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The Impact of Overrepresentation of Suburban Students in Vocational Training Schools and Its Ramifications

I. Introduction

The French educational system is based on an egalitarian principle of education for all French citizens. However, not all French students have equal access to education. Students who live in suburban areas are systematically disadvantaged. According to a survey conducted by the Observatoire de l'enfance en France, schools fail to compensate for family inequalities in terms of cultural and social capital. A child’s attendance at school is correlated with his (or her) parents' employment status. In this memo, we will discuss the problem of over-representation of students from "banlieues,'' disadvantaged suburbs classified as ZUS (Zone Urbaine Sensible), in vocational training schools. According to a senatorial report in 2010, 222,000 students in France attended school within a ZUS. Ten years ago, 12% of students from a ZUS had earned a diploma equivalent or superior to a Masters degree, compared to a national percentage of 28.5. This situation remains unchanged today.

Compared to the national average, more youths from the ZUS are educated in technical schools and short courses of study. This memo will focus on students transitioning from 8th to 9th grade as a case study. During the last year of middle school, one must choose between a high school for general studies,a high school specializing in science and technology, or a technical high school. In Seine-Saint-Denis (ZUS), the rate of acceptance to general and technology-oriented high-schools ranges from 2% to 5%, far below the national rate. Students from the suburbs are primarily encouraged to attend technical schools in order to deter them from attending more elite schools, which would increase the dropout rate.

II.  Why is this a problem?

The problem is not that the technical professions are bad ones, but they are not freely chosen. Author Leyla Arslan suggests that some suburban youths feel forced to attend vocational training. Sebastien Bauvet, president of Solidascension, told us during an interview about some cases where children express a desire to attend technical high school (BEP), but are completely ignorant when it comes to its actual content and what kind of career they want. Not only do they lack a concrete project goal, but they lack career goals and plans on how to attain them.

One problem in the ZEP is that there is a great deal of ethnic diversity, but very little social diversity. For example, in 2005, 76% of people under 18 in Clichy-sous-Bois had at least one parent who was an immigrant. Yet, in Hauts-de-Seine, only 21% of children came from a disadvantaged background. In Seine-Saint-Denis, the figure is somewhat higher, at 50%. Only 9.5% of youths from the ZUS lived in households run by the father, compared to 25% of other French youths. Meanwhile, 35.8% of the former group have a working father compared to 17.9% in the latter group, and 15.1% have an unemployed or non-working father.

In 2009, the unemployment rate in France was 9.2%, but in the ZUS, it was 18.6%. For those under 25, the figure was 41.7%. Yacine Hilmi, president of the association IDEES, has met several middle-school students whose career dream is to open a hookah bar. He pointed out that for these youths, this represents success. It is a natural process to orient oneself toward what is familiar. The problem for these youths, however, is that their horizons are far more limited than those of other youths from more advantaged backgrounds.

The BEPs, also known as ‘trash schools,’’ are among the schools that suburban students are most likely to attend. Many youths are enrolled in such schools primarily to fulfill the legal requirement that children attend school until the age of sixteen. Hence, the quality of the education there is much lower, creating more difficulties for students who would like to continue with a general program of study later on.

III. Critical debate

While some critics argue that vocational schools are not freely chosen, others state that this is the logical consequence of these students' lack of potential and self-determination. Moreover, to achieve good grades one must be motivated, have clear objectives, and be well-informed. Many French youths have uneducated parents, which is a disadvantage. Not only do they come from low-income neighborhoods, but they lack encouragement from family members to better themselves. Among the youths in her study, Leyla Arslan noticed a deep-seated lack of faith in the value of school. Some youths distrust the institution, while others do not believe in its system of meritocracy. Others, who saw their parents struggle, believe that they have no promising future. Thus, the main problem here appears to be a lack of faith in the educational system, not the students’ level of intelligence. On the contrary, Arslan noticed in her study that the children of parents who have experienced greater social mobility in their life (e.g. a former construction worker who became an entrepreneur) do better in school and report having more faith in the educational system. This geographical segregation also leads to a problem of self-esteem. Students feel rejected by society, and therefore mentally detach themselves in the belief that the system is against them.

There are certain ways of addressing this problem of geographical and academic segregation. For example, the well-known "option game" allows parents who know the system to have their children apply to the best schools, and therefore maximize their chances of advancing in their studies. Access to information for parents is crucial in middle-school and high school, since preparation for an elite education begins during this time. Middle-class and upper-class parents who are aware of this fact begin developing strategies to better prepare their children, while low-income parents often do not take these necessary steps.

In conclusion, a lack of funding leads to a significant waste of potential in these neighborhoods. Aware of such hidden potential, the US government has set up a program to find young talented youths in the banlieues. In the meantime, however, people in these neighborhoods easily lose faith in meritocratic principles and the possibility of social mobility.

IV. What has been done by the state, politically speaking?

While this issue persists, it has only recently been taken into account by the educational policymakers. Indeed, the republican egalitarianism educational system has ignored this issue for a long time.

The first political response to the problem was made at the beginning of the 1980s with the implementation of the ZEP (Priority Education Zone), whereby certain elementary and secondary schools located in poor neighborhoods were selected to benefit from extra resources, more autonomy, and fewer pupils per class (an average of 21, compared to 25 nationally). Nevertheless, this was completely insufficient. A survey made by the INSEE covering the period 1982-1992 has proven that the ZEP had no significant effect on the degree of success and positive outlook among its residents.

Since the nineteenth century, despite a succession of reports and decrees attempting to address this situation, the issue has remained underrepresented in the public discourse. However, in the last five years, the questions of equal opportunity for suburban children and diversity in the schools have become a major factor in educational policies across the globe.

