French students protest reforms to venerated 'bac'

10th February 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 10 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of French high school students walked out of class Thursday to protest against an education reform bill whose main provision is to introduce continuous assessment to the revered baccalaureat (school-leaving certificate) examination.

PARIS, Feb 10 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of French high school students walked out of class Thursday to protest against an education reform bill whose main provision is to introduce continuous assessment to the revered baccalaureat (school-leaving certificate) examination.

Demonstrations were staged in Paris as well as Toulouse, Bordeaux and Lyon in what was widely seen as a test of the opposition to Francois Fillon, education minister in France's centre-right government and the man behind the proposed changes.

Student organisations, who enjoy the backing of teaching unions and the opposition Socialist party, argue that the reforms will herald a two-tier system - with the "bac" sat by teenagers in poorer neighbourhoods coming to have a secondary status.

"The reform which he wants to push through - continuous control of the bac - it'll encourage favouritism because some teachers judge us by the way we look," said Karim, a 16 year-old of north African origin taking part in the noisy Paris march.

Fillon's bill - which goes before the National Assembly on Tuesday - is intended to halt the decline in educational standards that today results in 150,000 French students leaving lycee at 18 with no qualification and 80,000 11-year-olds unable to read or write correctly.

Among its other innovations are a "core" of knowledge and skills to be attained by all students; the extension of foreign language teaching, which is described by Fillon as "gravely inadequate" in France; and guaranteed extra tuition for failing students via "individual success contracts."

But the most contested features are changes to the 200-year-old baccalaureat - the school-leaving exam launched by Napoleon which is today held up as both a benchmark of academic achievement and a symbol of national equality. A pass means an automatic place at university.

Studies have shown that the "bac" - now sat by more than 600,000 every year - is such a strain on schools that many classes are shut down in the month leading to the exam. At the same time pressure on students - who have to sit up to 12 separate tests - is widely seen as excessive.

"The concentration of tests over a few days generates a level of stress that is often counter-productive. It saps confidence and encourages last-minute swotting instead of regular in-depth work over the whole year," Fillon said in a recent speech.

Under his proposals, from 2007 the number of subjects will be cut to five or six and around 20 percent of a student's results will be determined via course-work assessed over the year.

But student groups say the changes threaten the bac's "national" status.

"If many of today's protesters are from the banlieus (poor city suburbs), that is no coincidence. Because continuous assessment is going to be an added discrimination against lycees which have a bad reputation," said Coralie Caron, secretary-general of the Independent and Democratic Union of Lycee-Students.

Thursday's demonstrations followed two years of sporadic protests by teachers over funding, pay and staffing levels.

The government of President Jacques Chirac angrily refutes charges that it is starving the educational system of funds, pointing out that France spends more than any other EU country on schools - to only mediocre results.

The action also came amid growing signs of social discontent in France. Three days of strikes in the public sector late last month were followed by a day of demonstrations Saturday against the relaxation of the 35 hour working week.

The government is concerned that the grim mood will be harnessed by the "no" campaign for the referendum on the EU constitution, to be held probably in June.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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