Education minister Francois Bayrou announced his plans for the coll ges (lower secondaries) from the National Centre of Distance Learning, appearing live before 7,000 headteachers on 190 giant screens throughout France.
Broadcasting from near Poitiers, M Bayrou told them that "this educational revolution" was intended to "break away from the defects of the uniform college".
His announcement came a week after research showed that nearly a quarter of pupils start college without basic skills in arithmetic, one in 11 is unable to read, and one in 17 has severe difficulties in both subjects. Last September, 9 per cent of these children could not understand the meaning of a given text, and nearly one in five could not calculate answers to sums with whole numbers or do simple decimals, according to the education ministry.
M. Bayrou has been preparing his reform of the college - "the weak link in the educational chain," as he has called it - since 1994, and some measures have already been tried out. All are due to be in place by 1999.
The four years of college are to be reorganised into three cycles. The sixieme (first year, for 11 to 12-year-olds) will be a period of consolidation. The cinquieme and quatrieme (second and third years) will be integrated into a single cycle and lower-ability pupils will not have to repeat a year as some do currently.
The troisieme is the final year before pupils move on to a lycee or leave school at 16.
Changes in the sixieme, to start in September, will give heads more control over the timetable "to adapt to the educational needs of each pupil," said M Bayrou. This will make it easier to organise work in small groups. An extra hour a week each will be given to French and PE, and civic instruction, another priority, will be spread throughout the curriculum.
Remedial help will be increased for this age-group, and two-hour "homework" sessions supervised by teachers will become compulsory. This initiative was first tested in 1994 to help pupils in difficulty entering secondary school and it has been praised by heads and teachers.
Pupils concerned showed greater progress in French and maths than similar children from other schools. Fewer had severe problems, and more achieved "very good" results.
From 1997, Latin will be offered to all pupils in the cinqui me, a year younger than at present. But only about 20 per cent are expected to take up the option, the same proportion as today.
Luc Ferry, chairman of the independent National Curriculum Council and France's Ron Dearing, wants pupils to be given a digest of essential knowledge for each year -to act as a reference to the core information they receive during their time at college. This would be in addition to their usual textbooks.