SCHOOLS are failing to reduce inequalities of performance between pupils aged seven to 11, new research from the education ministry has found.
The performance gap actually widens as children pass through the school system, with age and social background the chief factors.
Assessment tests in French and maths taken last September by all pupils halfway through primary school and at the beginning of lower secondary showed that children who were at least a year older than their classmates - mostly because they had repeated a year - and those whose parents were unskilled or unemployed had lower scores.
The two reports by the ministry's department of programming and development (DPD) are based on results from an annual assessment of pupils carried out as they enter the primary year when they are seven or eight, and at the beginning of coll ge (lower secondary) at 10 or 11.
Overall, average scores for pupils entering the primary year were 72 per cent in French and 67 per cent in maths. At the start of lower secondary school, they were 68.5 per cent and 64.6 per cent respectively.
The research also shows that the gap between pupils achieving most and least widens as they get older. The 10 per cent of pupils in the lower age group who did best in maths or in French correctly completed twice as many exercises on average as the weakest 10 per cent. In the older group, the strongest did three times as many as the least able.
The studies confirm previous research findings that pupils' ages and social backgrounds play a large part in how well they do at school. "Age is the variable that is most narrowly linked with pupils' results, and educational backwardness is not independent of social origins," said the DPD.
Scores showed an average difference of 10 points between pupils entering coll ge at the usual age, who did better, and older classmates who were repeating a year.
The DPD also noted that results from pupils attending schools in educational priority zones, where disadvantaged families are more concentrated, "are perceptibly weaker than those of other pupils, whatever the subject concerned".
The DPD stresses that the assessments, which have been carried out since 1989, are meant to help teachers when planning lessons. But, in a country which traditionally views its education system as the main way of reducing inequality, they have also become an annual issue of heated debate among parents and others interested in education.