France's 2.5 million lycee students are taking part in a vast debate on what they should be taught, and how, and why.
Education minister Claude All gre last week launched what he claimed to be the biggest rethink of upper secondary schooling since 1968. It will examine all aspects of lycee education which leads, after three years, to the baccalaureat, the end-of-school exam and passport to higher education.
The lycee has changed profoundly during the past 30 years. Once an elite institution attended by a privileged minority, it now caters for most 16-year-olds after they leave compulsory education at the end of coll ge (lower secondary school).
More than 60 per cent of students now pass the bac, and there are more than two million in higher education. But many who go on to university drop out during the first two years. M All gre says this is due to a "lack of reference points," and an inability to organise their work or even "to perceive the point of the knowledge they learn".
He wants lycees to prepare young people for life, and offer "an indispensable cultural dimension to the construction of all personal and professional identity". He also condemned the rigid division between subjects .
The debate on "What knowledge to teach in the lycees?" will culminate in a national conference at the end of April. Nearly four million questionnaires have been despatched, separately designed for pupils, teachers and the schools. More than three million have gone to pupils, asking questions such as: "What do you learn at school that is important?", "What do you consider to be important to learn but bores you?", "What seems to you to be useless and without interest?" and "What would you like to learn that you do not learn?" Teachers are asked to consider what contribution their subject makes and to give their views on the workings of the baccalaureat.
The questionnaire addressed to schools contains 10 themes from which teams of principals and staff may choose to comment on one or two. They include areas such as knowledge and life, organisation of subjects and options. All information is also on the Internet.
The minister has appointed two eminent academics to steer the debate. Philippe Meirieu, professor of education at the University of Lyon II, will head a committee to analyse the responses to the questionnaires. Sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin will chair a committee of nearly 40 specialists covering a wide range of disciplines to present the opinions of experts. Included on the committee is Luc Ferry, chairman of the national curriculum council.
Though M All gre claims this to be the biggest lycee shake-up for three decades, his initiative comes 10 years after Lionel Jospin - then education minister and now prime minister - launched his own examination of the sector. Passing through the hands of two more ministers, this resulted in the introduction of a reorganised baccalaureat in 1995, which reduced the number of subject streams and gave greater importance to the arts to break the dominance of the scientific bac. M All gre was at that time M Jospin's chief adviser, and now perhaps he has the opportunity to complete his task.
* Many Parisian lycees are protesting against cuts in their "hours allowance". The cuts, to take effect this September, reflect tightening budgets and will result in merged, larger classes and loss of options - notably Latin and Greek - for pupils preparing for the baccalaureat.
On the day ministers launched the lycee debate, about 90 pupils and staff demonstrated outside the the local arm of the education ministry, against timetable losses equivalent to 30 hours a week for their coll ge and 27 hours for their lycee.