When Napoleon Bonaparte introduced the baccalaureat in 1809, 31 bacheliers graduated in literature, science, medicine, law and theology. This June a record 644,128 candidates sat the exam to qualify for a place in higher education and about 80 per cent are expected to pass.
Each student takes a combination of at least seven compulsory and optional subjects. The majority sits the general baccalaureat, the most academic of the three options available, choosing papers in science, literature or economics/social studies. But two alternative versions - the technological bac and the vocational bac (bac pro) -are growing in popularity, together accounting for 46 per cent of candidates this year.
The number of general bac students taking literature is down by more than 4 per cent from last year, to 76,500. This compares with 98,000 taking economics, and more than 170,000 taking science, the traditional route to a prestigious career.
Only recently has the bac developed into an exam for the majority. In 1970, 167,307 young French people, a fifth of the age group, became bacheliers. Last year 489,358, more than three-fifths, passed the exam. In 1985 Jean-Pierre Chev nement, the education minister who introduced the bac pro, initiated the policy for 80 per cent of the age group to reach bac standard by 2000.
Bac preparations start in May the previous year. Academies - the locally based administrations of the national ministry - share the task of drafting questions for the hundreds of subjects. Draft questions are tested by "guinea-pig" teachers who advise on their suitability. Amendments are made by March and chief education officers make their final choice, ready for the bac in June. Secondary teachers mark the papers and results are announced less than three weeks after the exam.