France, “the last country in the world for mathematical skills at school”?

France, “the last country in the world for mathematical skills at school”?
France, “the last country in the world for mathematical skills at school”?

IS THE LEVEL DROPPING? – French students are said to be the worst in the world in mathematics, regrets François Bayrou. A finding that international studies allow to qualify, even if the results remain mediocre.

Thomas Deszpot – 2021-07-06T16:11:24.976+02:00

Former Minister of Education, the High Commissioner for the Plan François Bayrou spoke Sunday on LCI in the Grand Jury. During the show, he pointed out some French flaws and areas in which he calls for action in the future. Sensitive to the transmission of knowledge and the training of young people, he particularly regretted “that France, a great scientific country […], which is today the last country in the world in terms of mathematical competence at school “. Such an observation, he launches, “not possible”. A somewhat exaggerated finding with regard to the figures, even if the level of students in math has been worrying for many years.

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Unflattering rankings

The last country in the world? In his speech, François Bayrou tends to paint a darker picture than it actually is. Among the international indicators that are generally cited to assess students in different countries, it is the TIMSS study that is most often referred to. Diligated by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), it places France very far from world leaders such as Singapore, Hong Kong, or even South Korea.

The French pupils of CM1 and 4e are evaluated, but do not arrive however last. From the outset, it should be noted that only 64 countries participate, some of which only provide data that is too fragmented to be fully usable. We therefore do not have at all an exhaustive vision on a global scale since the United Nations counts no less than 195 countries across the globe.

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After this preamble, it should be noted, however, that French students have a poor level. Penultimate of the OECD countries, last of those of the EU taking part in the study … With, what is more, an overall score down compared to the latest data, dating from 2015. In France, “there is an over-representation of the weakest pupils”, slipped last year Fabienne Rosenwald, director of Depp, the statistics agency of the ministry. “In mathematics, 15% of French pupils do not reach the ‘low level’, against 6% of pupils at European level. This means that these 15% do not have elementary knowledge in CM1”, she added.

Among the countries concerned by the study, we can see Morocco, Kuwait, Pakistan and the Philippines at the back of the pack. If their results prove François Bayrou wrong, specialists agree on the difficulties encountered by French students in mathematics. Deficiencies which tend to worsen, due to a multitude of factors.

Vast projects to be carried out

Contacted by LCI, the president of the Association of Mathematics Teachers in Public Education (APMEP) does not boast. Sébastien Planchenault describes a delicate situation and “problems of transmission of knowledge and skills in mathematics” among students. How to explain this gradual decline in level, which he observes year after year with his colleagues? By multiple factors: “There is a societal reason, including the misconception that mathematics is not made for everyone”, he says. “This concept of having or not having what some call the math bump.” Very often, he jumps up in front of the speech of parents explaining that their children have difficulties, because they themselves were not gifted in this subject when they were young.

At the same time, he points to a “global ignorance of math”, of which we would only see “the school part”, without presenting any “the primary meaning, which is to solve a problem”. Same observation “for the fun part of this discipline”, too often obscured. Moreover, reforms like that of the lycée do not help to reverse the trend, since mathematics has disappeared from the common core. If a “awareness” is observed on the political side, “The concern persists since it comes up against budgetary and financial questions”.

Sébastien Planchenault welcomes the work of a mission on mathematics, entrusted to a team led by Cédric Villani and Charles Torossian, Inspector General of National Education. Their report, delivered in early 2018, was accompanied by 21 concrete measures. Interesting, according to the president of APMEP, but their implementation would require “earmarked funding, which today is far from being guaranteed”. The question of recruitments will undoubtedly also have to be asked, since the number of mathematics teachers is decreasing and the latter are struggling to renew themselves. The profession no longer attracts as much: “In 2010, when we went to an M2 competition, the number of candidates fell”, assures the teacher. When we talk about training, we must also remember that “80% of primary school teachers have not followed a scientific course in higher education”, a figure put forward a few years ago by the National Center for the Study of School Systems (Cnesco).

To complete this gloomy picture, let us add that of the 820 hours of teaching provided per year in CM1 class, the figures provided by the TIMSS study highlight that 47 are devoted to science in our country. Quite far from the average for the countries surveyed, which stands at 73 hours. When we know that the delay accumulated when we are young increases with the passing years, it can also be an element to be taken into consideration in order to hope to achieve better results in the future.

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