When France closed its schools in March, 12-year-old Noussaiba Meziane immediately recognized that it was not going to be a public holiday and that it would not be easy to continue studying.
While the 13 million pupils of the country connected to receive their lessons, she and her two brothers, aged 10 and 14, exchanged tricks on their mother’s mobile phone to get in touch with their schools – his parents could not afford to give each child their own. computer. With a total of eight people living under one roof in the southern city of Montpellier, Meziane practically did not study during the first week of childbirth.
“It was strange, I used to go to class, besides I didn’t have a computer,” she said. “We shared a phone between three of us, so it was difficult. “
The pandemic has revealed gaps in education systems around the world as schools rushed to digitize their lessons and the poorest students who could not afford tablets or laptops had to fend for themselves. But if a western country was able to take up this challenge, it was France.
In 1939, officials created a temporary distance learning center to bring order to its education system at the start of the Second World War. The National Center for Distance Education became permanent in 1944 to educate those returning from concentration camps, former prisoners of war and sick children. The broader objective has always been to introduce equality into society by ensuring that no one can be left behind.
The CNED started by providing lessons by mail, and it still does. But now its main platform is My Class at Home – My Classroom at Home, which offers the national program online. Although this has taken precedence over the range of regional alternatives that have arisen in recent years, the main point is that public servants already have the tools to teach lessons at home. It helps that the program is strictly controlled, to the point that young children are all studying the same thing at the same time. The setup seems ideal for serving an entire nation that has suddenly been locked out.
The digital curriculum, like the one offered in schools, is almost always in French, in order to align with government efforts to promote cultural unity. Students from poor families where parents do not speak the language well, if at all, may find it difficult to get the help they need to attend school.
This is the problem facing Ali Beghdad Benabbad, 13, who attends school in the coastal city of Dunkirk in the north of the country. Her family immigrated from Sig, Algeria in 2014, and now resides in a social housing apartment. He and his parents, both unemployed, and his three siblings, aged five to 11, await the government’s verdict on their citizenship application.
In the meantime, it’s not easy for him to finish his lessons. The family speaks a mixture of Arabic and French at home because his mother’s French is poor, and he has yet to receive a call from any of his teachers. A charity his mother contacted, Afev, said he would send her a computer, but their expected delivery date meant that she would not arrive until five weeks after the delivery began.
Beghdad Benabbad says he studies about an hour and a half each day. He gets help with his lessons from an Afev mentor, but he finds it difficult to stay motivated, and the need to share the mother’s smartphone to get lessons creates conflicts in the household. “Sometimes my siblings fight over who gets to use the phone,” he says.
This digital and linguistic divide worries Laurent Bertrand, director of the Jean Moulin College for 11-15 year olds in the Quartiers Nord district in Marseille, a difficult district where unemployment is rampant.
His students usually come from families with three to five siblings in the household, where parents are unlikely to be able to help them with their homework, he said. This could be due to language difficulties – it is common for Arabic or Swahili to dominate at home – or because they have jobs that cannot be done at home, such as working at the cash desk in a supermarket , did he declare.
“The gap between inequalities is made worse by this break,” he said. Up to 10% of the school’s 520 students are persistent students, and even though local authorities have provided tablets to all students, “the risk of foreclosure is that we ‘I will end up losing them along the road. “
Still, “our teachers are resourceful,” he said. “They take the shortest route” to reach the students.
A principal teacher at the school, Carol de la Riva, says that she calls each of her 23 students twice a week, but still has not been able to reach one of them. She was unable to contact another for three weeks, although this student eventually resurfaced.
The longer home schooling takes place, the more difficult it will be to keep children engaged unless parents actively push them to study, she said. “I sometimes call them at 10 am, and they sleep. Their parents tell me that they go to bed later than usual, they watch series in the evening. Some people wake up at noon or 1 p.m. “
President Emmanuel Macron is aware of how the virus is exacerbating social divisions in education, and said in a speech to the nation on April 13 that students will be able to return to school “gradually” from May 11. .
“The current situation is worsening inequalities,” he said. “Too many children, especially children from working-class neighborhoods, in the countryside, do not have access to school, do not have access to digital tools and cannot be helped fairly by their parents. . ”
However, some have already fallen through the cracks – Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer recently said that the system has lost track of up to 8% of students since the start of the lockout.
Among the 36 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, France has one of the strongest links between socio-economic background and educational achievement. It has one of the biggest gaps in reading skills between its advantaged and disadvantaged students, according to the latest OECD student assessment. It also scores below average in OECD surveys asking 15-year-olds to assess the availability of effective online tools, the digital competence of teachers and the commitment of instructors to their progress.
None of this bodes well for the prospect of keeping the education of the poorest children on track during the lockdown.
Layana Mebarki is 12 years old and goes to Jean Jaurès college in Clichy-la-Garenne, a city north of Paris. It has a total of 10 teachers, but since the schools closed, it has received calls from only one, its principal. “The teachers tell us that they are counting on us. But we don’t get much more encouragement from them, “she said.
The eldest of four, Mebarki was not well equipped to study at home because she usually shared a computer with her two brothers. But the Telemaque Institute, a charity that works with corporations to provide mentorship and other assistance to disadvantaged students, provided one during the second week of isolation. Although she shares her room with her four-year-old sister, who has her toys strewn all over the place, she says she can now concentrate on her studies while her mother takes care of her sister. The charity was also able to provide a computer to Meziane, the student from Montpellier, during the second week of home study, which she said really helped her get into an academic rhythm.
The government is exploring more traditional means of communication to educate the masses by collaborating with state-funded France Télévisions and Radio France networks to broadcast educational content for different age groups. The jury is still on the merits of the Learning Nation. Mebarki said she likes the content and watches it during the replay when the programs focus on her class – she is in seventh grade. She particularly appreciates the efforts of the teachers to explain the problems with concrete examples and games. But Meziane from Montpellier said she doesn’t like him too much because she doesn’t have the interactivity of a real class. Another teenage girl, Yasma Ahmed Ousseni, who frequents Jean Moulin in Marseille, said that she had not even heard of this initiative.
Ousseni’s house is crowded: she lives with her mother, her cousin, her cousin’s three children and her sister. She said it can be complicated to study in this household of seven, which mixes French and Comorian, so she asked to attend a military boarding school next year in Aix-en-Provence. She submitted her application before the lockout started and has yet to hear if it has been accepted. “It would be the best for me,” she said.
The stories told by students show how much the poorest students in France need the help of charitable organizations to keep in touch with their schools and teachers. The Telemaque Institute supports around 1,000 students in mostly difficult neighborhoods in five regions of France. With the incoming lock, he found that about 10% of the teens he supported didn’t have a home computer.
“This is very problematic for a student who wants to take lessons at home,” said Pascal Jacqueson, who is in charge of communications for the association. “The inequalities are accentuated even more” during this lockout.
Mebarki said she was worried about all her friends during the school closings. “We don’t all have computers, some have more siblings, some of us don’t have laptops or cell phones for the whole family,” she said. “It will be difficult to catch up. “- Bloomberg