Economics as a Social Science in French lycées :A Programme Shaped by the Evolution of a School Discipline

  • Elisabeth Chatel


Since the end of the 1960s, courses in economics have become established in French lycées for pupils aged approximately 16 to 18 as part of both the general and technological (services) streams. There are no other specific programmes in economics at the other levels of the school system. In lower secondary schools (collèges), which cater for children aged between 11 and 15, economic phenomena are presented in a somewhat descriptive manner during history and geography lessons. These descriptions introduce children to an economic vocabulary that includes terms such as GDP, productivity, inflation, growth and development. However, the acquisition of this vocabulary does not lead on to the teaching of any real economic arguments, nor of economic concepts or theories in the strict sense. Economics as just defined in not taught in the vocational streams either. The aim of this article is to characterise the teaching of economics that is provided in the general streams of French upper secondary schools as part of a subject called Economic and Social Sciences (ESS). It is here that economics teaching is most heavily concentrated; furthermore, it is the only one of the two economics programmes in French lycées for which curriculum studies exist. The article will show that, despite the considerable changes it has undergone, this programme has retained the critical and socially aware approach that has been present since it was first established. It was by no means evident that such an approach, inspired originally by the work of historians of the Annales school, would be adopted, even less retained, since it goes against the grain of developments in economics at university level, both in French universities and internationally, during the two decades between 1980 and the year 2000 (LeVan Lemesle 1983; Le Merrer 1990). During this period, the economics taught in universities became less descriptive and more formalised and moved away from the other social sciences. Economists have become increasingly adept at manipulating models and have ceased to view economic and social problems from an historical perspective (Hogdson et al. 2009). The teaching of economic and social sciences in French schools has not followed this course and has been challenged on numerous occasions, most notably by academic economists and employers’ representatives. The fact that its original critical approach has been maintained is due in no small measure to action taken by teachers.