Tests spell out generation gap

Jane Marshall

An archive treasure trove has revealed that not everything was better in the Twenties, reports Jane Marshall

French schoolchildren of today are worse at dictation and spelling than they were in the 1920s. They are also not so good at solving maths problems, according to tests which compared educational standards between the two generations.

However, they are better at writing essays, and their education is much wider than that of their grandparents.

Examination papers dating back over 70 years, found in archives in the Somme department, were used as a basis for the comparison. About 6,000 pupils aged between 12 and 14 last year sat French and mathematics papers first set in 1923, 1924 and 1925 as part of the Certificat d'Etudes Primaires (CEP).

This exam was taken by the brightest 50 per cent of primary pupils before they embarked on their working lives at age 13.

Only about 5 per cent of youngsters went on to secondary education and most people lived and worked in the countryside. Now, over three-quarters of the population reside in towns with over half continuing after the age of 16 to take their baccalaureat.

The study was restricted to French and maths because other subjects had changed out of all recognition. In maths, candidates had 50 minutes to solve two problems which tested not only whether they could come up with the right solutions, but also basic arithmetical skills (see examples).

In French, as well as writing an essay, they were given a dictation, typically by George Sand, Anatole France, Victor Hugo or Guy de Maupassant. They then had to answer questions to prove their competence in vocabulary, comprehension, grammatical, analysis, and conjugation.

The results reflect changes in education itself, which now gives more emphasis to essays than before, whereas 70 years ago spelling had overwhelming priority.

"In essay writing, pupils of today express themselves better, organise their thoughts better and have better mastery of narrative than those of the Twenties," said Claude Thelot, head of the education ministry's directorate of evaluation and planning.

But while the essays of today's pupils are longer and more coherent, in dictation they made two-and-a-half times as many spelling mistakes as their forebears, and 40 per cent of the class of 1995 made more than 10 errors, compared with only 6 per cent of their inter-war peers.

Answering questions relating to the dictation, the two groups performed practically identically regarding vocabulary and comprehension, but their predecessors did noticeably better in grammatical analysis, conjugation and logical analysis.

More children in the Twenties successfully solved the maths problems than those of 1995, though the study found both groups coped with addition, subtraction and division of whole numbers equally well. Only in multiplication did the earlier pupils do better.

However, the report points out that in both French and maths the school curriculum has greatly evolved and expanded during the past 70 years, and pupils now have knowledge and experience of subjects, such as geometry, not taught to the earlier generation.

"Pupils of today . . . have more difficulties in doing certain of these exercises because they have been coached less in them," it notes.

The report Connaissances en francais, price 95FF, is available from Direction de l'Evaluation et de la Prospective, 58 boulevard du Lycee, 92170 Vanves, France.

Sample questions

French: essay title An act of courage. Choose an act of courage you have accomplished. Recount it simply and precisely.

Maths: A room measures 3.40 metres long, by 2.90m wide and 3.20m high. It has two openings - a window of 1.10m wide by 1.80m high, and a door of 1.20m wide by 2.50m high. How much will it cost to paint the four walls, at 3.25 francs a square metre?

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Jane Marshall

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