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Journal of Education Policy

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Education policy and

equality in France: the
socialist years
Maria Fernandez Mellizo-Soto
Published online: 10 Nov 2010.

To cite this article: Maria Fernandez Mellizo-Soto (2000) Education policy and
equality in France: the socialist years, Journal of Education Policy, 15:1, 11-17,
DOI: 10.1080/026809300285971
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J. EDUCATION POLICY, 2000, VOL. 15, NO. 1, 11 17

Education policy and equality in France: the

socialist years

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Mar a Fernandez Mellizo-Soto

This article analyses the design of French Socialist egalitarian education policy, defined in terms of a number of indicators: organizational aspects of the education system, financial aspects of education policy and the size of the education system. It considers the extent to which the Socialists altered the institutional structure of the education
system in order to create opportunities for lower class pupils or students to study. The performance of the Socialist
government suggests that the institutional structures of education tend toward a high degree of continuity and are
difficult to change in a short period of time. Nevertheless, despite this pattern of continuity, the Socialists did reform
the education system in a way that seems slightly more egalitarian. The article does not attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation of this continuity, but points out some of the factors that account for continuities in certain
elements of education policy related to the aim of equality.

The Parti Socialiste (PS) won power in 1981. Despite being allied to the communists
during the election campaign, it won a majority of votes. The Socialist Party enjoyed
full control of both the executive and legislative branches of government; nevertheless, from 1981 to 1984 it governed in coalition with the Parti Communiste (PC),
even though it was not obliged to do so. In 1977, the PSs programme for education
had defined its first goal as `the fight against social and educational inequalities
(Savary 1985: 11). In their electoral manifestos of the seventies and early eighties, the
Socialists, contrary to previous right-wing governments, defended a concept of
equality in education that went beyond mere formal (meritocratic) equality. They
introduced the principle of positive discrimination, `to give more to those who have
less, as exemplified by their support for compensatory education. The SGEN
(Syndicat General de lEducation Nationale) had adopted the principle of compensatory education in the early seventies (following the example of the Labour Party in
Britain), and the PS soon took it up.1 In 1988, after losing to a centre-right coalition
in 1986, the elections returned the PS to power, but only gave it enough seats to
form a minority government.2 The PSs 1988 manifesto for presidential elections
(Propositions pour la France) included the declaration that the fight for the school success
of all is therefore a priority within the general struggle against the reproduction of
social inequalities. After 1985, though the priority was still said to be National
Education, the manifestos became vaguer and less egalitarian.3 Instead of defending
Mar a Fernandez Mellizo-Soto is a researcher at the Juan March Institute in Madrid where she is a
Doctoral Candidate. The theme of her dissertation is the comparison of Socialist educaion policy and
equality in Spain and France. Since 1998, she is also a researcher at the Instituto de Estudios Sociales
Avanzados (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cient ficas) in Madrid.
J ournal of Educational Policy ISSN 0268 0939 print/ISSN 1464 5106 online # 2000 Tay lor & Francis L td
http://w ww /tf/02680939.htm l



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comprehensive lower secondary education, compensatory education, or the

unification of higher education, as they had previously done, the PSs electoral
programmes defended quantitative measures such as the expansion of student
In this article, leaving aside comprehensive and exhaustive explanations regarding the determinants of Socialist education policy, but going beyond the governments objectives of equality in education, I will analyse the design of the Socialist
egalitarian education policy, defined in terms of a number of indicators.5 In short,
this analysis will consider the extent to which the Socialists in France altered the institutional structure of the education system in order to create opportunities or establish
obstacles for lower class pupils or students to study.6
Org aniz ational aspects of the education sy stem
Firstly, I am going to examine the characteristics of the policy design in relation to the
organization of education systems such as the age of first educational choice, the
mechanisms (objective or otherwise) of student selection and compensatory education
during the Socialist governments. The Socialists did not change the age at which the
pupil had to decide for the first time whether to continue in general education or, on
the contrary, opt for vocational education. This decision was still to be taken in the
fourth grade of college (the third year of lower secondary education), at 14 (at 15,
pupils go on to general or vocational lycees). In fact from 1980 to 1991 students are
progressively taking this orientation decision at 13 (the third grade of college).7
Nevertheless, the Minister of Education in the first Socialist government, Alain
Savary, asked the famous education specialist Louis Legrand to produce a report on
this level of education. The report, Pour un college democratique, was released at the end
of 1982 and included a proposal to postpone the age of this first decision to 16 (the
age when compulsory education finishes), although at 14 pupils would be given the
opportunity to choose different options. The report emphasized the qualitative
dimension of education, in that it stressed the importance of certain pedagogical
practices. In addition to postponing the age at which pupils decide for their first time
the educational track they will follow, the report contained other kind of
recommendations about the organization of studies and other pedagogical questions,
for example, the division of pupils for different subjects in groups depending on
their ability level. Although the report was not rejected out of hand by the ministry,
the decision to apply its recommendations was left to the local authorities, mainly
due to pressure from secondary education teachers unions (SNES, Syndicat
National des Enseignements de Second Degre) who were more powerful than the
primary education teachers unions (SNI, Syndicat National des Instituteurs) which,
along with some other unions, actually approved the report.8
The mechanisms of student selection were modified, though the changes were
not very significant. It was not until the 1989 Orientation Law, with Lionel Jospin as
the Minister of Education, that major changes were made in this respect. The situation
when the Socialists took power was that the education guidance decision was essentially taken by teachers (the conseil de classe), while the pupil and his/her family had
almost no voice. Article 7 of the 1989 Orientation Law introduced some changes in
this respect. This article states that the pupils or their families have the right to choose
the educational guidance. But mainly as a result of pressure from the teachers unions,