The ambitious “Plan Espoir Banlieues,” launched in 2008 at the beginning of the Sarkozy mandate, illustrates this renewed interest. It lays out a general overview and specific action plan to be followed by the State in the suburbs. The plan includes several categories: equals opportunity, security, transportation, association, and social housing.“Plan Espoirs Banlieux” involves a strategy based on 10 different measures. These include: implementation of remedial courses for children in the ZEP; busing policies that promote social diversity; providing data on internships in order to help younger middle-school children prepare for the job market; combating absenteeism through the use of intermediaries; replicating initiatives such as “l’Ecole de la deuxième chance”; increasing the number of boarding school options for these children and building new, improved boarding schools; making teaching more attractive in the ZUS through the use of incentives, in order to increase the number of teachers; rebuilding older middle schools that have fallen into disrepair.

V. What are the failures of the current educational policy?

Despite all the measures mentioned above, the situation has not significantly improved due to inadequate educational policies.

First, initiatives such as “excellence boarding” are focused on a very select group of pupils. Only 700 students are designated to benefit from full support and a nurturing environment, out of the 220,000 children currently attending school in a ZUS.

A second problem confirmed by our interview with a guidance counselor, Pierre-Marie, concerns the fact that considerations of career path are often addressed too late by middle schools: usually, only in the students’ final year there. Furthermore, this process is often too hasty. Yacine Hilmi, president of the association IDEES, feels that one's career path must be identified at a young age if it is to be properly nurtured. This is why, in their association, they demand that youths describe their “professional dream” to help them remember why school is important to their long-term objectives. Another pertinent issue is that the majority of the programs designed to foster social diversity, such as the ZEP Convention (“Cordées de la réussite”), are only implemented at the high school level. Instead, such programs should begin in middle school. The current orientation system, and the existence of quotas for the Orientation Council according to which they must send a certain percentage of pupils to vocational, technical, and general training schools, has the undesirable effect of predetermining pupils' choices.

Yet another key issue concerns the existence of numerous associations, local initiatives and specific programs which aim to support suburban students in completing homework, provide them with cultural and artistic activities, and devise academic projects. These efforts often lack sufficient coordination with the schools. For example, the town of Sevran has recently tried to implement a program to help middle school students with homework. But, as Hilmi explained in the IDEES interview, this local initiative was a failure due to its isolated nature. It must be combined with career planning as well as activities that are artistic, cultural and citizenship-related, if we really wish to get students more involved in the program and make a positive change. Such changes cannot only occur on the margin; they need to be global, yet coherent.

Last but not least, we have to keep in mind that all of these recent educational policies have been implemented in the context of a negative environment for learning. Indeed, improving the situation appears difficult when the number of teachers and guidance counselors continues to decrease, while at the same time the number of pupils per class is increasing. Such devaluation of education and teaching, along with the geographical segregation of students, has led to deteriorating conditions and the current educational crisis.

VI. Recommendations

Given the current state of the French educational system and its marginalization of youth from the suburbs, not enough has been done to tackle this issue. These students have not only demonstrated a high degree of motivation, but the talent and ability to pursue an advanced education. However, efforts to address this issue have been isolated and limited only to certain geographic areas. In light of these facts, we believe that any improvements will require a public policy implemented at the national level, which would guarantee efficiency and amount to a recognition by the state itself that "the banlieu has talent." In our research, we wish to target middle school students of average academic standing. An effective national educational policy must stress the informing and educating of parents.

We suggest that each middle school situated in a ZEP have a full-time guidance counselor, who would be fully dedicated to helping students. During the first year of middle school an information session will be organized, involving both parents and students, to inform them about the different opportunities available following middle school. This information session will include workshops on how to browse the web for information on which schools to apply to, when to submit the applications, and how to find tutoring organizations. In addition, mandatory information sessions will be held privately with each student throughout the academic year to monitor his or her progress.

  • A similar session will be held later during the same year in order to follow up on students' progress. There may be fewer information sessions during the second and third years of middle school.
  • During the final year, in which students decide whether to pursue vocational or general training, meetings should be organized every three months between the students and guidance counselors to ensure that the right personal decision is being made.
  • We also insist that guidance counselors take on the therapeutic roles that were assigned to them, but which they haven't been able to perform due to a lack of time. Full-time guidance counselors would be able to better talk to and get to know the students. These interactions can play a crucial role in tackling issues of self-esteem, as students are given room for a different kind of conversation and relationship than they have with each other.
  • Finally, our meetings with various associations also illuminated the importance of tutoring. It is already offered through public schools, and should continue to be. In addition, we think that schools located in a ZEP, or any other school that desires, could establish partnerships with university students who are willing to help students experiencing academic difficulties. This could be organized on a voluntary basis or, if results are insufficient, a small amount of financial compensation could be offered to students participating in the program (alternatively, recognition from their universities could appear in their resumes). It would be helpful if the tutors share the same background as the middle school students they would be tutoring, because seeing other youths who have "made it"  from their neighborhood would help these children realize that they, too, can make it. Thus, the tutors would serve as role models – encouraging students to reach the objectives that they set with the guidance counselor, their parents, or themselves.



Arslan, Leyla. Les enfants d'Islam et de Marianne. 2010.


Maurin, Louis. "De quoi souffrent les jeunes de quartiers en difficulte?" Chiffres de l'enquete "generation 1998".


Keller, Fabienne. Rapport n352 (2010-2011).

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HIA Program:

France France 2011


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