France is failing its newest generation of poor students as classes move online

A high school student takes a test online at her home in Chisseaux near Tours while her pet cat 'supurrvises' on the eleventh day of a lockdown in France to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19. The pandemic has exposed shortcomings in educational systems around the world as schools scrambled to digitise their lessons, and poorer students who couldn’t afford tablets or laptops were left to fend for themselves. But if any Western country was in a position to rise to this challenge it was France. — AFP

When France shut its schools in March, 12-year-old Noussaiba Meziane recognised right away that this wasn’t going to be a holiday, and that continuing with her education wasn’t going to be easy.

As the nation’s 13 million pupils went online to receive their lessons, she and her two brothers, aged 10 and 14, traded turns on their mother’s mobile phone to make contact with their schools – her parents couldn’t afford to give each child their own computer. With a total of eight people living under one roof in the southern town of Montpellier, Meziane did barely any studying in the first week of the confinement.

"It was odd, I was used to going to class, on top of this I didn't have a computer,” she said. "We shared one phone between three of us so it was difficult.”

The pandemic has exposed shortcomings in educational systems around the world as schools scrambled to digitise their lessons, and poorer students who couldn’t afford tablets or laptops were left to fend for themselves. But if any Western country was in a position to rise to this challenge it was France.

In 1939, officials created a temporary long-distance learning center to impose some order on its educational system at the start World War II. The Centre National d’Enseignement a Distance was made permanent in 1944 to educate those returning from concentration camps, former prisoners of war, and sick children. The broader aim has always been to introduce equality into society by ensuring that no individual can get left behind.

CNED started by providing lessons by mail, and it still does this. But now, its main platform is Ma Classe a la Maison – My Classroom at Home, which offers the national syllabus online. Though this has in recent years taken a backseat to the range of regional alternatives that have cropped up, the main point is that officials already have the tools to provide lessons at home. It helps that the curriculum is strictly controlled, to the point where younger kids all study the same thing at the same time. The setup seems ideal for serving a whole nation that’s suddenly been sent into lockdown.

The digital curriculum, like that offered in schools, is almost always in French, to align with government efforts to promote cultural unity. Students who come from poorer families where the parents don’t speak the language well, if at all, may struggle to get the help they need to work through their lessons.

This is the problem confronting Ali Beghdad Benabbad, 13, who attends school in the northern coastal town of Dunkerque. His family immigrated from Sig, Algeria in 2014, and now reside in a social housing apartment. He and his parents, both out of work, and his three siblings aged five to 11 are awaiting the government’s verdict on their citizenship application.

Meanwhile, it’s not easy for him to complete his lessons. The family speaks a mix of Arabic and French at home since his mother's French is poor, and he has yet to get a phone call from any of his teachers. A charity his mother contacted, Afev, said it would send him a computer, but their projected delivery date meant it wouldn’t arrive until five weeks after the confinement started.

Beghdad Benabbad says he studies around an hour and a half every day. He gets help with his classes from an Afev mentor, but he is struggling to stay motivated, and the need to share the mother’s smartphone to get lessons is creating conflict in the household. "Sometimes me and my siblings get into fights about whose turn it is to use the phone,” he says.

This digital and language divide worries Laurent Bertrand, the head of College Jean Moulin for 11- to 15-year-olds in the Quartiers Nord district of Marseille, a tough neighbourhood where unemployment is rife.

His pupils typically come from families with three to five siblings in the household, where parents most likely won’t be able to help them with homework, he said. This could be due to language difficulties – it’s common for Arabic or Swahili to dominate at home – or because they have jobs that can’t be done from home, such as working the cash register at a supermarket, he said.

"The inequality gap is worsened by this break,” he said. As much as 10% of the school’s 520 pupils are persistent truants, and even though local authorities have provided all students with tablets, "the risk with the lockdown is that we’ll end up losing them along the road.”

Still, "our teachers are being resourceful,'' he said. "They're taking the shortest way” to reach pupils.

