FRANCE is the western democracy where social background has the biggest impact on success at school.
Research by state auditor the Cour des Comptes found that only 18% of children from the least well-off families passed the Baccalauréat exam, compared with 78.4% from the most privileged backgrounds.
The divide was said to be twice that of other countries including Japan, Canada or Finland - and getting bigger.
The study found one in five children has serious writing and numeracy problems during schooling and one in six leaves without qualifications.
The findings come on top of yet another report criticising relaxed rules that allow parents to choose their child’s school.
Headteachers’ union SNPDEN found that the policy, introduced in autumn 2007, is polarising schools as privileged families desert establishments with greater social and educational difficulties.
One in ten schools in difficult areas has lost at least 25% of their pupils. “Those who leave are those who are a little bit more privileged than the others or a bit more committed to their schooling. The ones who stay are those who think the rest of the world isn’t for them, or who have given up on school,” said the report.
Struggling schools face declining numbers and an even higher proportion of children with difficulties, the union said.
One head said in the report: “Pupils with reasonably good results are deserting us,” another added: “We have reached the point of no-return and the school is no longer viable.”
While the government says relaxing the catchment areas has been a success, with more social mixing and fewer families opting for private schooling, the union says “mixing” has been minimal and mostly in more prestigious schools.
These have seen a “very slight diversification” of their intake, SNPDEN says.
On the other hand those facing the most challenges, especially in areas designated ZEPs (priority areas with more educational and social difficulties), report serious concerns.
In 2008 a report by two school inspectors warned the relaxation was causing “social segregation” and said some schools may struggle to survive. However the conclusions were dismissed by then Education minister Xavier Darcos as ânerie (nonsense). The Cour des Comptes also warned of a risk of “ghettoisation” in a report in November last year.