Today's lesson: ordinary life

November 23, 2007

France's elite Sciences Po is launching a scheme to ensure that all its students have at least a brief experience of how less priviliged citizens live. Huw Richards reports. When Remi Drouin returned for his second year at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (universally known as Sciences Po) - a noted academic hothouse and France's nearest equivalent to the London School of Economics - his recent memories were of a world a long way from crowded lecture halls and vigorous political debate.

The 18-year-old spent September on a building site in a Paris district considerably less salubrious than Science Po's St-Germain-des-Pres, with its fashionable cafes once patronised by Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir, and designer boutiques charging improbable prices.

"I supervised a team who cleared up at the end of jobs," Drouin says. "It was an interesting experience. You had the noise of the building site, and I was at the bottom end of the enterprise, with unskilled workers. I had an hour's journey each way to a job starting at 7am, so I had to be out at six each morning."

Also returning to Sciences Po for her second year was Sophie Rigondaud, 19, the daughter of senior civil servants in the provincial city of Limoges. Her attachment involved working first in the bookshop for a circus festival, then as personal assistant to the director of a festival of short films. "I had never done a job like the bookshop before," she says. "I had to set up the shop and keep track of stock. I began at 9am and was often there until 7pm, standing for much of the time. It was a long day, but it was also possible sometimes to take breaks and see some of the performances."

Drouin, from Gennevilliers, north of Paris, already reflects one significant change at Sciences Po. He went to one of the 50 secondary schools included in Sciences Po's partnership agreement, created in 2001, with educational priority zones (known by their French acronym Zeps). His building site attachment places him in the first wave of another initiative, the introduction from next year of the stage ouvriere, a compulsory one-month work placement before starting the second year.

This year's participants, about 100, were volunteers. Many, like Rigondaud, who wants a career in the arts and has no wish to follow her parents into the civil service - "You have to work within a system, and there is very little that you can do to change it" - were in posts related to their longer-term ambitions.

Next year will be different. Richard Descoings, president of Sciences Po since 1996, says: "Jobs will not require educational qualifications. They will have to involve dealing directly with the public. They will not be well paid and will, if possible, involve a long daily journey."

The French business newspaper Les Echos once called Sciences Po "a singular mix of elitism, eclecticism and cosmopolitanism". The institution happily quotes this on a poster, but is also concerned about the type of elitism it implies. As Descoings, himself an alumnus, says: "We have no difficulty with the idea of professional elites. Elitism in fields of competence is accepted. What we cannot accept is the idea of social elitism."

A ferociously competitive entrance system makes the institution academically elitist. There are three routes in for French applicants. Last year, 350 places went to applicants with the highest rating, "tres bien" , in the Baccalaurea t, leaving a further 850 "tres bien" disappointed. Only one in ten of the 2,800 entrance exam candidates succeeded. The Zep scheme admitted 95, only 13 per cent of applicants.

Most stay five years, completing a year abroad and a masters as well as an undergraduate degree. Students, according to Descoings, "know that if they are successful they will have time to think about the sort of jobs they want and will have a very wide choice of possibilities". Although most go into corporate jobs, there are also sizeable groups who enter the civil service, local government, the media and academia.

Descoings' concern is that Sciences Po graduates will enter elite careers with only limited experience of the everyday lives of their fellow citizens. At the average French university, 25 to 30 per cent of students are eligible for means-tested state grants. At Sciences Po, it is 15 per cent - and was only 5 per cent as recently as three years ago.

"Many (students) never use public transport," he says, "because they live within walking distance and many have cars. Daily life for many people in France involves an hour on public transport, often having to stand and subject to delays and strikes. Our students go into good jobs, which are well paid and give them responsibility over other people. The danger is that they will never meet the man in the street or understand his life. The idea is to push them out of the attitudes and habits that can come from that lack of contact. If you spend a month as a cashier in a supermarket in a poor district, you will have to mix with different people and get some idea of how their lives can be."

Placements will be decided by Sciences Po, not the student. As Laurent Bigorgne, dean of studies and Descoings' deputy, explains: "There are no plans to give a credit for the placement, but it will be compulsory. You will not be able to progress academically without it, although there will be exemptions for students who can show that they already have experience of this sort."

Although neither Drouin nor Rigondaud had precisely the experience of those who will follow them, both felt there were tangible benefits in their placements. Drouin says: "It was valuable to see what a business is like at the bottom end. It was pretty tough, and good experience. I also learnt how important it is that you develop good relationships with people." He has good reason to believe he succeeded ("I've had plenty of invitations to go and visit people at their homes"), but he recognises that his own unpretentious background - his father works in security and his mother in social care, and his daily journey from the banlieu to Sciences Po takes an hour - helped. "From my own experiences and that of people I know, I had an understanding of issues in their lives."

Rigondaud says: "I really enjoyed working, even more than I enjoy studying." She was particularly grateful to the film festival director for giving her responsibility and ensuring that the attachment was stimulating, while admitting that she "really did not like doing mailings".

Descoings recognises that this latest innovation will not be popular with everyone, but he reflects on the controversy that surrounded the Zep scheme six years ago. "Then it was controversial, now I cannot imagine us without it," he says. One popular misconception was that it was US-style affirmative action aimed at immigrants and ethnic minorities. But Descoings points out that ethnic monitoring, never mind affirmative action, is outlawed in France.

The Zep scheme has been successful. Veronique Bollhuis, the admissions director, says: "There is no stigma and no academic difference, some (Zep students) are average and some are among our very best. Where you see the difference is in the classroom: if you are discussing some matter of social policy, you have students whose lives have been directly affected. It adds an extra, important, dimension."

Drouin bears that out, glad to have fellow students from similar backgrounds but with friends across the full social spectrum. "Some people make assumptions about you," he says, "but most are open, and we learn from each other's different experiences and background."

Neither the Zep scheme nor the work placement will be jeopardised by the comprehensive victory of the Right in this year's elections. As Descoings explains: "We needed legislation to introduce the change in 2001, so I had to talk to politicians on the Left and the Right. I went to see Nicolas Sarkozy, and he immediately supported the idea". Another strong supporter was Xavier Darcos - and he is now Education Minister.

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