Thursday, 6 December 2007

A blow for the sciences and for the French education system


The latest PISA survey (Programme for International Student Assessment) from the OECD has shown that although many countries have made great improvements, students are continuing to shun the sciences – only 37% wanted a career involving science and only 21% would like to spend their life in advanced science.

At a time when scientific and technological know-how is helping to drive growth in advanced economies, the results of PISA 2006 reveal wide variations in skills levels. Student attitudes to science will be crucial to countries' economic potential in tomorrow's world.
Students from families with a more advantaged socio-economic background were more likely to show a general interest in science, and this relationship was strongest in Ireland, France, Belgium and Switzerland. One significant feature of a student’s background was whether they had a parent in a science-related career.

This is of specific interest to me because I am moving on to a job which is hoping to address that very problem of waning interest in the sciences.

I read about the survey originally from Développement durable le journal which was lamenting the fact that French students had lost places in all three areas covered by the survey: mathematics, science and comprehension. They performed at a level slightly below the average in spite of the weight given to mathematics in schools.

Students from Finland performed well in everything: top in sciences and mathematics, and second in comprehension. The argument that France has to cope with a multicultural population doesn't stand up though, because a country like Sweden with a large immigrant population produced excellent results.

In France 8% of students are high achievers (9% average) with 23% in academic difficulties (20% average). The UK has a similar numbers of students in difficulties but far more high achievers.

France map

This too I find very interesting because one of the reasons heard the most for people moving from the UK to France is for a better education system. It seems they are moving out of the frying pan into the fire.

The study has also shown that the most expensive education systems do not necessarily produce the best results, nor is it automatically a case of elitism. Some of the high achieving systems are the most equitable – Finland, Korea, Canada.


  1. Don't know if you have any personal experience of the French education system. It's very geared to acquiring knowledge and above all logic - but very, very little analysis. We ask lots of 'why is that' questions at home so as to foster inquiring minds that are told to 'just learn it/do it and stop asking questions' at school.

  2. I confess it a surprise to hear that we have more high achievers in UK than in France. I could never understand how any young person with the innate curiosity about the world and how it all works, is not interested in the sciences. But then the media don't help, scientists are either "Mad Professors" or "Hopeless Geeks"

  3. j, my experience of the French education system is somewhat second hand. Our sons had to be put into the British School for fear of our being sent goodness knows where without notice. Number 2 son was asked to tutor a friend's daughter in a French school who was told she had been there long enough and to stop asking questions. Her brother had been given 2/20 in a test at much the same time because he had made so may spelling mistakes in his maths test.
    I remember sitting next to a woman in the Métro one day, who must have been an English teacher, and being nosy I looked over her shoulder at the test papers she was marking. It was all too obvious that the students had been given the answers which had been learnt by heart. Unfortunately many had mismatched the questions and answers and made complete nonsense as a result.
    Finally, a cousin of mine had to do a year at a university to convert her law degree to allow her to work in France. She rapidly found out that debate is not part of the system and that she had to regurgitate what she had been told in order to pass. I had hoped things would have improved in the last 10 years, but perhaps they will now.

    LR, they really don't seem encourage independent thought in France, to the extent that you have to do your headings in certain ways, the rest follows so many lines later, etc etc. I would think that would sap the enthusiasm out of anyone.
    It's such a shame more aren't interested in science, it underpins everything in this life. Unfortunately it seems to be portrayed as "difficult", even by teachers. Students are often steered towards the softer options to be more sure of passing.

  4. This is a very interesting subject and your post is a great read. Of course I have noticed this survey results as we are involved in Norway too. We don't come out that well, but I wonder if that has something to do with that we are to well off. The parents generation are called the 'Curling' generation (wiping in front of their children so that everything goes smooth for them.

    Wishing you a great end to your week :-)

  5. A, spot on - I was remarkably restrained in my first comment, have some real horror stories which if you want I'll e-mail to you, as it would be indiscreet of me to put them out on display.

  6. j, I would indeed be interested to hear your stories if you have the time to email them.

    Renny, I love that expression "the curling generation"! But it's prbably true of so many places. And a good weekend to you too.

    I eventually cames across a BBC report on the UK results, saying that the UK had lost places, even though remaining above average in sciences. The report is, surprise, surprise, apparently being played down by the government.

  7. Hm. Really interesting post. Makes you think. I haven't really thought about it, but now when you're mentioning it I realize that I hear very few youngsters interested in science - comparing to earlier. and yet Sweden has been very focused in science with a lot of research projects in many areas.

    I soooo wish that my schools I went to, had opened my interest for science in a professional meaning. I honestly think that I could have done something RELATED to it at least, not having the most smartest mind, but very intensive when I believe in something.

    My last post is kind of related to this subject :-)


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


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