An answer to the ultimate question of digital literacy

Google HQ is the model for a new school in Paris, called 42

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For a country famed for its revolutionary spirit, France has a remarkably rigid and inflexible education system.

Highly centralised and government-controlled, French schools are good at imparting traditional knowledge but employers complain that they do little to instil into students the skills they need for the workplace.

This is especially true in the field of information and communications technology (ICT), where France, despite being a leading world economy, is fast falling behind its competitors. But now a new school in the heart of Paris is hoping to turn the tide by spearheading a digital revolution.

Founded by a billionaire, modelled on Google's headquarters and named after a line from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 42 will open its doors to 1,000 students in the autumn.

Its mission is to train the "best talents of their generation" in the field of computer science. Its students, aged between 18 and 30, will be selected for the three-year course not on their academic ability but on their talent and motivation.

Neither will ability to pay be a factor; not only is studying at 42 free but the school is actively seeking talented students from the poorer suburbs of the capital.

The school is the brainchild of Xavier Niel, the billionaire founder of French broadband firm Iliad, who has ploughed ?70 million (pound;60 million) into the scheme.

Its director is Nicolas Sadirac, a Stanford-educated computer scientist who has already set up a private computer science institution and who gained a measure of fame in the year 2000 for hacking into the website of the French prime minister to highlight its vulnerability.

Speaking to TES, Mr Sadirac said that the biggest single problem with the French education system is that it makes people fear change.

"When you ask young people what they want to do, 60 per cent say they want to work for the state, they want to have security," he said. "[The French system] is good at creating very disciplined people, but nowadays we need a new kind of people who are more creative and more able to withstand change or to adapt to new things."

Mr Sadirac, who has taught ICT for more than 25 years, said it is the field that is in most urgent need of change.

"Technology is changing much faster than education so we must totally change the way we teach. We have to make students able to learn to use technology when they need it," he said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 42 has already attracted far more applications than it has places: 70,000 at the last count.

After an online aptitude test this will be whittled down to 4,000 candidates who will then be asked to carry out an ICT project. The 1,000 judged to be the most creative will be accepted and return for enrolment in early November.

Students at 42 will have no formal lessons or lectures. Instead, staff will provide them with projects in which they will be encouraged to work together and learn collaboratively.

This will take place in a 4,200 sq m building in the heart of Paris. Instead of classrooms, students will make use of Google-inspired "collaborative spaces"; they will also have access to the latest technology, including 1,000 state-of-the-art iMacs and high-speed broadband.

Fittingly, 42 has 42 members of staff. "We were getting close to 40 (staff) anyway and we said `let's just get 42'," Mr Sadirac said.

So how will the school judge whether it is successful? "Simply by how many of our students gain jobs," Mr Sadirac explained. "Longer term, we will judge our success by the impact we have had on the French economy."

Although unemployment is at a 15-year-high - 10.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2013 - the majority of French software firms are struggling to recruit programmers and developers, according to a recent poll. This is something that 42 wants to change.

It certainly sounds revolutionary but do not expect its ideas to catch on in the rest of France any time soon.

The central government has shown little interest in the project so far ("I think for them it's kind of weird," Mr Sadirac said), and the regional education authorities that have done so seem to be unimpressed.

"I met one regional government official who just said: `No, we cannot learn anything from this'," Mr Sadirac said with a sigh.

A numbers game

42 - School name and total number of staff members (plus the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything).

4,200m - Area of building.

70K - Applicants so far for 1,000 places.

?70m - Initial investment, which will fund the school for the next decade.

?5m - Estimated annual running cost thereafter.

Photo credit: Getty

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