98% of French children would go to school even ifh children would go to school even if they didn’t have to they didn’t have to

I got into trouble some time ago for suggesting that school might be better if it wasn’t mandatory. I suggested that those who would never go to school if the law didn’t force them to were the ones who weren’t getting much out of it now. This was greeted with more opposition, I think, than the time I suggested that the death of disco was the work of a conspiracy led by Lee Atwater.

So, I note with some amusement that TNS-Sofres, a French polling company, has done a survey of students, parents, and teachers attitudes towards the French school system. This survey was highlighted in yesterday’s La Croix and you can download their conclusions here (en fran?ais, bien s?r)

There are a number of points of interest in this 69 page document, but I want to call attention to page 38, titled Si l’?cole n’?tait plus obligatoire jusqu’? 16 ans…:


Question: School is currently mandatory until the age of 16. Imagine that it was only required until the age of 11. [The survey only studied children age 11 and up.] Which of the following situations do you think is most likely:

Students aged 11 to 18 Parents of children aged 11 to 18 Teachers
(of which)
elementary school
junior high and high school
Students would:
go to school of their own accord 57 34 15 15 15
go to school because their parents would make them 23 58 49 51 48
go to school, but not every day 18 5 25 25 25
not go to school 2 3 9 7 10
No opinion 0 0 2 2 2

Now, there are a number of things this table implies. First, almost 60% of parent think they would force their kids to go to school, while less than a quarter of the kids think so. This, I suspect, reflects traditional parental illusions about how much control they actually have over their offspring. Teachers are, as usual, more pessimistic about the motivations of their students than the students or their parents are. You should compare this table to the one on page 31. Half of French parents think their kids go to school because they like to and a third because they have to. Only 13% say they have to actually make their kids go to school. Almost half of the teachers think students go to school because their parents make them.

The sample sizes for this study weren’t terribly large, and people always tend to say the things they think they ought to say rather than the ones they really think. But, for a moment, let’s take these numbers at face value.

The real surprise is the number who think they would go to school, at least some of the time, for whatever reason: 98%. Furthermore, over half of them would go entirely voluntarily just as they go now. The French school system is not usually regarded as an especially child-friendly place. It has improved a lot since ’68, but it is still seen – by parents and teachers alike – as a place for enculturation and vocational training rather than self-development. (Page 23 covers exactly that point.) Nonetheless, 98% of kids are basically okay with going to school.

Page 39, which breaks down the answers by gender, class, school type, age and geography, strongly suggests that those two percent who just wouldn’t go come overwhelmingly from the classes that are generally acknowledged to not be getting much out of school as is: the urban underclass. 5% of the children of parents considered “inactive or retired” (read “long term unemployed”) and 2% of those considered “workers” (read “working poor”) wouldn’t go to school. These are the suburban ruffians who were so instrumental in electing Chirac and Raffarin by adding a shred of substance to right-wing rhetoric about crime and public security. If school was actually doing much for them, ?lys?e Palace would house President Jospin.

There is some other stuff here of interest. Page 34 suggests that the main areas of American school reform – subject qualifications for teachers and political control over curricula – are not very important to French students, parents or teachers. They appear to be the two least important factors in making children want to learn. Classroom size reduction is an important issue to all three groups, but teachers believe that adapting school programmes to students individual needs is even more important, and parents place the two on about equal footing.

I was rather surprised to see how much value students place on vocational and professional training. When I was in school in the States, people tended to think vocational training was for university. Page 47 suggests that half of kids only think school is important because of its value in getting a job, and another 20% gave answers that I can only interpret as having the same effect.

Anyway, this is an interesting snapshot of French attitudes towards school. It strongly suggests that French children over the age of 11 are quite well aware of why they go to school and have their own agendas for their education. I would say that this survey supports the idea of loosening the structure of the French school system and perhaps looking for solutions to problems of social exclusion outside of the Ministry of Education.

8 thoughts on “98% of French children would go to school even ifh children would go to school even if they didn’t have to they didn’t have to

  1. I suppose school is a social thing to an extent that people ignore. I haven’t met _that_ many homeschooled people, but IME they can find it a little harder to relate to people of their own age.

  2. For contrast with the English experience:

    “The new truancy statistics for England show that huge numbers of children were absent without authorisation at some point last year – not just a hard core of miscreants.
    And there are wide variations between the incidences of truancy in different parts of the country. Across the country as a whole, more than a fifth of secondary school pupils – 21% – were absent without permission at some stage, on average for 15 half days.” – from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/3116760.stm

  3. I remember seeing a table about French elemetary school attendance back at some point in the nineteen-hundreds when school became compulsary in France. Back then, the difference was only 10 percent, although I’m not quite sure what was measured anymore.

