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Educational System—overview

Increased immigration, new emphases on innovative technology and popular consumerism, a desire of many for more democracy, the building of a new Europe (one of the truly significant French politico-economic ideas of post-war times), the eroding of erstwhile fixed class distinctions, the relative decline of agriculture with respect to manufacturing, services, and commerce, decolonization, international cooperation to a degree never before witnessed have all exerted tremendous influence on the French school and higher education systems.

Private Education: What in France is called enseignement libre (free teaching) corresponds to the British "public" school and to the American "private" school; however, private primary and secondary education in France is usually sectarian, indeed overwhelmingly Roman Catholic (95 percent). Though run and traditionally staffed by the religious teaching orders, these schools are increasingly staffed by lay people. As stated above, they are closely monitored by the state's Ministry of Education as to their teaching programs and the qualifications of their teaching staffs. Their pupils take the usual national state examinations (brevet and baccalauréat). They charge tuition and fees, although a growing number of them attempt to provide financial aid to the disadvantaged. Programs of study follow closely those mandated by the Ministry for the public schools, although it is fair to say that, in addition to required classes in religion, these Church-run institutions tend to emphasize the traditional pre-university baccalauréat curriculum, perhaps somewhat at the expense of technology and professional training more than their public counterparts. Their clientele is largely, but not as exclusively as many would have one believe, drawn from the middle classes and indeed from the upper crust of French society. Many, but not all, of these schools are now coeducational. Each school is run, often by a religious director, who exercises a great deal of discretionary power in his or her establishment. The director is frequently called upon to perform a kind of balancing act involving the directives issued by his or her Order, the local bishop, and the State. The school's traditions are held dear by both its clientele and by those who teach in it. Usually the pupils are asked to observe a dress code. The kind of school violence increasingly present in urban public schools is virtually unheard of in this setting. A good number of the schools have living and boarding facilities. School morale is generally high.

The good reputation and morale of the majority of private schools is due to the personal care lavished upon the pupils by the teachers and their institution. Some schools even specialize in boys and girls handicapped by learning and psychological difficulties, and their success rate is remarkably high. Discipline and order are maintained, but affection is also. Certain private institutions have received the Ministry's designation "ZEP" (Zone d'éducation prioritaire or "Educational Priority Zone"), qualifying them for extra financial help because they have shown signal success in coping with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Finally, Catholic schools have a long tradition of involving parents and the family in the educational process. Until very recently this has not been true of public schools. The école républicaine has traditionally been understood as a State institution, not as a State service responsible to its clientele; in fact, the Revolutionary ideology from which it stems historically mistrusted parents and family. It consequently tended to uproot the child from his affective milieu of origin in order to turn him into a "citizen." Many parents find this aspect of enseignement libre to be quite attractive, as do, very often, their children.

Some of the richer and more famous of the Churchrun secondary schools are well equipped with modern amenities: computers, up-to-date laboratories, sports facilities, and even good libraries, although a good many are not so well favored. However, most succeed in promoting a good esprit de corps, and, given the class homogeneity prevailing in their student bodies, the pupils' degree of motivation, as well as smaller, more intimate classroom groupings, the scholastic results tend to be very good. The latest publication of the scores and percentages of candidates passing the national baccalauréat examination includes a large number of Roman Catholic colleges and lycées among the list of institutions with a passing rate of 90 percent or better.

Approximately one in six French primary and secondary school boys and girls attends a private (almost invariably religiously-affiliated) school, according to recent Ministry of Education statistics. Nevertheless, there remains a residue of anti-enseignement libre animus in certain French Republican circles. In 1984, when the then Socialist government was perceived as about to pass legislation severely damaging private Catholic schools, a huge mass demonstration involving thousands of people descended in protest on Paris. The government gave way and since then peace has prevailed. Slowly but surely the bitter quarrels of the 1880-1910 period are being laid to rest. Frenchmen who are rightly proud of the achievements of the public education system nevertheless do not, on the whole, wish to see the private sector abolished or even seriously tampered with.

Private school teachers number about 130,000 in France; by far most of these are lay people who take qualifying examinations virtually the same as their public school colleagues. Their pay scales are quite close to those enjoyed by public school faculty; however, since they are not tenured government functionaries (fonctionnaires titularisés), their retirement pay is much lower.

During the Fourth Republic, certain right-wing and centrist parties joined forces in order to vote State subventions to private schools; however, these were stopgap measures. In 1959, after the proclamation of the Fifth Republic, the Gaullist prime minister, Michel Debré, instituted a new régime of "permanent association" between public and private schools with the State financing much of the costs of the latter. The annual subvention today comes to 40 billion francs, approximately the sum required to pay teachers' salaries. The money goes to private schools willing to work "under contract" with the government. Few private schools have refused this contractual arrangement.

Very few graduates of the religiously-affiliated secondary schools choose to go on to Catholic institutions of higher education. The Catholic school system thus finds itself firmly embedded in the secular world.

Private Higher Education: The Ministry of National Education classifies private higher education into two types: les établissements privés d'enseignement libre (a code word for Roman Catholic universities); and private establishments of technical education. The "establishments of 'free' higher education" are regulated by the July 1875 Law on Higher Education; no linkage between them and the State are allowed. Nevertheless, these establishments may agree to conventions signed between them and individual State-run institutions with a view toward offering joint preparations for State diplomas.

Apart from seminary-type establishments, two major Catholic institutions of higher learning stand out. One is called the Institut catholique and is located in Paris; the other is the Université catholique de l'Ouest (Catholic University of the West) in Angers. Both offer full-fledged programs of study on the university level, and in the case of the Institut catholique, the following faculties are notable: the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies (which are essentially lacking in the State-run schools), the Faculty of Canon Law, the Faculty of Philosophy, the Faculty of Social and Economic Studies, the Faculty of Arts (Classics, French, History/Geography, and English-German-Spanish), preparatory classes for entrance into French Institutes of Political Studies, and the Faculty of Education (largely teacher-training). Close ties are maintained with a number of private technological and specialized schools, both Catholic-run and nondenominational. The Institut catholique enrolls some 12,000 full and part time students.

Private establishments of higher technological education are legion in France. Most are either engineering or business schools and must adhere to the national codes of technical education. They may benefit from State recognition and so award official state diplomas. Whether or not a private engineering school may award a State-type diploma is decided by the State Commission on Engineering Degrees.

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