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First choice most likely to go to the rich

FRANCE. Parents who are well-off or who work in education are most successful in getting their children into the schools of their choice, according to a new report by the National Statistics and Economic Studies Institute (INSEE) that reveals major social and gender inequalities in the French education system.

The report, The School, Pupils and Parents, is the result of wide-ranging research into the public-private divide in schooling, parents' ambitions for their children, pupils' attitudes and the relative performance at school of children of immigrant and native French parents.

It shows that parents from two particular groups have a better-than-average chance of getting their children into the schools they want: wealthy professionals who opt for Catholic schools in the private sector; and teachers and others who know their way around the education system and secure places for their children in the best state schools, even when they live outside their catchment areas. These two "discerning minorities", the report says, "represent a major challenge to France's republican model of equal opportunities".

Although church attendance continues to fall, children from roughly one family in six go to Catholic schools. Taking into account those who switch at least once between the state and private systems - a common practice in France - two-fifths spend at least part of their education at private schools.

Ninety-eight per cent of these schools are under state contract, teaching the national curriculum and receiving state finance, with parents paying fees for extra courses and activities. The more affluent the area, the greater the number of church schools. The INSEE report says that ability to pay, religious factors and parental ambitions for their children are the chief reasons for parents choosing to go private.

Most parents want their children to take the baccalaureat, the report says, but their ambitions tend to depend on the sex of their offspring. They envisage a higher educational level for their daughters, preferably literary or arts-based, while for their sons they would opt for technical or scientific training. More think a successful career is important for sons than for daughters; and more think a happy home life is important for daughters than for sons (although mothers working outside the home are more ambitious for their daughters than those who are housewives).

According to the report, watching TV is - unsurprisingly - the most common out-of-school pastime of secondary pupils, who spend on average 10 hours a week in front of the box. Reading is the next most popular activity. Girls watch TV less and read more than boys.

Parents' influence on what children do out of school depends on how much time they can spend with their children, whether they can afford to enrol them in outside activities, and personal example. The report dismisses the idea of a "youth culture" and notes: "Cultural heterogeneity is considerable, making the job of the teacher extremely complicated."

The report says that pupils' views of school become more negative as they get older. Three groups are notably critical of school: pupils in remedial or special education; those who think they are performing badly; and those from North African families.

At the start of lower secondary, says the report, pupils make many friends, mostly of the same sex and nationality. Groups of friends later become smaller but include members of the opposite sex and children of other nationalities.

The report dismisses racial explanations for the worse average school performance of children of immigrant parents compared with those of native French parents. Instead, factors common to other disadvantaged groups, such as "parents with few or no qualifications, large or extremely large families and membership of the lowest socio-economic groups", are responsible.

Economie et Statistique No 293, L'Ecole, les eleves et les parents, 1996-3, available from INSEE Info Service, 75582 Paris, Cedex 12, France, 46 FF.

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