Grandes Ecoles

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I have long admired the way French society is centered on Paris, all roads (eventually anyway) lead to Paris, Paris is the administrative capital, financial capital and until very recently the only place that a you could find a national museum.  Marseille opens the new National Museum of Civilizations from Europe & the Mediterranean today (Friday 07 Jun. 2013).  I’m presently looking for a new home in the Sud de France so Marseille may have just leaped up the list of possible places to live.

French education is elitist of that there can be no doubt!  Selection-by-elimination is at the very heart of the French education system based on the system developed by Napoleon in the early 19th century, and it begins as early as secondary school, a country where 95% of college students go to second-tier public universities and where the dropout rate is as high as 85 percent (for first year medical students, as an illustration).

But there are the successful few, the 5% who attend the Grandes Ecoles like Sciences Po. These include the national administration school, ENA, and the Ecole Polytechnique, which together produce a mere 0.06% of French graduates,  Nevertheless they make up more than 60% of President Francois Hollande’s staff.

Hollande actully attended 3 Grandes Ecoles; Sciences-Po, ENA, and the business school HEC, clever chap M Hollande I’d say.  But more importantly even though his tenure so far has been nothing short of a catastrophe (I’m certainly not saying he’s in any way wrong in his governmental decisions you understand) he nonetheless has an air about him that he was born to the job.  M Sarkozy on the other hand had to work at it but he only got a lowly law degree from a public university, which prompted one critic to snipe “Sarkozy doesn’t know how to talk to the state.”

By contrast Britain has Oxford and Cambridge as the bastions of elitism, the US has the Ivy League universities; but these old boy networks in no way rival the stranglehold that the Grandes Ecoles have on French public life.  The British system even as I write is under attack for not being inclusive, not being open to those from difficult eco-social backgrounds.  The very thought I’m sure doesn’t even cross the minds of those in charge of the French system.  But then again it is run by graduates of the system perpetually replicating itself.

I’m not saying that a drop out rate of 95% is good either, but the system cast’s as wide a net as is possible and so the elite will be drawn from all the talents so to speak.  The British experience is that universities take only a comparatively low 50% of second-tier pupils and the British system is, shall I suggest stressed.  Funding is at the heart of it all, it always is.  We Brits just don’t seem able to understand the value of long-term stable investment in people.  We seem to want to concentrate on the up-front cost (the purchase price) and little on the long-term pay-off and education is treated just the same as every other public funded project.  Little wonder the British prisons are full and over-flowing when they cant educate the youth.  I tend to think a Pound/Euro/Dollar saved on education is a Pound/Euro/Dollar spent on prison.

So celebrate the elite for that is what they are.


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