Coronavirus: France’s ‘lost’ school year highlights issues with its education system.

France’s government, students, teachers and parents agree on one point: 2019-2020 has been a lost school year. Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer called it “a worldwide educational catastrophe”.

Despite its promise to ensure “continuous pedagogy”, it took the education ministry weeks after schools closed on March 16th in response to the Covid-19 pandemic to organise classes using Zoom, or to assign homework and send corrections via email.

Digital teaching was haphazard. Many families and teachers relocated to country areas without access to broadband. Families in the immigrant banlieues were less likely to possess the necessary high-tech equipment. Some shared one device among parents and several children. Printers were scarce, so schools printed out lessons to be fetched by families.

All orders originated with the education ministry, but parents and teachers complained its instructions were inconsistent.

“They closed the schools from one day to the next, saying we were in danger,” a teacher in Paris called Mélodie told Le Monde in May. “Now they’re asking us to start again, almost from one day to the next, as if there was no risk. Who and what are we supposed to believe?”

The ministry reported that 4 per cent of students, about 500,000 young people, simply dropped out amid the school closures, though some teachers estimated that up to 30 per cent of their students disappeared from their radars. The drop-out rate was 20 per cent in vocational lycées, which educate a high percentage of ethnic minorities.

Complex instructions on hygiene and social distancing reduced attendance in schools to as little as a day and a half per week

Many students had already missed weeks of class due to transport strikes last winter.

Some teachers dropped out too. Geraldine, a Parisian mother of four children aged five to 13, complained that her daughter’s history and geography teacher vanished throughout the coronavirus lockdown.

“The ministry should have punished teachers who went AWOL,” she said.

Reopening schools

The decision to reopen schools gradually from mid-May was the biggest difference between France and Ireland. “Society has to get used to going to school again,” Blanquer said.

Complex instructions on hygiene and social distancing reduced attendance in schools to as little as a day and a half per week. Fifty per cent of teachers stayed at home initially, claiming their health was at risk if they returned.

The government required 100 per cent attendance in all schools for the last two weeks of June, when a poll published by Le Figaro showed 55 per cent of parents were reluctant to send children back to school. The ministry estimates that 80 per cent of students returned.

Proponents of reopening said it was important for children to see their friends and teachers, to end the school year on a positive note and keep their studies in mind during the summer.

Opponents said that there was no hope of making up for three lost months in two weeks, and claimed the move was motivated by the economic imperative of freeing parents to return to work.

Deepening divide

The most consistent criticism of the education system during the lockdown was that it deepened the digital divide between the affluent and the underprivileged, in a country which, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, already has one of the world’s highest rates of inequality in education.

At the onset of the lockdown, the education ministry asked students to be “assiduous” in pursuing their normal course of study. However, in June, the ministry announced that none of the work completed during the lockdown would be counted.

Caitríona, a 50-year-old Irish educator who has lived in France for 30 years, was furious. Her 15-year-old daughter Genevieve had done reams of homework.

“She worked so hard for nothing. There was a lot of pressure. They kept giving timed sequence exams that would not upload, for example a two-hour maths exam. She was getting high marks and it was good for her self-esteem. But to come out the other side and say it was all for nothing sent the wrong signals on so many levels.”

The French should have used television, as the Republic did, because broadcasts would have been far more accessible than on the internet, Caitríona said.

In a study conducted by the University of Bordeaux, 45 per cent of affluent households said they had the technological means to home-school during the lockdown, compared with 31 per cent of lower-income families.

Content management

Content, too, was a problem. In the hot spring weather, Caitríona heard a neighbour losing her temper as she gave her eight-year-old son a dictée on the balcony. “His handwriting was bad. His spelling was poor. You could hear her frustration.”

The French decided not to hold baccalaureate exams this year. Final grades were instead decided by a jury based on marks during the first quarters of the school year

The Irish showed a greater capacity to adapt, Caitríona said. “France is a country of structure and rigidity. They seem incapable of thinking outside the box. They reacted by applying the same rules in extraordinary circumstances, for example, giving frequent exams. They needed to invent new modes of teaching and they failed to do that.”

A gaffe by government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye in late March inflamed the habitually poor relations between the government and teachers. Alluding to a shortage of workers to harvest fruit and vegetables, Ndiaye said: “We don’t intend to ask a teacher who is not working because the schools are closed to cross France to pick strawberries.”

A few hours later, Ndiaye apologised for saying that teachers were not working.

France, like the Republic, debated whether to hold national secondary-level examinations. A reform of French lycées which places greater importance on continuous assessment was already under way when coronavirus struck.

In the end, the French decided not to hold baccalaureate exams this year. Final grades were instead decided by a jury based on marks during the first quarters of the school year. The education ministry has asked juries to show “benevolence” during this process. The results released on July 7th showed that 91.5 per cent of final-year students passed, an all-time record in France.

Blanquer is advocating “learning vacations” for 700,000 underprivileged youths this summer.

Meanwhile, one-quarter of French teachers remain uncomfortable with digital technology. There is recognition that they need to be trained, that teachers and underprivileged children need computers, and that access to broadband must be extended in the event there is a second wave of the epidemic.

September will be a time of stock-taking and assessment, Blanquer says. No one believes France can make up for the lost year.

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