Pupils pack in to prep classes

February 2, 1996

The number of school-leavers entering preparatory classes for France's grandes ecoles jumped a spectacular 7.5 per cent this year, after two years of decreasing numbers.

More than 61,000 students are in the "prepas" - highly selective classes - which groom students for a range of entry exams.

Education ministry officials think the rise may be due to the reform of the scientific prepas that was introduced this year and which received much publicity.

That reform tries to break the monopoly of maths as the key measurement of academic ability by creating an "engineering sciences" option with less focus on pure maths. The engineering grandes ecoles have promised to open up to half their places to candidates who have followed the new option in the 1997 entry examinations.

The scientific preparatory classes have registered the sharpest rise in intake, with 8.9 per cent more students than last year. In an attempt to respond to criticism that these classes focus on cramming and school teaching methods, the education ministry has introduced an element of personal study this year.

But, the new, interdisciplinary personal research projects bring the notoriously heavy prepa schedule down by just two hours a week.

Another reform introduced for the first time this year is the lengthening of the preparatory classes for business schools from one year to two. The aim of the change is to bring the French business diploma in line with the international MBA norm of five years higher education.

The one-year course used to be particularly intensive and 75 per cent of students had to repeat the year. The course will now be broader-based and allow more in-depth study.

The economic crisis, leading to lower starting salaries and slower entry into employment, coupled with the high fees of business schools are undoubtedly behind the less spectacular growth of these preparatory classes, up just 3.1 per cent on last year.

Although both the preparatory classes and the business schools claim they are as academically selective as before the recession, the number of students in the classes - some 11,000 - is not significantly more than the 7,000 school places.

Students who do not enter a business school after the two years will be able to apply for a university diploma allowing entry to the third year. This is already the case for scientific and literary prepa students. Transfer to university or political science institutes is particularly important for the 3,000 literary prepa candidates who compete for just 200 grande ecole places.

The minimal chance of success in the prepas litteraires does not deter school leavers. Their numbers went up 7.9 per cent this year. Most go to university after having avoided the over-crowded, under-staffed first two years which are the crisis point of French higher education.

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