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Minister hedges over leaked ideas

FRANCE. A row has erupted over leaked proposals by the commission set up after the President's election promise last year to hold a referendum on educational change.

The document, which suggests 16 educational reforms, not only enraged teachers' and students' unions, but also caused the education minister, Francois Bayrou, to distance himself from the commission's workings.

In September, prime minister Alain Juppe launched the 24-member Commission de Reflexion sur l'Ecole under industrialist and former minister Roger Fauroux. Its task was to examine the education system and table proposals.

During the first stage, the commission interviewed teachers' and parents' representatives, senior civil servants and other educational experts. During its second, "public", phase, it is carrying out eight televised hearings on specific themes. Its findings are due in June.

The leaked discussion document, published by Le Monde, was distributed to commission members at the end of March. Stamped "confidential", it covered the fundamentals of teaching, the school calendar and timetable, vocational training, the universities, and administration of the education system.

Among its most controversial suggestions was the introduction of streaming at the beginning of the third year of the currently comprehensive coll ge (lower secondary), and reorganisation of first degree courses.

Other proposals included rearranging school holidays and the primary timetable to limit the teaching of "intellectual subjects" to mornings and the end of afternoons; giving schools the right to modify up to one-fifth of the curriculum; limiting to four the number of teachers in the early years of college; an exam for 16-year-old school-leavers, envisaged as a kind of "survival kit" for life; and increased university autonomy.

According to Le Monde, staff recruitment would be among the responsibilities delegated to recteurs, the heads of the state-appointed local education authorities; a new national education assessment office would report annually to the president and to parliament, and the education ministry would be reorganised.

Following publication, M Fauroux protested that the proposals were incomplete. But Le Monde replied that the document began with "a long statement setting out its motives, extremely clearly".

In an interview in Les Echos, the financial daily, M Fauroux reiterated some of the document's more explosive ideas concerning vocational training in the workplace for pupils as young as 13 or 14, and the aim of creating one million apprenticeships within three years.

Last week, the Conseil National de L'enseignement Superieur et de la Recherche - a consultative body representing teachers, students and unions - called for opposition to the commission's proposals. It claimed they "question the role of the baccalaureat, risk leading to selection and jeopardise the nature of first degrees, the right to follow studies, the national character of diplomas and the national status of higher education personnel".

Following the leak, M Bayrou stressed that the Fauroux commission was working independently and that the government was not committed to accepting its proposals. If implemented, some of the commission's suggestions could compromise reforms announced by M Bayrou's "new contract for schools" programme.

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