    I would also like to point to another problem with voluntary school attendance that was mentioned in an article analysing “Why Nerds Are Unpopular” by Paul Graham last year [ http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html ]:

    “And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids all locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

    What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.”

  4. Tobias, my advocacy of voluntary schools comes from having had some experiences not unlike Paul Graham’s. I support state-subsidised daycare, and if mandatory schooling were abolished, I would support state subsidised daycare for kids of school age. Children can’t be allowed to choose whether or not a grown-up looks after them. Their parents have to make that choice. I just want to stop calling daycare “education.” At daycare, they can play, or take a nap, or play sports and they don’t have to raise their hands when they want to go to the bathroom. Bullying is less of a problem at daycare – although it can be a problem – because isolating problem children and dealing with discipline issues doesn’t interfere with any civil right to education or with what other children are doing.

    Aidan – I am not advocating homeschooling. I’m mildly against homeschooling, although I do understand why many people choose it. I’m against any kind of education where one person – especially parents – get to choose what is and isn’t taught. Too many – although far from all – homeschooling parents do so for reasons I find unconscionable: keeping their kids from evolution, sex education, or anything that might lead them to think for themselves rather than accept what their parents think. I’m certainly against isolating kids from the world, even though the world is often a cruel place. I am claiming that sometimes no formal education is better than bad education.

    Bob – I’m ill-inclined to punish kids for not wanting to be in school, and I’m sympathetic to parents who don’t want to make them go. I find it somewhere between surprising and shocking that France has so few children who categorically refuse school. If I didn’t have doubts about this survey’s validity, I would be inclined to think that France really offers what the US only claims to offer: that hard work and good grades lead to a better life. Otherwise, I’m hard pressed to see why children would actually show so much faith in French schools.

  5. Guessing from personal experience, having children who have been in both the French and US school systems, I would say that it’s somewhat cultural. French children have a strong belief in the school system because their parents do. It’s every parents dream to get their child into ENA or Mines, and they know its possible with hard work. Get your bac and you have a place at university, it seems this really a way to improve your lot in life.

  6. I’m sympathetic to the “voluntary-school” idea, but it has a kind of idealism to it which I remember from about 1970 or so and which proved, at that time, to be hard to make work.

    Graham’s point about the goals of education is not a joke. For a considerable proportion of students, school is simply custodial. For another group, it teaches basic skills plus obedience. For others it’s a place to hang out. There are also many who actually are educated. Many kids do love school, especially before age 12 or so. So it’s a multi-purpose institution with overlapping agendas and shouldn’t be expected to “make sense”.

    I have proposed that kids who leave school after age 14 or so be allowed to do so, but be awarded four years of “education credits” to be used at any later date. Thus, when a kid finally is motivated, he won’t be excluded (as overage) from the education he missed. In many cases these students will have learned a lot on their own, and once motivated they will learn much more quickly. I think that in this circumstance kids should also be exempted from child labor laws and be tried as adults for any crimes. This really amounts to abolishing minor status, which might be a good thing.

    Even the idea that education should be organized for the benefit of the students seems highly Utopian to me — much less the idea that it should respond to their own understanding of their needs. I vaguely favor it, but my understanding of the actualities of the world we live in makes it seem utterly unattainable.

    P.S. My son is 30. Three of his best friends did drop out of achool at age 14 to smoke dope. One is now the produce manager of a mid-sized food store, married, and a home owner. One runs a small manufacturing operation, producing an original product, which is doing moderately well — the product is well recieved globally but the niche is tiny. One is clean and sober but grumpy and lazy as hell and spends most of his time surviving and reading fantasy fiction. Probably in the Harvey Pekar / R. Crumb area, but not productive.

  7. The French belief in schools as a way of social ladder-climbing is the dual to the American ladder-climbing in the work-place belief, something that is much less popular in France. Anyone can get in the elite schools through hard work, but it is much harder to climb the social ladder once you’re out of school. At least that’s how common wisdom goes ; both are actually possible, much as in America, but French statism means that the school system is more popular than productive work for improving one’s lot in life. It means that the French elite tends to be quite intellectually brilliant, but also strongly disconnected from some realities of ordinary life.

    And actually, the possibility for a son of manual workers to get into the top schools is really marginal ; in France as in the rest of the world, being born into the right family is the easiest way to the top.

  8. this is stupid we should be allowed to go 2 school only if we want to not if we have to

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