'In a high unemployment economy, French young people have created a hierarchical, competitive tertiary system with strong similarities to our own'
France's legendarily rigorous Bac isn't what the British think it is - and nor is its higher education sector
The French Baccalauréat has a long history, and not just in France. All my life it has been the symbol, for English reformers, of what our upper secondary education ought to be. But it now offers very different lessons.
For outsiders, the Bac encapsulates a national commitment to general education and the value of intellectual debate, notably in its compulsory philosophy exam. This is closer to what we call "general essays" than to contemporary academic philosophy. It still exists and has had some great recent topics. Take this question: which do we know better, the present or the past? I have been mulling it over for weeks.
But the Baccalauréat itself has changed. I was in France this year when the Bac season began. The start of exams and the philosophy paper were covered, of course, but, as the press kept remarking, they weren't the story they used to be. This wasn't because the voters had just delivered their historic " non ". The exams are simply not the nail-biting, life-changing event they were - or not, at least, for any would-be member of the French professional classes.
Passing the Bac provides you, as it always has done, with a formal diploma and the right to enter university. In the past, as a bachelier, you were part of a small elite. Today in France, upper secondary and tertiary numbers have exploded. Most young people take one of 59 Baccalauréat options (three general, eight technical, 48 vocational). This year that's 623,000 candidates, 400 subjects, 4 million scripts, 130,000 examiners. Of those who pass, most go straight into tertiary education. Much like here, in fact.
In this context, gaining a Baccalauréat and going to university hardly mark you out from the crowd. Our politicians' overt welcome for a higher education "market" is anathema to many, possibly most, French educators.
But French young people, manoeuvring for position in a high-unemployment economy, have created a hierarchical, competitive tertiary system with strong similarities to our own. Many people in England have heard of the small, selective Grandes Ecoles that train the French elite. Fewer realise that the first step towards entry is another selection, into two years of classes préparatoires , where you get ready for the Grande Ecoles entrance exams. No one who is not going to cruise through their Bac will apply for these classes, and the Bac is not used for selection. Instead, students apply well ahead on the basis of a dossier of school marks. They can make multiple applications, and are well aware of the relative success rate of different classes préparatoires . The high-prestige lycee Saint-Louis in Paris can expect 9,000 dossiers for its 600 places. What most strikes a visitor from our university sector is the growth of other selective routes, to the point where a good half of all Baccalauréat candidates are making applications for them. The once "normal" progression from lycee to university entrance has instead become the fall-back option. And the surge towards selective programmes has completely subverted the designs of France's educational planners.
Two major reforms were meant to make education more "relevant" to the labour market and raise the prestige of vocational education. The Instituts Universitaires de Technologie (IUTs) originally offered two-year courses a bit like our foundation degrees. Young people were expected to reject university in favour of these employer-friendly options.
For years, the IUTs flopped. Now they are highly popular. It would be nice to report a belated victory for practical education, but it would be inaccurate. It has become easy to move from an IUT into the third year of the (four-year) French degree, so missing the first two years of university with their high failure rates and poor conditions. Selection and higher funding mean the IUTs now offer a cachet plus better teaching. So IUT students increasingly come from the "general" (that is, academic) stream, squeezing out those from the technical, let alone the vocational, classes.
The BTS (higher technician) courses were another reform designed to improve the link between education and the labour force. They are attached to lycees rather than universities, are highly selective and were conceived as a progression from the vocational Bac . But only 10 per cent of their students hold vocational Baccalauréats . The others, selected on their dossiers, are from the general and technical streams.
The French tradition is one of formal equality among institutions and diplomas at a given level. Their experience suggests that, in our mass-education societies, we all have as much chance of blocking the advance of new academic hierarchies as children have when building dams in hillside streams.
Alison Wolf is the Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King's College London.