For all the complaining we do about some of the issues in the British education system, you’d think we have it rough.

French flag

Perhaps we do – I guess it partially depends on your political interests/affiliation.  On one side you have those who think the system is a mess against a lot of ‘traditionalists’ who believe the coalition government has taken us back to more ‘traditional’ times of British history and literature. Put simply, the nation is divided.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has, for many years, has administered the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Put simply, it is a test, given to students all over the world – in 2012, over half a million students took the test.  The results are then released one year later.

It measured key skills for economic development, with a main focus on mathematics.  However, reading, science and problem-solving were also included on the test as means of testing.  The test wasn’t just aimed at different nations – it was aimed at different economic areas too.  In all, every one of the 34 OECD member nations and 21 partner countries and economics participated in the 2012, resulting in one of the biggest measures of educational growth and performance in recent memory.

The results were at times surprising.  When analysing the overall results, we can see that the United Kingdom sits has an average of 494 points across the test, sitting lower than nations that are considered less economically-developed, such as Vietnam and Slovenia.  494 points puts the country exactly at the OECD average.

Perhaps in keeping with certain western stereotypes, countries in the Far East dominate the top of the list, with the Shanghai economic area raising the bar to a quite extraordinary level.  Overall, the Shanghai area produced an average of 613 points,

Reaction to the news in Britain has been somewhat mixed.  Indeed, a BBC report cited Education Secretary Michael Gove as saying test performances over the years have been “at best, stagnant, at worst declining.”  He was also quoted as saying that reforms to the system, such as curriculum changes, financial support aimed at poorer students and ‘school autonomy’ (read: academies) would help England’s performance and prevent it from “falling further behind.”  In light of the results, Shadow Education Minister Tristam Hunt blasted the results and Mr Gove in one swoop, saying “all his frenetic, attention-seeking changes have not delivered the step change in standards we need.”

On the other hand, The Telegraph ran with the headline “Poor academic standards – and an even poorer test”.  In the article, Martin Stephen (former High Master of St Paul’s School) wrote that ‘one in five 15-year-olds in Britain has failed to attain even the minimum standard expected for their age group in maths and literacy.’

However, Mr Stephen pointed that it maybe a bit premature to blame Mr Gove for the latest results given the coalition has only been in power for less than four years.  Education reform, he argues, takes a between five and ten years to be effective.  He also cites that concerns have been raised on the quality of translations, cultural bias and the fact that the paper was only administered to schoolchildren.

Of course, remember that it was an economic development organisation who administered the test, under the tag-line “Your education today is your economy tomorrow.” Perhaps then it could be considered a fair idea to give the tests to the current minds of the future.

Meanwhile, over here in France, the reaction was a little more clear-cut.  Even the more liberal newspapers were at it. Two days after the results for the latest test were released, Le Dauphiné Libéré (The Free Runner) dedicated an double-page spread (on pages two and three, no less) on national education, citing the test results as a primary source of concern. The title simply read “National Education: Where is the problem?”
Pretty clear then, they’re in no doubt  that the fall from 23rd to 25th place in the world rankings is warranting some concern.

The paper asks three principal questions, all of which bear an uncanny resemblance to some of the questions that we ask in the UK whenever the subject of educational failure is mentioned.

Is it the teacher training system the problem? 

Well, potentially.

To quote Daniel Filatre, the academic president of Grenoble, “Yesterday, with the IUFM [the institution responsible for teacher training on colleges] we had a sequential system – students learned subject material and then, against some competition, they learned how to pass this knowledge on to others.  Nowadays, we have an integrated system.  For two years, preferably four, students students acquire subject knowledge at the same time as practical internships.”

The problem? Well, according to Mr Filatre, it isn’t the existing teachers – it’s the public policy on training not being with the time.  The traditional method of students learning and then completing training to allow them to pass the knowledge.

Funnily enough, one could argue this is the opposite to what we’re seeing in England right now. There was recent controversy when the Department for Education released figures that said that only half of maths teachers actually had a relevant maths-related degree.  Qualified teachers who are proficient in their subject has generally seen as the main way of ensuring that teaching standards remain high.

It would appear that here in France, the preferred method is more of a ‘learn as you go’ approach.

Are the parents the problem (or indeed the solution)?

Well, there does appear to be some interesting opinions floating about with regards to parenting.  The Free Runner paper seems to take the view that a dangerous economy and less-than-certain times are perhaps worrying parents, and that children in schools have no motivation because of their parents.  Could a lack of motivation and a fear of the future be putting down French children in their education?  Even the liberals seem to think so.

Perhaps that is a little pessimistic for us – it is true to argue that we are partially influenced by what our parents do but it is maybe a little unfair to say that a parent is fully-responsible for a child’s failure.  Everyone has their own drives and aspirations in some form or another.

Perhaps this is more evidently seen in the UK, where school kids are perceived to have a lot of choice in what they can do.  So many different things to choose from, especially post-16 – it serves as no surprise that parents think they have a smaller role in their child’s education.

Alternatively, you could argue that at a ‘school’ level, parents aren’t involved or to ‘blame’ so much because children get forced into the same system of education – the infamous notion of ‘exam factories.’

Do we pay our teachers more money?

Well, we aren’t exactly talking about the quietest of topics, are we?  I’ve already covered this topic in an article back in August 2013 when I came to the conclusion that perhaps the reason we don’t have enough teachers in this country is because they are paid poorly and they are hugely undervalued.

It can be said the same for France.  The Free Runner made the claim that if prospective teachers were given a more attractive package for when they get into the classroom, more would be inclined to sign up and take the lead.

All of a sudden, this is a clear area that the two nations appear to agree on.  When you look at it, neither nation really pays their teachers properly in a manner that reflects what they do.  In June 2013, the Daily Mail reported that teachers in the UK get an equivalent hourly rate twice that of their French counterparts.

No wonder it’s so unappealing French papers are looking at it.

Ultimately, it would appear the two nations are not too dissimilar.  The only difference is, even the French liberals are anticipating educational doomsday over the OECD news. In England, it was all just a worthless stunt.

Is that how we should view it?  Or has France media got a point – do we need to worry?




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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.