrated in the bureaucracies of the regional education authorities needs to be enhanced and badly performing schools must be given incentives to improve. However, it is unlikely that the ultimate sanction, used in certain countries, of closing schools whose performance remains persistently very poor despite significant efforts to improve the situation, would be acceptable in France.
Passing the baccalauréat – the end of secondary school examination entitles students to enrol in the university course of their choice (though entry is automatic only for universities within the student’s académie of residence). The fact that there is no selection on admission (except in certain special cases) while education is essentially free is responsible for a series of dysfunctions. The best students seek to stand out by taking courses of study that involve selection, i.e. the classes préparatoires and then the grandes écoles. Others take shorter selective courses aimed directly at learning a profession, as in the higher institutes of technology (IUTs), often going on to take traditional university courses after avoiding the first two years. Graduates of these short courses are very well placed on the labour market, due to the ties established between IUTs and businesses. The IUTs were originally intended for students less well suited to longer and more theoretical university courses, but lack of places on the more expensive IUT courses means that many such students find themselves at university anyway. For want of relevant information, a high proportion enrol in courses with poor career opportunities and are at risk of dropping out and then find themselves badly placed in the labour market. Universities are now developing systems for providing information on course specific career prospects and are to advise students as to how compatible their choices are with the type of baccalauréat they passed and the grade achieved. This type of information is necessary and useful, but it will not be sufficient to achieve a significant improvement in the distribution of students among courses on the basis of their abilities. Given that the system is already implicitly selective in many ways, selection should be made explicit and introduced for admission to university. High school graduates should not be allowed to enrol in free courses which the university considers them highly unlikely to complete successfully.
Expenditure per student in higher education is low compared with that in other OECD countries, and tuition fees contribute only a small part of the cost of the services provided. Students are slow to complete courses, and the dropout rate is high. This situation is inequitable: the students who benefit the most are those who engage in the most advanced studies, since they will be in the best position on the labour market; their parents, in many cases, have the highest incomes. In addition, increasing the input of public resources will be difficult, given the foreseeable pressures on the budget. But higher tuition fees could provide funds to improve the quality of higher education. Such fees should be gradually but significantly increased and set at a level proportional to, though less than, the costs of courses. Equity in access to higher education could be ensured by a system of loans repayable on the basis of future incomes, if necessary augmented by a system of grants. If universities were more accountable and had more autonomy as recommended by the Cour des Comptes – competition to attract students would be stimulated, and they would be encouraged to make more effective use of these increased resources.
How to obtain this publication
The Policy Brief (pdf format) can be downloaded in English. It contains the OECD assessment and recommendations.The complete edition of the Economic survey of France 2007 is available from:
For further information please contact the France Desk at the OECD Economics Department at firstname.lastname@example.org. The OECD Secretariat's report was prepared by Paul O'Brien and Stéphanie Jamet under the supervision of Peter Jarrett.