Until the last few decades, France had one of the most equitable education systems in the world. It also had one of the most coherent. It was world-famous for its determination to give the same education to all citizens, following the same curriculum in every school across the land. But from the sixties onwards, progressive ideas became more influential in the teacher training colleges. Although the curriculum remained the same at first, the methods used began to lead to greater gaps in achievement between different social classes. A more constructivist approach, with an emphasis on discovery learning and a move away from explicit instruction, meant that increasingly, those with the least cultural capital were not receiving the teacher input which would enable them to make good progress.
Ironically, the results of this first move towards progressive ideas was one of the pieces of evidence used by proponents of the 1989 loi Jospin, which abolished national curricular coherence and mandated constructivism in primary schools across France. All primary schools were ordered to adopt child-centred methods, and to create their own local curriculum, adapted to the needs of their pupils. Those arguing for this revolution pointed to the increasing gaps in achievement that had appeared in previous decades, and claimed that these were the result of an ‘elitist’ curriculum that did not appeal to the interests of poorer and immigrant pupils.
Another irony of the campaign for compulsory constructivism was that one of its leading proponents, Pierre Bourdieu, himself came from a humble background, but because of the high quality state education that was available to all when he grew up in the fifties, had succeeded in becoming a leading academic. Now he was campaigning to sweep away the very system which had permitted him to rise. He was pulling up the ladder which he had climbed.
Those who have studied the damage wrought by progressive ideology in the USA and Britain will not be surprised at what followed this particular French revolution. All pupil groups saw a decline in academic achievement, but the decline was steepest for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The middles classes were protected from the disaster to some extent, because of the cultural capital they acquire outside school.
The French school crisis is particularly instructive for us, because it was an unintended natural experiment on a huge scale. Curriculum and pedagogy were radically altered, but other factors remained the same. French primary schools continued to be well funded. The academic standards remained high for the recruitment of French primary teachers. And yet we see this disastrous decline in achievement and equity. French officials measured this across the school population, so we know it was the norm, not an isolated case.
The centrally directed French school system provides a clarity which we can never hope to find when we look at the history of schools in Britain or the USA, where there are so many additional variables which could confound our assessment of the evidence. We have here a clear, explicit programme to enforce progressive ideas in primary schools across the nation, and a clear measurement of the disastrous results.
What need is there for more evidence? No artificially constructed trial could hope to match the French national experiment, which has been conducted on the whole school population for more than a quarter of a century. The results are in, and they are conclusive: explicit, teacher-led instruction and curricular coherence mean excellence and equity, while child-centred methods and personalised curricula lead to decline and inequity.
Ignore it if you want, but the evidence is there for all to see.
For more detail on this, read Chapter Seven of E D Hirsch’s latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, ‘The Educational Fall of France’.
For an insider’s view of the French school crisis, read this blog post.
And thank you to Françoise Appy for translating this post into French.