The creme de la creme of France's grandes ecoles appears to be of an even higher standard today than in the 1950s, which was a vintage decade for the production of the nation's elite. This is the finding of a two-year survey involving dozens of academics who re-marked hundreds of the best entrance examination papers of some of the top ecoles over 40 years.
"I don't know of another example in the world where such a study has been carried out on such a scale," commented Claude Thelot of the education ministry's department of evaluation and forecasting, and author of the report.
Mr Thelot says national data of this kind is highly useful in an increasingly competitive world demanding ever higher skills. For each examination compared, a set of criteria was established to ensure valid re-marking in spite of differences in the questions set.
"Today, a country's survival depends on its social elites, which are increasingly linked to its academic elite, so it is more and more vital for countries to be able to produce good quality academic elites," Mr Thelot argued.
Although this was the first survey of its kind in France, there were other findings which proved to be a useful comparison. For the past 15 years, all French conscripts have had to sit the same set of tests at the start of their national service.
The performance of conscripts with a PhD, the agregation or a grande ecole diploma went up 2 per cent between 1981 and 1994. The results of the top 10 per cent of all conscripts improved by 6 per cent over the same period.
The ministry of defence's findings, however, cover young men only and reflect practical intelligence, logic and reasoning rather than academic abilities and areas of knowledge.
The ministry of education's survey aimed to compare a sufficiently wide spectrum of entrance examinations to provide an overview of academic standards. The subjects chosen were mathematics, Latin, medieval and modern history, modern languages, French and general essay questions. Science subjects have changed so radically in the past four decades that comparison was deemed impossible.
Moreover, there is general consensus that educational standards in the sciences have definitely risen, while the question mark in public debate is over standards in the humanities and the level of students' general culture.
Comparisons were made of examination papers for the Ecole Polytechnique, the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, the Ecole des Chartes, which produces the nation's archivists, business schools, the history agregation and the concours general for mathematics and French - a special examination to find the nation's best school-leavers in every subject.
"What matters is the overall impression produced by the findings, not individual results in any one subject," Mr Thelot said, pointing out that by restricting the survey to this type of examination, the study does not compare the research standards of the university elite.
Looking at Polytechnique's mathematics examination every other year over 40 years, the survey's examiners found that candidates' ability to take initiatives had improved significantly, while their capacity for abstraction had increased fourfold. The actual difficulty of the calculations required remained unchanged. Pierre Petiau, director of Polytechnique's entrance examination commented: "It is certain the level is higher, the students work more intelligently." He said that the number of candidates had remained steady, at around 2,500.
The improved standards concern a tiny elite. Polytechnique's intake has risen from 300 to 400 in 40 years, with women admitted since 1972. Even smaller is the intake at the Ecole des Chartes whose 30-odd students follow the same system of an immediate stipend and a guaranteed job on graduation.
Their results in the history examinations in recent years show a "slight but real improvement" in the standard of essays on mediaeval history and a "very distinct improvement in knowledge and organisation of ideas" in modern history essays. Their Latin translation results also improved slightly.
At the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, the higher level of today's entrants was found to be even more marked. The examiners' comparison of "general culture" essays show that "a very good answer in 1990 is far superior to a very good answer in 1975", while the number of "very good" answers has increased nearly fourfold in 20 years.
"What strikes me at Sciences-Po or the Ecole de Chartes is that the candidates make better use of their knowledge, their thinking is more original, their arguments are more developed, they are more creative, which is more or less what society demands today," commented Mr Thelot. "Thirty years ago, they were not asked to be creative but to be able to apply methods. Today's richness of reflection may be partly a result of schooling but is also produced by society itself, which is not trying to produce conformists the way it used to."
The only real drop in standards discovered in the survey concerns the concours general in French and the multiple-choice modern language tests common to the business schools which have become easier since they were introduced in 1984. A "slight drop" in marks was recorded in English and German and a "significant drop" in Spanish.
The standard in the French concours general dropped dramatically in the early 1970s when teachers and top pupils felt negative about the examination, according to the survey.