Bright poor pupils from lycées in deprived areas are to have the chance to study at the highly selective Institute of Political Studies in Paris without sitting the competitive entrance exam.
Richard Descoings, director of the institute usually known as Sciences Po, said the partnership he had agreed with seven lycees would democratise recruitment to the prestigious school. About 60 students a year, 15 per cent of the intake, will eventually be allocated places on the basis of an interview granted after recommendation by their lycee heads.
The lycées - four in the Paris suburbs and three in the Nancy area in northeast France where Sciences Po has a branch - are all situated in educational priority zones, disadvantaged areas where schools are given extra resources.
Sciences Po no longer quite lives up to its traditional image as bourgeois and Parisian. A quarter of its students are foreign and most of its intake comes from the provinces. But over 80 per cent are still the children of senior managers, teachers or company executives, and only 4 per cent come from working-class families.
Graduates typically leave for employment in the higher echelons of public administration, research or business.
The institute admits in a report on exclusion that the usual method of entry, by competitive exam, reinforces social elitism. "The nature of this exam, with its essays on history, general culture and its language tests" favours pupils from professional families, and "it indicates a level and an appropriateness between a candidate and a test, but not a potential".
Mr Descoings denied that the new scheme offered "access at a discount". Methods of selection other than the exam already existed, he pointed out.
The scheme will start next autumn with the entry of about 20 students, and should run for at least the next ten years. Selection of candidates will start with a test set by the school, followed by an interview before a board of examiners at the institute.
Students from educational priority zones will receive specific educational support, a scholarship and a housing allowance.
The partnership comes as a welcome boost for the lycees in deprived areas. Their pupils tend to keep their sights low.
André Samuel Hadjouel, head of one of the lycées , said: "Despite baccalauréat results close to the national average and often higher, pupils' ambitions remain modest. Thanks to this project, pupils will be able to see that certain studies are not inaccessible to them and that their ambitions must not be curbed."