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Shake-up is first for the bac in 35 years

This month more than 660,000 French lycee pupils are sitting a completely remodelled baccalaureat, the gruelling end-of-school examination which determines whether they will qualify for a university place.

Lycee reforms leading to the revised bac, the first since 1960, were introduced in 1992 to students who were then entering their first year in upper secondary education, and who are taking the exam now.

The three versions of the bac remain - the general, the most academic, which is being taken by 390,000 pupils this year; the technological, with 185, 000 candidates; and the professional, which alone stays untouched and which 92,000 pupils are sitting, not for a place in higher education but for a vocational qualification.

The reforms were designed to make the exam more flexible, and do give pupils a greater choice of options to build up their individual bac.

Another aim was to break the dominance of the old maths-based C-stream bac, known as the "royal route"; the brightest students, even those with more arts-orientated talents, felt obliged to take it, because it offered them the best higher education opportunities, not only in science but also in such fields as the law, economics, history or literature.

The changes were also supposed to simplify the exam's structure. The seven previous types of general bac have been reduced to just three - literary (L), economics and social sciences (SS) and scientifics (S). The four technological bacs are based on medical and social sciences; industrial; laboratory; and commercialadministrative sciences and technologies.

But in practice, the numerous options and specialities which are available in each new type of bac will make the system more complicated than before, according to organisers.

With the last big reform of the exam 35 years ago, it is not only the candidates who are feeling apprehensive about this year's session.

Teachers' unions and representatives of the biggest parents' federation are worried that the sudden switch to the unknown will upset the students and disrupt the system, that the exam will be weakened and the diploma subsequently devalued.

The ministry of education has issued guidelines and checks to ensure that the examiners this year mark the papers as consistently as possible and that the pass rate is not too radically different from last year's. Nearly three-quarters of the 60 per cent of the age group who took the bac in 1994 were successful.

o One tradition that has not changed is the opening of the two-week baccalaureat exam session with the philosophy paper, compulsory for all candidates taking the general and technological bacs.

This year students had to answer such questions as "is passion possible without illusion?", "can opinion be the guide to political power?" and "is experience the only source of our knowledge?"

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