France tackles flagging maths and sport education in schools

Edouard Geffray, director of the government department responsible for developing education policies, explains how increasing sport and improving maths are priorities in schools

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France ranked below the other European countries in maths and sports education in 2019.

Every four years, pupils from a selection of CM1 (age 9) and 4ème (age 13) classes are tested.

The 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) results ranked France’s CM1 pupils 41st out of 58 countries, and 22nd out of 39 for 4ème.

CM1 pupils scored 485 points in the study, compared to an average of 527 for other European countries, and 4ème pupils scored 483 points, compared to an average of 511.

Edouard Geffray, director of Dgesco, the government department responsible for developing education policies, said: “These results confirm what we already knew and we have started to tackle the problem.

“In 2018, the Minister for Education launched the Villani-Torossian plan to improve training for teachers. We developed a model where a group of six to eight teachers work together to discuss the way they teach maths. By the end of 2020, 6,000 meetings had taken place, involving 48,000 teachers.

“In our second plan, started after 2019, we made a list of the maths skills each year group is expected to achieve. We learnt from Timss that our children were learning certain notions later than other countries.”

Is there a need for change in the way maths is taught?

Children now work far more on using maths to solve problems.

For example, to calculate how much change I have from €10 if I buy three eclairs costing €1.50 each, I have to calculate three times 1.50 and then deduct that from 10. Previously, pupils were not given enough problems to solve.

Why is France behind other countries?

It is mainly because teachers had a significant lack of training in maths.

While standards in France have gone down, Portugal has improved, and the main effort has been to introduce continuous training for teachers. France is working hard to improve.

Sport is also a priority and, linked with the Olympics 2024, there is a trial for some primary school children to be active for 30 minutes a day.

How is this different from a sports lesson?

Pupils have three hours of sports lesson a week, which are planned, starting with a warm-up, a common activity for all the pupils, and pupils are expected to achieve certain standards.

The 30 minutes of exercise a day is more flexible and less structured.

Have many schools have started this?

It is limited to some schools in three education authorities for now. We should have started in March 2020 but it was delayed until November when 21 schools signed up, but we expect hundreds, perhaps thousands, to join this month (January). Schools are introducing racing and skipping games and children enjoy the sessions.

Is the aim to encourage children to move more and to want to exercise?

First, it is to make sure they feel good about themselves and give them a sense of wellbeing. Secondly, it is to improve health. Thirdly, it gives them the chance to develop their abilities and to discover different sports.

It is part of a bigger initiative, Generation 2024, which is associated with the Paris Olympics. We are a sporting nation and this will help young people to get interested in sport.

Will it also help them in class?

It can. Thirty minutes of physical activity helps you expend energy and improves your levels of concentration.

It also helps you behave better in class because you learn team spirit, and when you play a game, you have to respect the rules and other players.

Can it help calm down children who are disruptive in class?

Three hours of sport plus 30 minutes of physical activity a day will help any child who needs to get rid of surplus energy but we have not introduced this specifically to help those children but to benefit all children.

Do you think daily exercise will one day be part of the timetable, along with grammar and maths?

At the moment, it is not part of the fixed curriculum. It is voluntary and up to each school to decide. If everybody says it is great, we will see.

What about collèges and lycées?

There are no similar programmes, as each establishment has a sports association which pupils can join.

This year, we are introducing a new subject in lycées, Education physique, pratiques et culture sportives, with four hours a week in première and six hours in terminale, on top of regular sports lessons. It will be one of the specialist subjects bac pupils can choose in première and terminale.

Is there an increased emphasis on sport in education?

Yes. Clearly for health reasons but also because we are a sport-loving country, where sports studies are popular.

It is part of our lifestyle to have high-performing sportsmen and women, and regular sports activities for the whole of the population, and these new measures encourage everyone to get involved in sport.

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