French aid poor but bright

September 12, 1997

FRENCH education minister Claude Allegre has said that the poorest students today are receiving less support to go through university than did their predecessors a quarter of a century ago.

He promised to take action just as the national statistics office, INSEE, released a report which showed social differences play as great a role as ever in education outcomes in France.

Mr Allegre said he would launch plans to fund the full cost of higher education for promising students from the poorest families, if they are prepared to become magistrates, study medicine or enter the top political science school, "Sciences P"".

"Our grant system is efficient for middling poor families but not for very poor families who cannot put any money whatsoever into long-term studies," he told the French business magazine, L'Expansion.

He promised that from October 1998 funding would target the poorest students who pass the baccalaureate with flying colours.

"The day when one magistrate in four comes from the (deprived) suburbs, the problem of violence will be handled differently," he said.

The education minister expects little or no extra money in the austerity budget, but intends to tackle the "inequality of opportunity" in the education system.

That inequality has changed in nature, according to INSEE researchers Dominique Goux and Eric Maurin.

"Economic disparity has receded in recent decades, while cultural disparity has grown along with the expansion of the education system, the multiplication of course options and increasing importance of mastering one's orientation through a complex system," the report says.

While students from working-class families now have a higher level of education generally, the ratio of working class to middle- class students has not improved greatly and social origin continues to affect entry into the professions.

The inequality of opportunity for graduates entering the job market "first and foremost reflects the inequality of educational levels of their parents", the report adds. Inequality actually grows as graduates move up the career ladder.

The two researchers suggest this phenomenon reflects conformity to deep-rooted social expectations. However, on a more positive note, they conclude that mass secondary and higher education has led to a genuine and "considerable rise in the level of education".

Education ministry figures show that the elite grandes ecoles have resisted the general trend towards democratisation of the education system.

In the 1980s, the offspring of professionals, executives or teachers were 11 times more likely to go to university than offspring of working-class parents. Students from a privileged background had 33 times more chance of entering the more elite ecoles than those from working-class families.

* France's national audit office, the Cour des Comptes, has reported that the cost of decentralising the elite Ecole National d'Administration, ENA, is Fr16 million (Pounds 1.7 million) a year more than expected.

The school, whose intake is in the tens rather than the hundreds, has faced escalating costs and under-use of resources ever since the government of Edith Cresson decided six years ago to transfer it to Strasbourg, in a bid to break its perceived excessively close relationship with the Paris establishment.

The decision caused such an uproar that a compromise was reached with the 14-month course split into two sessions, one in Strasbourg and one in Paris.

The result, writes the Cour des Comptes, is that the budget leap-frogged from Fr20.9 million francs in 1989 to Fr41.2 million in 1994.

ENA regularly faces criticism for being elitist, privileged and out of touch. Before his election defeat, former prime minister and ENA graduate Alain Juppe, suggested replacing the school "with another one".

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