People's pollsters set to work

Jane Marshall

Jane Marshall reports on the controversial, and expensive, education referendum.

The French nation will be consulted on proposals to develop vocational and technical education, rationalise the universities and reorganise the school calendar and timetable, in a controversial referendum which is expected to cost about 200 million frs (Pounds 25m).

Prime minister Alain Juppe last week launched the referendum commission, which will conduct a public debate and investigation into the education system. It aims to produce a report by next summer on which to base a preliminary referendum text. M Juppe did not specify a date for the referendum itself, but 1998 seems probable.

The commission chairman, Roger Fauroux, a 63-year-old industrialist and former industry minister in the socialist government of Michel Rocard, introduced his 23 fellow members: a mix of educationists and representatives from business, culture, politics and the media. They also include a German academic and an 18-year-old student.

M Juppe confirmed the commission's three priorities: * vocational training: although 65 per cent of young people reach baccalaureat level, only 20 per cent of them choose the technology stream, and 5 per cent a vocational stream. Misunderstanding of these options contributed to youth unemployment and difficulties in adapting to economic realities, said M Juppe.

In line with the government's existing employment policy, he proposed that regional youth training development plans should be worked out to take account of local economic needs, and the creation of lyc e-based apprenticeship centres.

* universities: specifically the preliminary two-year degree course, for which 750,000 undergraduates are currently studying, nearly 30 per cent more than five years ago. As well as the unprecedented rise in numbers, students' widely differing backgrounds made it increasingly difficult to formulate a common general education, said the prime minister. Two out of three students were failing to go on to a higher degree, and this high failure rate was leaving many young people stranded without qualifications or real training and consequently with serious problems when seeking jobs.

* the school timetable: many uncoordinated local initiatives are taking place, notably abandoning lessons on Saturday mornings (resulting in a four-day week, as Wednesdays are traditionally free), and organising the more academic subjects in the mornings and recreational ones and sports in the afternoons. M Juppe said it would be preferable to have coherent policies, without which "there is a risk of a disparity, and therefore inequality".

But the educational referendum, promised by president Jacques Chirac during his electoral campaign, has met with less than universal approval.

The education minister, Francois Bayrou, who backed M Chirac's rival Edouard Balladur in the presidential election, publicly opposed the idea, though he now has responsibility for its organisation. He carried out his own wide-ranging public consultations last year which led to the introduction of more than 155 measures, many of them starting this term, in his "new contract for schools" programme. He is expected to tone down the referendum into a "consensual" exercise.

Teachers' unions are also hostile to the idea. Monique Vuaillat, secretary-general of SNES, the biggest secondary teachers' union, said it was not possible to answer yes or no to such complex questions. Other critics have pointed out there are perhaps better ways of spending the 200m frs.

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