France’s Elites Are Turning Their Backs on Public Education

Emmanuel Macron has sparked protests after appointing an education minister who sent her own children to private school. France’s school system has never delivered real equality — but as the rich flock to the private sector, it’s only getting worse.

7 November 2017; Amélie Oudéa-Castera, CMO & CDO, AXA Group, on the PandaConf Stage during the opening day of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon. (Sam Barnes / Web Summit via Sportsfile)

France likes to think of itself as one of the world’s most egalitarian countries. But in recent weeks a bitter row over its new education minister’s choice to send her kids to an exclusive private school has drawn attention to a different reality: the soaring inequalities in France’s education system.

Earlier this month, barely one day after her appointment by business-friendly president Emmanuel Macron as part of a government reshuffle, Amélie Oudéa-Castera came under heavy criticism when she said she had originally picked a state school but had then grown “frustrated” at the “great number of teaching hours lost” due to staff shortages.

Oudéa-Castera has since apologized, but the storm is raging on. Subsequent media reports have questioned whether she was telling the truth about teacher absences having been an issue at the school. There are also allegations that at the private institution ultimately chosen by the minister, one of her children benefited from an internal selection system for its higher-level courses that effectively bypasses the official, nationwide procedure. The left-wing opposition is demanding Oudéa-Castera’s resignation, arguing that her attitude toward state education is incompatible with her role. Various teachers’ strikes are planned for coming days.

The controversy has underscored the growing social polarization between private and public schools in France, with the wealthy increasingly choosing the more expensive, and supposedly better-organized, private institutions.

Privileged Education

About one-fifth of French teenagers are educated in private, predominantly Catholic schools. While such institutions remain much cheaper than their US equivalents, thanks to a system of generous state subsidies, they usually require a financial effort that few working-class families can afford. Tuition for the Stanislas school in central Paris, where Oudéa-Castera sends her children, is between €2,000 and €3,700 per year ($2,200–$4,000). State schools, on the other hand, are free of charge.

As a result, kids defined as “privileged” or “very privileged” account for almost 60 percent of middle- and high-school students in the private sector in France, and only 34 percent in the public sector. Social segregation is on the rise, particularly in Paris and other big cities. Nationwide, the difference between the share of “very privileged” first-year middle schoolers in private and public schools is twice as large as it was thirty years ago.

Despite “égalité” featuring prominently in its national motto, France already has one of the largest performance divides in the OECD between upper-class and working-class pupils. Many worry that if wealthy families continue to flock to the private sector things will only get worse, with public schools turning into ghettos for students with difficult backgrounds, and quality education becoming available only to those who can pay handsomely for it.

“This trend is making the difficulties of the public system even greater,” said Laurent Frajerman, a high-school teacher and a sociologist at the CERLIS research center in Paris. “It clearly triggers a vicious cycle,” he said.

There is no consensus on whether, on top of social homogeneity and networking opportunities, French private schools actually provide a better education on average than public ones. Studies show that while private schools tend to recruit higher-performing students, they statistically do a worse job than their state equivalents at improving the results of those who struggle.

But while the public sector still includes many excellent institutions, it has long been plagued by chronic shortages of resources and personnel. In recent decades France’s education budget as a share of GDP has shrunk, and tens of thousands of teachers’ jobs have been cut. With average French teachers’ salaries at around $50,000 per year, against almost $90,000 in Germany, even the jobs that do remain available are often hard to fill. Over three thousand remained vacant in the public sector last year.

Macron recently beefed up education spending and raised salaries, but for many it’s just a drop in the ocean. “If one looks at the resources actually going to schools, and takes inflation into account, we are still far from where we should be,” said Frajerman.

Money may be tight, yet in recent years public funding for private schools has gone up, with taxpayers shouldering about three-quarters of their costs in 2022. While the state recruits and pays their teachers, these institutions are left almost completely free to select their students as they please, which critics say leads to a lack of transparency in admission procedures and hardly fosters social diversity.

Failed Reforms

Last year, efforts by another education minister under Macron, the more left-leaning Pap Ndiaye, to push the private sector to take in more students from nonprivileged backgrounds resulted in nothing more than a watered-down, nonbinding agreement, amid widespread opposition from the Right and even from within Macron’s own camp. “A protocol has been signed, but concretely, absolutely nothing has changed,” said Julien Grenet, a professor at the Paris School of Economics who focuses on education policy.

“Some private schools do promote social diversity, but they are still way too few,” said Cécile Rilhac, an MP in the pro-Macron bloc and a member of the National Assembly’s Cultural Affairs and Education Commission. Yet efforts to compel private institutions to do better on that front have lost steam, she said.

The reluctance of successive French governments to make any changes to the status quo that may hurt the private education sector is hardly surprising. In 1984, an attempt by Socialist prime minister Pierre Mauroy to curtail the role of private schools triggered a wave of mass protests across the country, culminating in a two million–strong march in Paris in defense of the “freedom to choose.” The reform was eventually withdrawn, and Mauroy resigned shortly after. “That traumatized a lot of politicians,” said Grenet.

On top of that, the French political elite itself, on the Left as well as on the Right, has long been tempted by the supposed advantages of private schools. Oudéa-Castera is hardly an exception. All of her three predecessors under Macron have either been privately educated or have chosen a private education for their kids. “The current minister perfectly embodies, in a caricatural way, a more general situation,” said Grenet.

To be sure, in many respects today’s French education system is much more democratic than a few decades ago. When, in 1964, sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron published The Inheritors, a groundbreaking study on inequality of access to higher education, barely 1 percent of the children of farm laborers enrolled in university. Today, roughly one in five university students come from a working-class background.

Yet inequality has survived in subtler ways, including within the public sector itself. With admission to state schools largely reserved to students living in their surroundings, a school in Paris’s tony city center will offer an entirely different learning experience from one situated in the capital’s deprived suburbs, just a few miles away.

Left-wing economists such as Thomas Piketty stress that not only has spending per student plummeted over the last decade; it’s also distributed in a very unfair way, with a disproportionate amount of resources going to those who embark on a longer education and get into the most selective institutions — students who also tend to come from the upper classes.

In this context, the increasing concentration of the wealthy in expensive private schools is bound to make an already unequal system even more so. In Paris, “if the current trend continues, in ten years’ time 70 percent of pupils from privileged backgrounds will be in the private sector,” said Julien Grenet. “For the cohesion of society, it’s a big problem,” he said.