Presenting the report, Xavier Darcos, doyen of the inspectorate, said it revealed a worrying new phenomenon of deprivation.
The inquiry, covering 149 secondary schools in 10 education authorities, identified a "new poverty" linked to unemployment and family break up. It found that rising numbers of families could not afford to pay for schools meals and the children were forced to stop having them.
The inspectors pointed to changes in welfare rules in 1994 which paid benefits to families rather than directly to schools and said the transfer of some responsibilities to local authorities had led to wide inequalities.
Lower secondary pupils were often poorly dressed and their parents were unable to pay for equipment or for them to take part in school activities. School doctors and nurses were increasingly having to care for those whose parents could not afford the advance fee for a visit to the local GP.
At lycees, a growing number of students were falling out with their parents and consequently having problems finding places to live and enough to eat, said the inspectors, who cited a lycee where 195 pupils out of 1,500 needed help, including six who were homeless and five single mothers.
The inspectors said absenteeism was caused by lack of motivation, holidays - the day before or after was often missed - certain lessons considered not to be useful and "false" absence where pupils were in school but not in class. As well as financial, social and family reasons, truancy was closely linked to the course being studied, particularly if it was not the positive choice of the student.
The wide-ranging report also called for the revival of memory training in schools. Although teachers and pupils recognised the importance of memory, inspectors said that "memorising facts has ceased to be a direct and explicit educational objective".
This, they claimed, was largely because such training had become linked to the idea of authoritarian teaching methods such as mechanistic reciting by heart.
At primary school, teachers tended to concentrate on recently acquired knowledge, under-estimating how quickly children forgot earlier lessons. Multiple-choice questionnaires, which are less intimidating for lower-ability pupils than a blank piece of paper, are neglecting "organisation of the memory".
* Almost 60 per cent of the 33,000 machine tools examined in nearly 2, 000 technical lycees are defective, according to a report from the Observatory on School Security, which found that such machinery was responsible for a fifth of accidents to students.
During the school year 1994-95 there were 156,000 accidents in schools, including 16 deaths. A total of 13,000 children needed hospital treatment of which 1,500 had to stay in for more than 48 hours.