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by Sylvie Ducatteau

Patrick Rayou: “Schools show themselves to be focal points of excessive inequalities”.

Translated Tuesday 17 March 2015, by Philippa Griffin

This morning, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (Minister of Education, Higher Education and Research) will present her vision for secondary school reforms: a potentially controversial portfolio of plans in the context of a widening gulf between different institutions. For sociologist Patrick Rayou, it is vital that curricula and teaching methods are adapted to cater for the diverse needs of students.

Controversy alert: The Minister of Education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, will this morning present her vision for secondary school reform to the Council of Ministers. The measures, which implicate 3.2 million students, will then be discussed in partnership with the educational community for one month. For Patrick Rayou, an educational sociologist at the Paris-8 University, the future of educational inequalities is at stake.

What do you expect from these reforms?

Patrick Rayou: Secondary schools are a focal point of inequalities, due to both geographical reasons and to the unsuitability of curricula and teaching methods for the diverse needs of diverse groups of students. The differences in educational quality between a school in the rich Parisian 5th arrondissement and a school placed in special measures are substantial. On the ground, this means discrepancies in the number and range of subjects offered, inconsistencies in stability of the teaching body and differences in the proportion of students labelled as ‘failing’. Education is a stark reflection of local social inequalities. The huge increase in the numbers of French students attending university is in principle an excellent step forward, but this has not been accompanied by an equivalent transformation of a higher education system originally designed for a social and cultural elite rather than to enable all students to thrive. School should allow the acquisition of knowledge and experience not just in class, but through a range of extracurricular activities and, above all, in family settings. And yet, primary and secondary schools focus upon “learning how to learn”, although this approach does not suit all students equally. Having said this, expanding education beyond the classroom, such as through hobbies, language exchanges and cultural visits, is not something within the means of all families.

Some strategies have already been mentioned, such as better bridging the gap between the final year of primary school and the first year of secondary school. What are your thoughts about these?

Patrick Rayou: It’s vital to remember that implementing – and making changes to – the structure of school years has never been straightforward. For some students, the transition from primary to secondary school is an unmanageable leap. Linking these two school years better could create some form of continuity, minimizing the risk that certain students start on the back foot due to gaps in their knowledge from primary school. It would reduce the rigidity of the school year framework which can dictate a child’s level. We might also hope that students suffering any difficulties could be ‘buoyed’ by the level of their class as a whole. The role of educational support teams is of course essential, but until now there have been few attempts to encourage primary and secondary school teachers to collaborate, as they are seen to have such different professional backgrounds.

What are the key blockers to seeing all students thrive?

Patrick Rayou: As Pierre Bourdieu said, the problem with mainstream French schools is that they are “indifferent to differences” (amongst students). This represents an educational catastrophe. By denying differences, schools widen further the gulf between those who “can” and those who “can’t”. Our system is well capable of identifying differences, but it treats them as an afterthought to the classroom. This means that any action is often taken too late, by which time students have often completely – or almost – given up on the system. Educational policy is mired in inaccessible strategy, conceived by well-qualified politicians, at great expense, focusing above all on the private sector. We would greatly benefit if all schools were able to take the bull by the horns, and redouble efforts to re-engage students as soon as they see them at risk of disengagement, marginalisation or failure.

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