• French education statistics in troubled waters

    Usually, it’s common for a development economist to associate lack of transparency, biased communication on facts or even data manipulation with autocratic governments. For several decades, we knew little about many developing countries basic figures such as income, poverty, or access to public services such as education and health.

    With few exceptions, it is fair to say that immense progress has been made. Household surveys of different kinds are now pervasive, and more specialized surveys on many critical aspects of society are very often available online. This has been in part the result of a coordinated effort of governments and international institutions, in a context in which democracy has been on the rise: in the last 30 years, the number of democracies almost doubled, while that of autocracies plummeted.

    There is a strong belief among practitioners that transparency and data availability is a crucial ingredient of a successful development strategy, for at least two basic reasons. First, defining adequate policies requires accurate facts; and second, information is the key to democratic control by citizens.

    Against that background, the current turmoil around the French education system comes as some of a shock. Studies hold back from publication when they don’t fit the minister’s communication strategy (down from 61 in 2001 to 19 in 2010, when 46 should have been released), evaluation now entrusted to an agency also in charge of implementing the same policies they evaluate (the Direction générale de l’enseignement scolaire, DGESCO), official communication based on biased and sometimes outright incorrect facts. In September, the Haut Conseil de l’Education (High Council for Education, HCE) denounced in a report the fact that the indicators based on national evaluations were not methodologically sound:

    “les indicateurs tirés des évaluations nationales des trois paliers du socle commun ne sont pas fiables pour des raisons de méthode”.

    This does not stop the education ministry from using these to infer an improvement in educational attainment. And the council stands a good chance of not being renewed…

    And recall the tension a few months ago, when the direction of INSEE, French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies publicly disallowed the interior minister, who had grossly and repeatedly misquoted a study on the link between immigration and educational failures.

    So is this French government traveling the road of transparency in the wrong direction? To go further, Claude Thélot, who headed for 8 years the statistical office at the education ministry and has been conseiller-maître at the French Cour des Comptes (the Comptroller General office) discusses these and other related aspects in this interview.

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