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.