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France's gifted youth are set up to fail

Paris

IN THE 21st century, a country's gifted children are arguably a more valuable natural resource than, say, oil or gas. A new study shows that France is largely wasting this precious resource.

The study is by Laurence Vaivre-Douret, a professor of neuropsychology at the University of Paris; it was presented at a recent conference organised by the French Ministry of Education and has not yet been published.

It found that 39 per cent of French gifted children are medically depressed, versus 2 per cent for the general population of children. More than 80 per cent in the sample are diagnosed with anxiety. More than a fifth of the gifted children in the study were deemed a suicide risk.

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As the author notes, there is reason to be cautious about these results: In France, gifted children are typically only identified as such after encountering social or other difficulties that lead to testing, which biases the sample. There is no mechanism for identifying gifted children early, as exists in the US and other countries.

Still, the findings are quite alarming - and, to me, not in the least bit surprising. While some of the struggles of gifted children are doubtless universal, there is also something systemically wrong here.

According to a 2012 study, only a third of gifted children earn a university degree, and fully 70 per cent experience failure in school. Something in their environment is failing them.

Rote learning

France's system of education emphasises rote memorisation rather than creativity, curiosity or self-expression. That might seem to play to the strengths of the talented, but gifted children are often bored by rote schoolwork and stop applying themselves.

Because most parents are unaware of the particular struggles of gifted children and most school teachers refuse to be, the child is then branded a problem. Too often, the young child internalises this perception and simply stops trying, or rebels against the institution.

Another long-standing feature of the French system compounds the problem: An extreme egalitarianism holds that every child must be treated exactly the same, regardless of individual need. France's monolithic education system combines a rigid conservative mindset inherited from its hallowed 19th century roots with the worst of the progressive mindset, inherited from the May 1968 protests, when left-wing teachers' unions essentially wrested control of the education ministry from politicians. What results is a system that disserves both the under-performing and the gifted.

Private schools

Private schools are no different: Under the so-called "contract" system, the vast majority of private schools get subsidies from the government, but must use government-mandated curricula, textbooks and methods. And because private schools compete largely on the basis of test scores, it leads to an even greater emphasis on rote learning, and they have much more freedom to expel a child deemed problematic than public schools.

Truly independent schools are very rare and out of the reach of most pocketbooks. I am hardly a neutral observer. As a child, I was part of the inaugural class of the first middle school for the gifted to open in the Paris area, and the second nationwide, after having already skipped three grades.

 A majority of my classmates came from schools where the teachers had told the parents that their children were mentally deficient and would never amount to anything, and experienced a transformation once they were in an environment where their challenges were recognised.

Parents made extensive sacrifices to send their children to the school because they had seen the damage of the traditional system.

Social divisions

Of course, this problem also deepens France's painful social divisions. A white child who acts out because he's bored to death in class might catch a break whereas similarly disruptive behaviour from an Arab or black child might be interpreted very differently.

Parents of higher socioeconomic status would be much more likely than working-class parents to lobby the bureaucracy for help or explore more enlightened schools. In France's education ministry, there is a deep, entrenched belief that any difference in treatment for children jeopardises public schools' bedrock value of equality.

But since 2009, every regional school district has a point person for gifted education issues. An increasing number of public schools now have special programmes for gifted children, who can customise their own curriculum, attend classes at various levels and even engage in self-study.

In 2017, the Paris school district created a special team whose job is to train teachers and administrators on gifted education, and assist them in creating special options for them.

Over the past 15 years, and after much internal resistance, French schools have made tremendous strides recognising and adapting to learning disorders such as dyslexia, thereby implicitly solidifying the notion that offering different options for different needs is not necessarily a betrayal of egalitarianism.

After decades of France spending ever more money on education while its schools keep sliding down the rankings, the need for reform is hard to ignore even inside the Politburo. BLOOMBERG

  • The writer is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.