Country Focus: France

France: Troubled economic outlook heightens the need for multi-stakeholder collaboration in STEM education

As the French economy darkens, it is hard to be optimistic about investment in STEM education and career communication. The destruction of nearly 67,000 posts in France in 2012 is set to accelerate as the economy continues to flounder during the course of 2013. Not encouraging news for pupils making study and career choices. Furthermore, the current socialist President, Francois Hollande, has been forced to admit the hard reality of budget cuts, leading many wondering whether promised education investments will ever happen. Yet, there are glimmers of hope as new approaches to STEM education take root and interest in the communication of STEM careers begins to blossom.

inGenious spoke to Hélène Chahine, director of its associate partner Fondation C. Génial, a French foundation established by Areva, Technip, EADS, SNCF, Orange and Schlumberger to foster STEM career communications at elementary level. “There is groundswell of activity,” says Hélène, “and a definite rising consciousness about the value of school - industry collaboration, but I wouldn’t yet call it strong momentum.”

“The inGenious workshop was the first time industry, education and associations sat together talking and identifying what needs to be done. Already that is a big step.”

Hélène Chahine, Directeur, Fondation C.Genial

C. Genial is an example of such groundswell. Founded eight years ago, the foundation has seen a steady increase in the number of schools and industry partners participating in its activities. As inGenious spoke to her, Hélène was preparing the final round of C. Génial’s annual competition - 'Concours C.Génial', organised together with a ministerial initiative supporting science called 'Sciences à l’Ecole' (Science at School). Targeting 12-18 year-olds, the competition encourages the development of hands-on projects leveraging STEM expertise. A record 400 projects were submitted this year with around 500 teachers and 7,000 pupils actively engaged.

C. Genial isn’t the only organisation operating in this area. inGenious has identified around twenty initiatives supporting school-industry collaboration, eleven of them at national level. The largest of these include projects from 'La Fondation la Main à la Pâte' (collaborative hands-on work) an association targeting primary and elementary schools with innovative STEM teaching methods; and activities run by UIMM (L'Union des Industries et des Métiers de la Métallurgie), the French Metal industries association. There are also a number of successful national and region campaigns such as 'La Fete de la Science' (Science Festival) run by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, and Picardie’s’ 'Le Printemps de l’Industrie' (Industry Spring).

Many of these initiatives promote the cultural dimension of science in the curriculum, connecting knowledge with its societal, historical and cultural context and developing other methods of learning in school such as cultural projects, which stimulate, for example, co-creation and collaboration. Cultural education is also about the development of dialogue between different actors in and outside school. This means establishing links with industry.

“Within French schools, this has often been often easier to accomplish in class streams that have a strong technical orientation,“filières technologiques”, than in the general curriculum where science subjects are part of a broader study group,” notes Hélène.

Even the taskmaster, Hélène isn’t yet fully satisfied with the extent of collaboration in French STEM education.

“We compare our work to Germany’s science competition ‘Jugend Forscht’ (Youth Research), which is strongly supported by all cultural actors, regional authorities and industries. France has a long way to go… but then Jugend Forscht has existed for over 40 years. The event attracts huge media coverage.”

So, what’s been holding France back? One factor cited by many is deep-rooted reticence among some members of the French teaching community to actively work with industry.

“French CEOs aren’t heroes in the way they are in the United States or, to an extent, in the UK. There are big concerns about influence and motives which we need to respect but clarify,” says Hélène.

Another barrier is resourcing. Many school-industry projects take place out of hours, and with their diaries already stretched, only a few teachers find the time for them.

A glance at the numbers reveals a clear need for action in support of STEM studies and careers. Since year 2000, France has seen steady decline in the number of pupils choosing STEM related disciplines for tertiary studies (Fig.1). Coupled with unemployment data, the picture is bleak. December 2012 saw the 19th consecutive month of increased jobless numbers in France, lifting the unemployment rate to 10.6%.

“Innovation is an economic priority”, says Hélène. “We know that the solution is in increasing the added value of our products and for that we need innovation. Innovation is people.”

French stats

Fig.1: Graduates (ISCED 5-6) in Maths, Science and Technology,
as a percentage of all fields. Source: Eurostat

And the demand for people in STEM is there. The career website, 'Les Industries Technologiques', recently released figures estimating that 80,000 to 100,000 people will be recruited into STEM related jobs in France by 2020.

“It is about numbers and quality”, explains Hélène. “Industry wants choice and talent. If you only get a few eligible CVs in response to a job advert, then you don’t have choice.”


STEM’s poor image is another barrier France has to overcome. “There is a lack of appetite for STEM studies and jobs and it’s especially apparent amongst women”, says Hélène. “The field has a pejorative image. Young people don’t understand what it is and, for girls, there is also a self-confidence problem. They need encouragement and female role models”. The image problem is universal however. Indeed, one French STEM hero today is Fields Medal winner Cedric Villani whose eccentric dress sense provokes as much debate as his mathematical prowess (picture taken at 'l'Espace des Sciences', in 2012). Asked recently why he chooses to dress as he does, he responded, “I have to be noticed”.

“I was in a classroom last week”, says Hélène, “and the engineer I accompanied asked the class of 15-16 year olds about STEM careers that interest them. The answer was nurse, pharmacist, vet and forensics expert. This sums up what pupils know about STEM jobs.”

Her comment echoes that of the current French Minister for Education, Vincent Peillon, who was recently quoted in The Figaro as saying, “The State will enable all it can to create a link between companies, local authorities and associations. Recently we went… to a high school in Seine-and-Marne (near Paris). It was edifying: all the boys dreamed of being mechanics and the girls, beauty therapists! If you don’t open children’s choices, from the youngest age, you lock them into stereotypes".

European Commission funded initiatives such as inGenious aim to encourage action on industry collaboration and feed our collective knowledge base on how best it should be done. That is why representatives of French industry, government and associations recently met in Paris for an inGenious workshop dedicated to assessing the needs of the French STEM community when it comes to school-industry collaboration. The resultant white paper will soon be available through the inGenious partner and teacher communities with extracts being communicated publicly alongside similar reports for other European Union countries later this year.

Published: May 2013