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Education and Identity in Rural France: The Politics of Schooling
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Major Trends and Developments

The last few decades have seen huge changes in the number of pupils and students in the French education system. In the 1960s the sudden opening-up of access to secondary education for all children led to a veritable explosion of the numbers of pupils in collèges. In 1985, the announcement of the goal of 80% of young people obtaining the baccalauréat (a vocational baccalauréat was introduced that year) by the end of the century, reaffirmed in the Outline Act of July 1989, led to a second influx of pupils. The lycées and then higher education were becoming accessible to the great majority of young people.

Today, around 70% of young people complete their secondary education in schools run by the National Education system, in agricultural lycées or through apprenticeships. This percentage has virtually doubled in 15 years, rising particularly in the case of those taking technological and vocational courses. In 2000, out of those leaving school with the baccalauréat, 30% had a technological baccalauréat (4), 18% a vocational baccalauréat and 52% a "general series" baccalauréat (5).

The 1989 Outline Act also included another major goal by laying down the principle that "before leaving the education system and regardless of their level of achievement, all young people must be offered vocational training". This became a reality with the Five-Year Act of December 1993 providing employment and vocational training.

Annual statistics on the number of young people completing their studies, together with a breakdown of these by level of education attained, show the scale of the progress. The proportion of youngsters leaving school without any recognized qualifications (i.e. without having at least reached the final year of a short vocational training course) fell from around a third in the 1960s to under 10% in the 1990s.

After ten years of compulsory education, the system must today ensure that everyone acquires not just academic, but also vocational skills, so that not even a small proportion of young people leave school ill-equipped to face adulthood and a working life.

Statistical Improvements in Training

Consequently, the 1990s saw two major developments on the education front in France:

1. The advent of mass education to a higher level, thereby substantially raising the level of training of the younger generations, and so of the whole population. Children entering nursery school today can hope to continue their education for 19 years, i.e. three years more than their own parents. 60% of a year's group now pass their baccalauréat, compared with only 24% a quarter of a century earlier. And in higher education, now undertaken by over half the young people in France, the number of students has risen sevenfold in three decades (from 300,000 to 2.1 million).

2. That first change, the huge rise in the number of students continuing their education beyond the school leaving age, which seems to be stabilizing at a high level, has occurred simultaneously with a significant fall in the birth rate since the mid-1970s, thus resulting in the second major development: a reduction throughout the education system of pupil and student numbers. This had already been the case in nursery and primary education, but is more recent in secondary and higher education.

This reduction in numbers, combined with the maintenance and even increase in educational resources (particularly in the numbers of teachers), has enabled the improvement of school facilities and pupil-teacher ratios. This has been notably the case in nursery and primary schools, which have been enjoying regular reductions in class sizes: currently an average of 26 in nursery schools and 23 in primary schools compared with — respectively — 40 and 30 during the 1960s.

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