A lead teacher at the school, Carol de la Riva, says she has been calling each of her 23 students twice a week, but still hasn’t been able to reach one of them. She was unable to contact another for three weeks, though this pupil eventually resurfaced.

The longer homeschooling lasts, the more difficult it will be to keep children engaged unless parents are actively pushing them to study, she said. "I sometimes call them at 10 o’clock in the morning, and they’re sleeping. Their parents tell me they go to bed later than usual, they watch series at night. Some of them wake up at noon or 1pm.”

President Emmanuel Macron is aware of how the virus is exacerbating social divisions in education, and said in an address to the nation on April 13 students will be able to return to school "progressively” from May 11.

"The current situation is widening the inequalities,” he said. "Too many children, notably children in lower-class neighbourhoods, in the countryside, have no access to school, with no access to digital tools and cannot be helped evenly by their parents.”

However some have already fallen through the cracks – education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said recently that the system has lost track of up to 8% of students since the lockdown started.

Among the 36 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, France has one of the strongest links between socio-economic background and academic performance. It has one of the biggest gaps in reading proficiency between its advantaged and disadvantaged students, according to the latest OECD student assessment. It also scores below average in OECD surveys asking 15-year-olds to assess the availability of effective online tools, teachers’ digital competence, and instructors’ engagement with their progress.

None of this bodes well for the prospect of keeping poorer kids’ education on track during the lockdown.

Layana Mebarki is 12 and goes to the college Jean Jaures in Clichy-la-Garenne, a town north of Paris. She has 10 teachers in total but since the schools closed she’s only received calls from one of them, her head teacher. "Teachers are telling us they’re counting on us. But we’re not getting much more encouragement from them,” she said.

The eldest of four, Mebarki wasn’t well equipped to study from home since she usually shared a computer with her two brothers. But Institut Telemaque, a charity that works with corporations to offer mentorship and other assistance to disadvantaged students, provided her with one during the second week of the lockdown. Although she shares her bedroom with her four-year-old sister, who has her toys strewn all over, she says that she can now focus on studying while her mother looks after her sister. The charity was also able to provide a computer to Meziane, the student in Montpellier, in the second week of home study, which she said really enabled her to get into an academic rhythm.

The government is exploring more traditional communication means to educate the masses by collaborating with the state-funded France Televisions and Radio France networks to broadcast educational content for different age groups. The jury is still out on the merits of Nation Apprenante (Learning Nation). Mebarki said she likes the content and watches it on replay when the programs focus on her class – she’s in the seventh grade. She particularly enjoys the teachers’ efforts to explain problems with concrete examples and games. But Montpellier’s Meziane said she’s not too fond of it because it lacks the interactivity of a real class. Another teenager, Yasma Ahmed Ousseni, who attends Jean Moulin in Marseille, said she hasn’t even heard of this initiative.

Ousseni’s home is crowded: she lives with her mother, her cousin, her cousin’s three children, and her sister. She said it can get complicated to study in this seven-person household, which mixes French and Comorian, so she’s applied to attend a military boarding school next year in Aix-en-Provence. She sent her application before the lockdown started and has yet to hear back if she’s been accepted. "It would be the best for me,” she said.

The stories the students tell show how France’s poorer students need the help of charities to keep communications flowing with their schools and teachers. Institut Telemaque supports around 1,000 pupils in mostly tough districts across five regions in France. With the incoming lockdown, it found that around 10% of the teenagers it backed lacked a computer at home.

"It’s very problematic for a student who wants to follow classes from home,” said Pascal Jacqueson, who’s in charge of the charity’s communications. "The inequalities are being accentuated even more” during this lockdown.

Mebarki said she’s concerned for all her friends while schools are closed. "We don’t all have computers, some have more siblings, some of us don’t have a laptop or just a mobile phone for the whole family,” she said. "It’s going to be complicated to catch up.” – Bloomberg

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