It also throws light on the differing views held by teachers, as opposed to pupils and parents, on what its priorities should be.
The inquiry, based on a general opinion poll, and the analysis of 30,000 questionnaires completed by secondary school and university students, teachers and parents, gives a detailed snapshot of French attitudes and beliefs about education. It was commissioned by the Federation Syndicale Unitaire, France's biggest educational union grouping.
The 52 per cent of the population who today approve of the way schools are functioning show an increase on 1984, when only 37 per cent expressed satisfaction.
Two-thirds of those questioned said education (already France's biggest public spender) should have more resources, ahead of health and welfare. And while three-quarters were satisfied with the quality of the teachers, over half said there were not enough of them - a view expressed only two months after M Bayrou announced the axing of 5,000 primary and secondary teaching posts in the 1997 budget.
The survey found that public disquiet rose with the levels of education. While nursery schools received accolades with 80 per cent approval, coll ge (lower secondary) scored only 50 per cent and the three types of lycee a few points lower. Higher education rated least satisfaction of all, at 39 per cent.
Teachers, parents and pupils were in rare agreement that "knowledge and learning" most symbolised school, but other opinions did not coincide. Asked what they thought the major rules of the system should be, teachers cited secularity, integration, equality, forming citizens and developing an analytical mind. By contrast, pupils and parents overwhelmingly opted for "access to the world of work" as most important, pupils following up with studying, success and friendship.
With its generally positive results, the survey has allowed the FSU to counter some demands embodied in the Fauroux Commission inquiry into the state of education, published in the summer and carried out ostensibly in preparation for a referendum promised by Jacques Chirac during his presidential election campaign (TES, June 28). This presented a critical view of the system, referring to "the dead and wounded" that school left along the roadside.
Its conclusions and proposals met with a somewhat hostile reception from teachers' and students' representatives, and also from M Bayrou who has always opposed holding a referendum on education. According to the parents' association Parents d'el ves de l'ecole publique, which recently set up an observatory to monitor its members' opinions, most parents would welcome a referendum. Over 70 per cent of parents questioned in a survey believe that reform of the education system is necessary, and they want to have a say in how it is carried out.