A unique comparison of educational standards between pupils of 75 years ago and those of today is about to take place, after the chance discovery in archives of examination papers dating back to the Third Republic. Next month 6,000 12 to 14-year-olds will sit a near equivalent of the French and maths tests from the school-leaving certificate taken by primary pupils in the department of the Somme in the early 1920s.
The results will show how education has progressed, says Claude Thelot, head of the education ministry's directorate of evaluation and planning. "They will contribute to the public debate on the education system, and give concrete facts about what pupils do and do not know," he says.
The exercise will link two totally different societies. The earlier was overwhelmingly rural and only a tiny, privileged elite made it as far as secondary school; now the emphasis is on equality and education for all, 80 per cent of the population live in towns and well over half of them stay on to take the baccalaureat.
In those days there was no evaluation as recognised today. The idea was to show the best that schools could achieve. Only the "brightest'' pupils were tested, so percentages of passes were high.
The modern education system is monitored by the 4,000-strong Inspection Generale, which is part of the national ministry. Inspectors sit in on classes, seeing each teacher on average every five or six years, and give internal advice on teaching methods.
The French education system is built around the baccalaureat, the end-of-lycee exam that gives succesful pupils the right to a university place.
With government policy aimed at raising the proportion of pupils taking the bac to 80 per cent by the year 2000, constant evaluation throughout the school career is important.
Last year, the Ministry of Education started publishing tables listing the performance of every lycee in the country, but with a "value added" element included.
National tests were introduced in 1989 for every eight and nine-year-old in the third year of primary school, and for 11 and 12-year-olds in the first year of college (lower secondary), with emphasis on French and maths.
In 1992, evaluation was added for all pupils in their first lycee year. In addition, teachers at all levels are responsible for carrying out regular control tests.
More than 500 colleges are this year carrying out experimental reforms to help pupils who are lagging behind as they enter secondary education, and results will contribute to new remedial policies. (TES, March 31).
French children of today score well against pupils from other countries. By the end of the year they will also know how they compare with their grandparents' generation.