French to open elite to the poor

January 13, 2006

President Jacques Chirac and government ministers are promising to increase opportunities for bright children living in deprived areas to go to university, writes Jane Marshall in Paris.

Their initiative follows the riots in November 2005 by disaffected young people that engulfed high-rise estates in towns nationwide.

Measures to widen poor students' access to the grandes écoles are also under discussion. Last week, President Chirac demanded substantial rises in the proportion of students from disadvantaged social backgrounds selected to attend preparatory classes for the entrance exams to France's elite universities.

He indicated that the number of student grantholders attending the classes must rise from 18 per cent to 33 per cent within three years.

Proposals to boost such students' chances include offering courses in exclusive lycées for those graduating from schools in educational priority zones (ZEPs) - disadvantaged areas that get extra resources - and setting up lycees of excellence in the zones.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has announced that prestigious Parisian lycée Henri-IV will admit about 30 ZEP students to preparatory classes for the grandes écoles . After receiving their school-leaving Baccalaureat , students will spend a year filling any gaps in their knowledge to help them to qualify for hypokhâgne - preparatory classes for the Ecole Normale Supérieure.

Mr de Villepin also supports a project initiated by Richard Descoings, head of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), to create a local lycées of excellence in Seine-Saint-Denis, the suburb where the November riots started.

He and Gilbert Bézériat, president of Pierre et Marie Curie University, together with local teachers and lycées heads, will present proposals to the Education Minister at the end of January. The school is scheduled to open in September.

Five years ago, Mr Descoings set up the first conventions d'education prioritaire - partnerships between Sciences Po and seven lycées in disadvantaged areas - to give pupils the chance to study at the institute without having to sit the entrance exam.

The initially controversial scheme has proved a success and Sciences Po has established links with 33 lycées . Other elite establishments, led by the ESSEC business school, have followed with efforts to widen their social intake.

Currently, 62 per cent of students at grandes écoles have parents who are professionals or senior managers, though this group represents just 13.6 per cent of the population with children aged 18 to 25.

Only 5.2 per cent of students are from working-class families, a group that makes up 31 per cent of the same population.

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