Schools minister S#233;gol#232;ne Royal last week unveiled plans to pay teachers more to stay longer in their posts, to cut the size of the biggest zones, and to ensure that all two-year-olds have a place in a nursery school.
The zones d'#233;ducation prioritaires (ZEPs) were introduced in 1982 by Socialist education minister Alain Savary, and have generally helped disadvantaged pupils catch up with their more fortunate peers.
There are 563 zones, catering for nearly 10 per cent of pupils - 1.2 million children in 6,000 mostly primary and lower secondary schools.
Zones are determined by factors such as an area's unemployment and immigration rates,and parents' qualifications. Most are in run-down urban areas on the outskirts of large cities. ZEP schools have smaller classes, extra support staff, more experienced teachers and budgets nearly three times higher than those of ordinary schools.
But ministers say that the zones were neglected by the previous centre-right government, and the new prime minister Lionel Jospin promised to revitalise them.
Last week Mme Royal announced that local and national debates on the ZEPs would take place between now and June, and presented to the cabinet her main proposals for the relaunch, due to start in selected areas in September 1998. They include:
* encouraging zone teachers to stay longer in their posts. While they already receive bonuses and other perks, the minister will discuss with teaching unions ways of further improving career prospects and working conditions in recognition of their skills.
* blurring the boundaries to develop networks between zone schools and those just outside. The biggest ZEPs - such as one in Marseilles which covers 10,000 pupils - will be divided into several smaller ones, "on a more human scale", to cater for about 2,000 children.
* making available Fr20 million (#163;2m) to provide free books and other reading matter for children from poor families.
* reinforcing the links between ZEP schools and families, and twinning city and rural schools.
The minister also called on local authorities which are partly responsible for financing and running nursery schools to ensure they provide places in the zones for all two-year-olds. "Experience shows that early schooling is a major determinant for success," she said.
Mme Royal also wants more weight given to language. "Half the problems in arithmetic are due to lack of understanding of what is said," she said.
Each ZEP will also be required to produce, in consultation with its chief education officer, a "contract" outlining its aims and standards, by which its achievements and failures will be analysed.