French Guiana’s Education System: Current Challenges

Written by Juliana Campos.

France’s largest territory in South America, French Guiana, faces social and economic growth challenges still yet to be addressed by the French government, including difficulties in administering the Guianese education system.

Guianese population has doubled in the last 20 years and is now estimated at 301,099 inhabitants i. Recently, due to its status as an overseas department of France, the region has experienced a surge in immigration from neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Suriname. The uncontrolled immigration, along with inadequate infrastructure, poverty and elevated unemployment rates have significantly lowered the quality of life in French Guiana and the region faces several challenges which make access to basic services such as healthcare and education more difficult.

The issues which stem from social and economic inequality would greatly benefit from a bigger interest of the French government in improving and expanding education in French Guiana. Although substantial investments have been made in the last decade, money alone is not enough to ensure access to quality education.

The Guianese Education System

In French Guiana, education is free and mandatory from ages 6 to 16. Primary education lasts five years and, for that particular stage of school life, enrolment rates are as high as ever in bigger cities and are slowly improving in more remote areas where there aren’t as many resources, such as in Indigenous settlements. As it is the reality of other developing countries, high Primary School enrolment is contrasted by alarmingly high drop-out rates in Secondary School and High School.

One big contributing factor to this phenomenon is the fact that Primary school is usually cheaper for governments to provide and children in that age group are more likely to stay in school, as parents can’t yet leave them unattended at home while working. In Secondary education, however, many children are given extra tasks at home or in the growing informal market, some live too far from school, and others simply do not receive encouragement from family members to continue their studies.

Besides, it is worth mentioning that although all Guianese children have the right to attend school free of charge, studying is not free. Additional costs with transportation, clothes, food and school materials take a toll on low-income families and may affect students’ attendance rates.

To address this issue, the French government and Guianese authorities have come up with financial aid programmes that aim to motivate students and their families. The bonuses are given to scholarship holders, aiding 46.4% of all middle school and high school students in French Guiana.ii However, there is a lack of follow-up data on whether these measures are actually effective.

Teacher shortage and inequality

Another issue currently hindering quality education in French Guiana is the shortage of trained teachers. The number of licensed educators native to the region is insufficient compared to the number of students, a problem which resulted in overpacked classrooms as the Guianese population grew. This demand brought teachers from mainland France and adjacent countries in South America to work in French Guiana, causing new problems as these professionals are usually unaware of the region’s specificities.iii

In fact, one of the biggest challenges faced by the French government when administering education in French Guiana is its extremely diverse and multicultural society. Though teachers are given freedom to adapt materials to their students’ realities, textbooks are usually made in mainland France and classes are administered in French, the official language.

By erasing French Guiana’s history, geography, languages and heritage from textbooks and national exams, French authorities perpetuate the colonialist idea that mainland France’s history and culture are somehow more relevant than that of its other territories. As a result, children may find school contents difficult to understand or hard to relate to and can grow up unaware of many of their local heroes and historic figures. Besides that, this erasure has a direct effect on students’ self-esteem and may discourage them from continuing their studies.

The adaptation of school contents by local teachers cannot derive much from the French curriculum, as French Guiana students are also subjected to standardized national exams such as the Brevet, the Lower Secondary School exam, and the Baccalauréat, the French academic qualification exam.

Considering the points previously mentioned, it is unsurprising that Guianese students do not reach the same results as mainland French students. According to GrowThinkTank and INSEE (2014), the year of the study in French Guiana, only 76% of students aged 15 to 19 were enrolled in school, whether as pupils, students or apprentices, compared to 89% in mainland France. Furthermore, more than one in two Guianese no longer attend school from the age of 19, compared to 72% in mainland France at the same age.

This stark difference surely doesn’t come from lack of resilience, lack of intelligence or any characteristic exclusive to French Guiana’s youth. It is simply a product of inequality and lack of opportunity. Not being in school or dropping out of school has long lasting effects on young people, not only for their professional future, but also for their individual growth as human beings and as citizens, as school is also the main place where children socialise.

Kids and a Teacher in a Classroom / Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz via Pexels

Education of Indigenous People and other minorities

Indigenous peoples play a substantial role in Guianese society, preserving culturally valuable knowledge, fighting for structural change and demanding protection of their territories. The erasure perpetrated by the French school curriculum affects these populations even more strongly, starting by the lack of data available on them. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) affirms that, according to estimates, Indigenous peoples represent some 4% of the Guianese population, or more than 12,000 individualsiv, but there is no way to be sure, as the French Constitution prohibits the collection of race-based census data.

For decades in French Guiana, as well as in many adjacent regions, education was only present in the form of Catholic Schools, residential institutions where Indigenous children were forcibly interned and required to replace their traditions and religions with the Catholic ideals. Their native languages were also prohibited and children were taught French instead.

This serves as an example of how school can be used as political tactic, as colonial France risked the disappearance of invaluable Indigenous knowledge in order to maintain its territory. To this day, the French government has not directly dealt with the cultural loss from French Guiana’s period as a colony, and the erasure of Indigenous minorities is still a very present issue, with their history, culture and languages often being ignored by the French education system.

Future Prospects

French Guiana suffers from social and economic inequalities that would greatly benefit from an education system that is better tailored to its extremely multicultural society. The French government has a responsibility to invest in French Guiana’s education by building new schools and preparing and hiring native teachers, as well as training foreign teachers on how to approach French Guiana’s diverse society. This would partially solve the issue of overpacked schools, while also stimulating the local economy.

In addition to these measures, the government should also include more about the history, cultures, geography, climate and religions present in French Guiana in textbooks and standardized exams, which could make school more relatable to students and have a direct effect on the current drop-out rates. A special effort should be made to ensure Indigenous peoples and other minorities have access to quality education which also respects their culture and heritage.

In order to effectively make these improvements, it is crucial that the French government monitors the developments of their investments, either by conducting their own research on the ground or relying on local leaders and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). It is particularly important to collect data on enrolment rates for both Primary and Secondary Education, but also to understand what can be done to make sure these children receive quality education and encouragement to finish their studies.


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