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Current Challenges and Testing

The developments on the education front have successively opened the doors of collèges and then lycées to the vast majority of children in France. They have allowed new categories of pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to reach levels of education and training from which they were formerly excluded. But this democratization is posing a new challenge: to ensure a common education and the same chances of academic success to all young people regardless of their circumstances at home.

These huge increases in the number of successful students must not mask the persistence of a "hard core" of children who fail at school, with the failure often coming to light within the first few years of schooling. Under France's education system, such children have traditionally been "punished" by making them repeat classes and labeling them "slow learners"; so far no way has been found to remedy the situation. These early difficulties were highlighted during a detailed investigation carried out in 1997 with children in the first year of collège: 15% were bad readers and 4% were nearly illiterate. Most of these children will find it difficult to overcome such a handicap. A few years later they will be among the cohorts of young people leaving school without any qualifications, and will still — around the age of 17 or 18 — reveal serious gaps in their education in the tests they take during the day of introduction to defense and the French armed forces (JAPD - Journées d'appel de préparation à la défense (5)).

National tests which assess the progress in French and mathematics of all children in CE2 (8 years) and the first year of collège (11 years) — introduced over ten years ago — are designed precisely to identify pupils struggling in school. To ensure not only genuine equality of access to collèges and lycées, but also an equal chance of achieving success at each level, requires giving more support to children experiencing learning difficulties, so as not to let them "fall by the wayside".

Adaptability To Special Needs

At nursery and primary level, where the emphasis must be on language, the organization of cycles (educational stages covering more than one year) has brought greater flexibility, and allows an accounting to be taken of the different speeds at which children learn. An extra two hours a week is reserved for supplemental tutoring to benefit individual children. Networks of specialists — providing help for pupils with learning difficulties (RASED) — cater to those at greatest risk.

All the children in a given locality attend the same collège, before going their separate ways in lycées. As a result, collèges are faced with the task of providing the same standard of education for all their pupils, while of necessity adapting it to children who may be at very different standards, if only as a result of varying levels of achievement at primary school. The practice of teachers standing up in front of mixed-ability classes giving standard lessons is no longer tenable. Collèges now have the requisite extra resources to allocate at least two hours a week in form 6 to bringing children up to the required level, or to provide children lagging behind with extra supervised tutoring in forms 6 and 5. Teaching methods capable of arousing the pupils' interest and making their studies more meaningful are being used in the new, more diversified and "cross curricula" lessons — addressing the difficulties some children have in coping with a relatively compartmentalized teaching system. Similarly, in lycées, two hours a week of individual tutoring in French and mathematics can be given to pupils who are struggling. The modular courses and personal supervised work (TPE - travaux personnels encadrés) introduced in autumn 2000 in form 1 (penultimate year of lycée) for pupils studying for a "general series" baccalauréat (6) are designed to develop independent learning.

More generally, to help the most disadvantaged children, France has opted for the development within her education system of a policy of positive discrimination, which takes the form of allocating additional funds to schools in so-called "priority education areas" (ZEPs) where a disadvantaged social and cultural environment makes educating the pupils especially difficult — 18% of all primary-school children and 21% of collège pupils attend schools in ZEPs.

Going beyond the basic knowledge necessary for any responsible adult, schools must also prepare young people for a successful working life. A prestigious qualification is still highly sought-after in France. It continues to afford a large degree of protection against unemployment, and is a crucial asset when it comes to quickly finding a stable job and then progressing in a career.

NEXT PAGE » Qualifications: Link to Employment


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