Beloved 'bac' shows signs of stress

June 13, 1997

From Tokyo to Tallinn attempts are being made to overhaul traditional university matriculation

AS Nearly half a million French school students prepare to take the baccalaureat, this educational milestone is showing signs of tremendous strain as it covers an increasingly varied range of students and examinations.

Some three-quarters of pupils will pass, which means that almost two-thirds of the entire age group gains the right to enter third-level education.

"The 'bac' has huge symbolic importance for the French. Lycee students protest when they feel it is threatened," explained lecturer Andre Robert at the Paris V University's sociology of education research unit.

Over 300,000 candidates sit the science or arts-based general baccalaureat, which has always been the passport to higher education, leading systematically to university or to a preparatory class for a grande ecole.

The fastest growing group, over 150,000-strong, takes the technical baccalaureat, and a steadily rising proportion of these candidates, over 80 per cent, also enter higher education. The third group of candidates, over 90,000, sit a vocational baccalaureat, which takes 85 per cent of its holders straight into the job market.

But even the candidates for the general baccalaureat are far from forming a homogeneous group. The most able students are still guided firmly towards the scientific "bac", and a recent study showed that those who are a year ahead, or in the normal year for their age, carry that advantage right through university.

On average, 80 per cent of students with a technology baccalaureat have repeated at least one school year, compared with 41 per cent of those with a general baccalaureat.

A 20-year-old candidate passing school exams this month will be 24 or 25 before completing a two-year university diploma course, and many students who never repeated at school end up repeating years at university.

"There is a real problem that must be faced. Some argue for 'bac' reform which would reduce its content, which implies that it would be followed by university entrance examinations. I think we should maintain the level of the 'bac', but introduce more introductory modules at university to bring the students up to the required level," said Mr Robert.

This is the most sensitive dilemma of the education system. Every attempt to face those options squarely has triggered protests by students and teachers.

The initial two-year university diploma courses, open to all baccalaureat holders on a non-selective basis, are looked on by many school-leavers as a necessary evil - chosen for want of a place in a preparatory class or a specialised technical course.

With the early years of university apparently beset with so many problems, demand for a preparatory class place has never been higher, putting pressure on candidates to get a good baccalaureat result. "One solution would be to introduce the best aspects of the preparatory classes - their teaching and study methods - into university practices," argued Mr Robert.

It is likely that undergraduate courses will be required to do the adapting, and not the baccalaureat. It may have cracks but it remains France's most visible educational milestone.

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