France to trial mandatory school uniforms and toughen rules on retaking years as standards slide

Gabriel Attal speaking at an awards ceremony in Paris
Gabriel Attal, France's education minister, intends to bring mandatory uniforms back at selected schools across the country to assess the impact - BERZANE NASSER/ABACA/SHUTTERSTOCK

France will introduce mandatory uniforms in some schools as part of a clampdown on bad behaviour and falling educational standards.

Gabriel Attal, the education minister, also promised to toughen rules on retaking the school year and to introduce streamed study groups for 11- and 12-year-olds in maths and French.

The moves came after France performed poorly in the latest Pisa international school rankings, released earlier this week.

It ranked 26th out of 81 countries in maths, 14 places lower than Britain, while the study also showed a significant drop in reading comprehension among pupils.

Mr Attal, 34, said the uniform plan would involve “a certain number of establishments in different local authorities”, but did not provide specific figures.

It will “experiment with uniforms on a large scale”, he told the France Info radio network, with details set to be laid out in full before Christmas.

“Like many French people, I am divided on the issue of uniforms ... I am not yet convinced that this is a solution that will solve everything, nor am I convinced, as some are, that we shouldn’t talk about it and try it out,” he said.

Calls for uniform return gain traction

While uniforms were all but phased out in France’s state schools after 1968, calls for their return have gained traction among conservative and centrist politicians driven by disciplinary issues, a teacher shortage and a decline in pupils’ performance in the centrally controlled state system.

Private schools, most of which are Catholic, generally impose uniforms.

Marine Le Pen’s Right-wing National Rally party and the conservative Republicans party contend that uniforms would safeguard schools against what they argue is growing Islamist influence.

In January, Brigitte Macron, the French first lady, said she was personally in favour of making uniform clothing mandatory

“I wore a uniform as a pupil. Fifteen years in a marine blue miniskirt and marine blue jumper. And it was a positive experience for me,” she told the Le Parisien newspaper.

“It irons out differences, you save time … and money regarding brands,” she added.

“So I’m for wearing uniforms at school but a simple uniform and not a dreary one.”

Pap Ndiaye, Mr Attal’s predecessor, had quashed the idea, saying he didn’t want to “open this debate, at least not on a national level”.

He was fired in July in the wake of nationwide riots and looting. A large number of those taking part were minors.

But Mr Attal expressed an interest in trying uniforms out in September when he also announced a new ban on teenagers wearing the abaya, a loose, long dress worn by some Muslims. Girls who disobeyed were denied access to classes.

On Wednesday, Mr Attal went further by saying he was “interested to see what the results of a large-scale experiment (of wearing uniforms) would be in terms of the school climate, in terms of raising the level of our students”, or the impact “on authority at school, on bullying, on secular issues”.

The age of pupils who will take part in the tests would be “part of the forthcoming announcements”.

Most teachers’ unions oppose uniforms, arguing that they would not address underlying problems of underfunding, labour shortages and poor management.

Frédéric Leturque, centrist co-chairman of the education committee of the Association of French Mayors, said France had other more pressing issues.

“Success at school is an issue that needs to be addressed globally. Perhaps uniforms are an element to be taken into account, but they are certainly not a central element,” Mr Leturque said.

“We don’t just need one uniform, we need a spring uniform, a summer uniform, a winter uniform and a sports uniform, which is a big financial commitment,” he added. “It is not up to families or local authorities to bear the cost.”

‘No additional costs’

Mr Attal said he was working with the local authorities to ensure there would be “no additional costs for families”.

He promised “real follow-up research to measure effectiveness”.

“And if we see that it is effective, we can have a real debate on the general rollout of uniforms in France, but at least it will be on a scientific basis,” he added.

Besides uniforms, Mr Attal said he wanted to raise school standards at all levels, introducing Singapore-style lessons on decimals and fractions for pupils as young as seven.

Pupils would have to pass a tougher exam than the current “brevet” before they could enter state-funded secondary schools and teachers, not parents would in future have the last word on whether pupils should retake a year.

Teaching unions were underwhelmed.

SE Unsa said it smacked of a “nostalgia-flavoured smokescreen” that “avoids acknowledging the real malaise in schools today, namely the cruel lack of social diversity”.

The measures would further reinforce the segregation of pupils, it claimed.

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