France prides itself on its intellectualism in a way most other countries don’t. Think of the Académie Française, a revered body without parallel. Think of the great ceremony each autumn when the year’s crop of new novels is celebrated in the rentrée littéraire. Think of those earnest late-night television discussion programmes. It is a conscious intellectualism for which its participants have been prepared, in part, by le bac: the baccalauréat qualification that, for 210 years, French school-leavers have taken.
Now, though, President Macron is threatening its greatest reform since 1962. Instead of taking around 12 subjects, candidates would take just four tests; there would be continuous assessment and an oral test. All that would remain of old would be a four-hour examination in philosophy, presumably to ensure the late-night talk programmes can continue.
Mr Macron wants to make the courses French students take more like British A levels. The reform was promised in his election campaign, when he referred to the 60% drop-out rate in France’s universities. Those on Macron’s side say le bac has become too easy. Even basic intellectual skills seem deficient in France: an international survey of reading skills last year put France in 34th place; England was 8th. However, he finds himself opposed by those who believe, like Napoleon when he invented it, that le bac guarantees a national standard of education for all. They also argue that continuous assessment doesn’t work, and that middle-class pupils will be better prepared for their oral tests than others. But what most annoys the French left is that passing le bac guarantees automatic admission to university. That would end.
Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, confirmed the details on 14 February. Immediately, opponents said the bac needed to be more rigorous, not abandoned. That, though, is what Pierre Mathiot, architect of the new examination (which it is proposed will run from 2021) says his reforms will achieve. And, with commendable robustness, when Mathiot was asked about the oral test disadvantaging poorer children, he replied that what they are supposed to do at school is learn how to pass such a test.
In an ideal world, that would be true: but many factors contribute to inequalities in education – notably the participation, or lack of it, of a pupil’s parents in supporting their child’s schooling – and the examination has not been, and will not be, invented that takes account of that.
To this Englishman, there are several interesting assumptions behind the Macron/Blanquer policy. First, France needs to be more realistic about the institutions to which those with le bac mostly progress. Its small number of grandes écoles, which train each generation of the nation’s elites, set rigorous entrance requirements, rather like Oxford and Cambridge; but they are not of the standard of Oxford or Cambridge. In European terms, other French universities are down the league tables; if a graduate of the average French university requires to have some currency in the international jobs market, he or she will need a master’s degree: the bachelor’s degree the minority who do not drop out usually end up getting is not widely respected.
So the question is not just whether the post-2021 bac better equips France’s youth for university, but whether France’s universities raise their game to make themselves more of a challenge for their students, thereby making other academic institutions and employers have more respect for those holding degrees from them. It is possible to do this by encouraging a higher degree of specialism, provided the subjects that are studied are done in real depth and with complete rigour; continuous assessment does not need to be unequal, provided the students are properly schooled in how it will work and what is expected of them, and the marking system is consistent. But if the post-2021 bac dilutes academic rigour, then it will reduce the calibre of French universities still further, and make it harder for the grandes écoles to find sufficient candidates to staff the next intake of the future elite.
Wanting to imitate the British A-Level is also an interesting ambition. A don at one of England’s better universities told me he believed a C grade at A level in maths in the 1970s was equivalent to an A today; and he believed that to be true of most subjects. Successive governments of all parties have wanted to boast of the way they have “improved” education, and therefore have allowed grade inflation to suggest there are more and more better-educated students each year. In Britain’s desire to get half its 18-year olds going to university this grade inflation has helped fill the places. Yet many university teachers complain that the A-Level course is not an adequate preparation for a degree, which is why many public schools now offer the more highly-calibrated Pre-U instead, or the International Baccalaureate.
There has been pressure on elite universities – which they are actively resisting – to dilute their standards in order to give less able students more chance of entry. At Oxbridge, some dons suggest that before long A-Level students will have to do a sandwich course on arrival to teach them how to cope with a university course.
It is hard to see why Macron and Blanquer should want to emulate that. Tackling France’s huge drop-out rate, and the waste of money that entails, requires not a reformulation of le bac: it requires a re-think of whether university is the ideal destination for quite so many people, or whether France might develop its human capital more efficiently through more vocational education. The type of high-quality education that will ensure the fauteuils of the Académie Française remain full would be secured by tightening up le bac and making it harder to pass. Anything else is simply playing politics with the lives of French children.
Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs