When France introduced education priority zones 15 years ago it went against one of its traditional educational principles - equality for all.
The socialist government of 1981 believed that equality and reversing the rate of school failure could be achieved only by discriminating in favour of the most disadvantaged children. The zones d'education prioritaires (ZEPs) came into effect in September 1982 and now Lionel Jospin's new socialist government is committed to strengthening them.
Schools in the zones are given nearly three times as much money as those outside. The national curriculum and diplomas still apply, but they have smaller classes, more experienced teachers who receive bonuses for working there and more support staff including psychologists and social workers. Pupils are given extra help outside school hours, and parents of nursery-age children are encouraged to send them to school younger than is usual, sometimes as early as two.
The ZEPs contain about 10 per cent of French schools, 1.18 million pupils and more than 75,500 teachers. They are determined by criteria such as parents' educational level and type of work, the local unemployment rate, numbers on income support and the proportion of immigrants, and are run by chief education officers.
They are generally said to have been a success. A recent education ministry report found they narrowed the gap in performance between disadvantaged pupils and those in schools not in zones.
But a 1994 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found weaknesses. The number of ZEP pupils repeating two grades or more was still twice as great in the ZEPs as elsewhere. Methods for helping primary pupils remained "relatively traditional and unimaginative", it said. There were still too many inexperienced ZEP teachers and they relied more on supply staff than most schools.