Invite to grande ecole raises dumbing-down fears

March 26, 1999

New admission procedures to make it easier for European students to apply to one of France's top grandes ecoles have provoked criticism that standards of excellence will be threatened.

Paris's Ecole Normale Superieure is allowing non-French candidates to sit parts of its entrance exam and have interviews in English, German, Italian and Spanish. But the school denies it is lowering standards.

Founded in 1794 to train university and lycee teachers, the ENS combines a bohemian reputation with one of excellence. Graduates include Jean-Paul Sartre, Georges Pompidou, Leon Blum and Jean Jaur s among many eminent academics, politicians and writers. It is at the pinnacle of the grandes ecoles, which train students for careers in the upper echelons of the public services. The orthodox route is through classes preparatoires, which prepare students for the entrance exams, but this excludes those from outside the French education system, including European Union countries that legally have equal access.

Ten years ago, ENS examiners began to pick a limited number of non-prepas applicants to sit a "third entrance examination". This "third way" is being extended to attract more second and third-year EU students. Successful candidates would be entitled to four years of study funded at about e13,850 (Pounds 9,250) a year.

The changes have provoked protests that high standards at ENS are threatened. Last month, an article in Le Figaro accused education minister Claude All gre of deciding to kill off the school under the pretext of opening the exam to Europe.

This month, Alain Peyrefitte, a former minister and member of the Academie Francaise, warned that the policy would lead to the demise of the classe preparatoire system. Arguing that there was no reason to make French optional in grandes ecoles, Mr Peyrefitte wrote: "To excel in our advanced studies, mastery of our language is essential."

ENS director Etienne Guyon replied that the expansion had been planned long before Mr All gre became minister and that candidates would still have to take anonymous written exams and oral tests. Professors Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and Serge Haroche argued that French students recruited by the traditional method would remain the great majority.

* Details of the ENS-Europe Entrance Exam are available on www.ens.fr/concours/ENS-Europe

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