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Sarkozy's shake-up

FRENCH EDUCATION is to be revamped using some British-style touches after the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as France's president. Measures he outlined during his campaign include greater autonomy for schools, the right for parents to choose their child's school, and increased pay for teachers who volunteer to take after-hours homework sessions.

The plans are in line with Mr Sarkozy's desire for France to break from its high levels of social protection and adopt a regime that would encourage individual initiative and reward hard work.

Mr Sarkozy, former hardline interior minister in the conservative UMP government, presented his policies, using the catchphrase "The duty to succeed", at a UMP education convention in the run-up to the election.

"For more than a century, school has been transformed to cater for increasing numbers and types of pupils," he told delegates. "But though the public and the stakes have changed, organisation of the education system has remained the same - that's to say, desperately uniform."

While he said that education in France had excelled for a century in ensuring equality of opportunity, "today it has become inegalitarian", with a small number of children from working-class backgrounds attending university.

Some of his plans echo those introduced in Britain under new Labour and the last Conservative government. They include giving schools greater autonomy over budgets, with their duties set out in contracts with the state.

All parents will be given the right to choose their children's schools. At present, pupils are allocated to schools in the area where they live, a system originally designed to promote social equality, but which has been abused by families who know how to get an exemption.

Schools will be given flexibility to pay staff more if they show extra commitment to work, for example by supervising homework clubs. "It's necessary to improve the remuneration and spending power of teachers," Mr Sarkozy said.

An echo of Labour's focus on "inclusion" can also be found in Mr Sarkozy's proposals to ensure that all children with disabilities and special education needs can be taught in mainstream schools. Other plans include:

* Teaching a foreign language to pupils from the first primary year, at about age five;

* Promoting school sports and PE, not only for pupils' health and well-being but to "develop human qualities that are essential in society and the world of work";

* Effective action against violence at school, with "a suitable response"

for every child showing behavioural problems.

Mr Sarkozy will face opposition from teachers' unions who want the repeal of laws passed by the outgoing government.

His outspoken manner has also angered critics. He called the young people who took part in the 2005 riots "riff-raff" and said that France's famous student protests and industrial action in May 1968 should be forgotten because they had "destroyed a school system that had imparted a common culture and shared morality".

Mr Sarkozy will soon appoint his caretaker government, including a new education minister who will meet teachers' representatives later this month. A general election will follow in June.

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