Fifteen years ago, the OECD started evaluating education systems worldwide by testing the knowledge and competences of 15 year-old students through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Right from very first PISA exercise in 2000, we noted that the although the results for France were around the OECD average, they revealed a system where children’s socio-economic status had a disproportionate influence on their school grades, and where children from disadvantaged backgrounds did not receive enough support.
The OECD PISA 2015 results are now in. Even if France’s performance hasn’t deteriorated since the last series in 2012, it has not improved much compared to previous rounds either. France’s results for science and mathematics are around the OECD average, while reading comprehension is slightly above average.
Nonetheless, the French system is still markedly two-tier. The number of high-achieving students is stable and higher than the OECD average, but lower levels are not improving, with a proportion of 15 year-olds in difficulty in science higher than the OECD average.
According to PISA 2015, students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have four times less chance of succeeding than the others. This is not only a human tragedy. It is also a brake on economic development, which can only be solid and sustainable when it is inclusive.
Reconciling educational excellence and success for all is not just the best way to tackle social inequalities at the root, but also to obtain good results.
Results from around the globe illustrate various best practices applied to improve the equity and performance of the education system. Portugal’s TEIP programme for example (Priority Intervention Education Territories) targets investment in geographical regions where the population is socially disadvantaged and where school drop-out rates are higher than the national average. Singapore, first in the PISA science rankings, has a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that includes in particular the contribution to students’ personal and academic development, as well as the quality of parent-teacher relations.
In short, the capacity of a system to help students in difficulty and those from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve raises the general quality of the system and thus its overall performance.
In France however, investments in education do not always reach these groups. I had some personal experience of this malfunctioning when I arrived in France and asked people to recommend primary schools for my own children. The answer was: “Don’t pick a school, pick a neighbourhood”.
How can we ensure that success at school isn’t the result of a postcode lottery? France has already implemented reforms going in the right direction.
As recommended by the OECD, more resources, teachers, scholarships and support have been made available for disadvantaged students. The July 2003 Education Act (Loi d’orientation et de programmation pour la refondation de l’école de la République du 8 juillet 2013) designed to tackle school drop-out and failure from the earliest age marks an important step. The recent implementation of numerous reforms inspired by the Act at primary and junior high levels, could, depending on their practical application, respond to certain ongoing challenges and help to improve students’ learning and outcomes.
Of course it is too early to see any impact of these reforms on PISA 2015 scores. However, they were necessary and should be strengthened and evaluated regularly.
In France, as elsewhere in the past, teachers will play a key role in the reforms and will have to take ownership of the main objectives. Reform of teacher training should therefore be continued and made a priority.
It is important to stress that contrary to a commonly-held belief in France, the PISA 2015 results do not show that reforms designed to reduce social and educational inequalities result in a lowering of the overall level. On the contrary. In countries that carried out such reforms, the number of students failing dropped in the following decade, while the good students got even better. OECD countries that have managed to achieve high performance in science along with equity in terms of educational outcomes include Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Korea, Norway, and the UK according to PISA 2015.
We chose science as the focus of PISA 2015 because a good understanding of science and the technologies derived from it is indispensable, especially in our age of digital revolution. This is not only a necessity for those whose career depends directly on science, but for every citizen who wants to take an enlightened position on any number of questions facing society today, from health to sustainable development or climate change. Today, everyone should be able to “think like a scientist”.
More generally, education is fundamental in these troubled times, when populism is on the rise, when France has been shaken by several terrorist attacks, and social inequalities in the world have left by the wayside a number of citizens who no longer have any trust in institutions.
More than ever, we have to invest in our children’s science education, to respond to the “post-fact” era with an open and informed dialogue. More than ever, we have to strengthen our education systems to face up to the challenges that threaten increasingly to divide us.