According to its officials, in 1985 the French ministry of national education, with some 928,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $20 billion, was the third largest enterprise in the world. Enterprises on this scale are difficult to shift. What this collection of essays, speeches and interviews does so admirably is to put the reader directly in touch with the context, aims, actors, structures and values that have shaped the often highly contentious changes to French education that have occurred since 1981.
Nine of the texts used come from English speakers and 23 are translated from the French. The latter include contributions from three French ministers of education, including the present one, Francois Bayrou. Both editors, with contributions of their own, write from personal experience of French education in action: Anne Corbett as a parent of children who have moved through the system and Bob Moon as one who has married into it.
To a reader from outside France, two features stand out. The first is what one contributor describes as the increasingly "monarchical" tendencies of successive ministers since 1981 - a phenomenon not confined to that side of the Channel. Yet it is difficult to see how large, slow to move systems can be shifted unless responsibility for changes in direction is clearly and visibly located. The trick is to get that direction right and, on the whole, the French seem to have managed this well. The Mitterrand years have seen the development of the college (the common secondary school - broadly our key stage 3), the increasingly differentiated and expanded lycees (reconstituted as upper secondary schools), the vocational baccalaureat, the drive to get 80 per cent of the age group to bac level by the year 2000, with all school leavers obtaining at least some qualification, the move towards universal access to pre-school education from the age of three, and so on.
At the same time, confronted by the need to enlarge, improve and pay for their school system, the bumpy road towards a partially decentralised and financial means of achieving this has been followed. From within France, much of this still looks problematic; from outside, it tends to look like good sense.
A second feature that strikes the reader from outside France is the impossibility of applying our own political terminology of left and right to theirs. "The fundamental role of schools is to pass on knowledge," or, speaking of the common secondary school, the college, "French children must be taught together, through common programmes, because it is an essential factor in social cohesion . . . I do not hold to this nostalgia for rigid subject specialisation." The first quotation is from the "Loi Jospin" (Socialist) 1989; the second from Francois Bayrou (in our terms very much a conservative) in 1994.
What also comes through this finely-balanced collection is a steely determination, widely shared throughout France, to continue to regard education, like the French language, as a defining characteristic of the nation itself. Amid all the upheavals of the recent past, that determination does not seem to have weakened. That consensus can be a source of strength rather than weakness is a lesson any nation forgets at its peril.
Sir Peter Newsam is emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, London University