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this article is rather contradictory, and basically ambiguous.9 The clear statement of
the right to choose is followed by a clause stating that in case of disagreement between
teachers and the student and/or his or her family, the headmaster has the last word.
In upper secondary education (for instance in the baccalaureat or bac, that is, the final
year of secondary education) and in higher education, student selection was essentially
made on the basis of objective criteria, and the Socialists mantained the same selectiv e
procedures. This is obvious in higher education, where the elitist system of preparatory classes and grandes ecoles (entry to which is usually dependent on passing a
meritocratic examination) coexists alongside the overcrowded university system.
The socialists in opposition and at the beginning of their mandate were opposed to
this rigid separation of the two branches of higher education, but they did almost
nothing to change it when they won power. Under the 1984 Higher Education Bill,
selection at the first cycle of university was postponed until the second cycle.
Nevertheless, this law left the elitist system of higher education virtually untouched
except for minor changes (for example, courses for the entry examinations for the
grandes ecoles could now be offered in universities and not exclusively in the preparatory courses of lycees). The Socialists had promised a closer relationship (second
opportunities for students in university to go to the elitist education) between the
two strands of higher education, but in fact the changes were of marginal importance
and of more significance for teachers than students. The survival of the elitist profile
of higher education is best explained by the pressure from middle class students,
both in universities and above all in the grandes ecoles, as well as from the `elites created by the meritocratic system, former students of grandes ecoles.10 The Socialists
opted to make the student selection procedures less objective in non-higher education,
although, as we have seen, not entirely so. This implies that the estimated probability
of success in non-higher education became higher for lower income pupils. In addition to this, costs of study were relatively low. In higher education changes were
more limited.
In 1981 and 1982, a serie of regulations (circulaires) issued by the Ministry of
Education created compensatory education in a number of special zones, known as
ZEPs, Zones dEducation Prioritaires. The schools located in these areas were considered
to have special needs, and this measure ostensibly provided them with extra resources.
However, this policy was abandoned in 1984, after Jean-Pierre Chevenement replaced
Savary at the ministry (Peignard and van Zanten 1998: 70). The main reason for this
change lay in the differences between the two mens conceptions of the causes of
inequality of educational opportunities, as well as other electoral factors and the pressure from groups such as the SNES.11 From 1988 onwards, when the Socialists
returned to power, they made some attempt to revamp compensatory education,
but this was of more rhetorical than practical importance. Between 1981 and 1994,
the number of ZEPs increased from 0 to 558 (the greater effort corresponding to the
Savary years when 363 ZEPs were created), accounting for 11.3% of all students (it
should be noted that there were more lower secondary education schools or colleges
in ZEPs (14.2% ) than primary schools or ecoles (9.6% ), and there were more ZEPs
in the North-East than in the South-West).12 Compensatory education is particularly
important for equality since, as the process of policy decentralization advances, as it
did under the Socialists, geographical inequalities (both regional and local) tend to
increase.13 So, above all at the beginning of their period in government, the
Socialists reduced the costs of education through compensatory education. The problem is that it is not clear how far this policy has been continued afterwards.



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Financial aspects of education policy

Secondly, I am going to consider the policy design of education funding, including
the financial assistance for students and private institutions under the Socialist governments. Financial assistance to students during the Socialist years increased. If we consider the proportion of the total education budget devoted to social assistance
expenditure on higher education students, this percentage rose from 0.83% in 1983
to 1.26% in 1994.14 The percentage of students in higher education with direct assistance also increased, from 13.6% in 1980 to 18% in 1992.15 Nevertheless this did not
constitute reversal of the previous situation. The percentage of students in higher education with direct assistance in France is small in comparison to other European countries (the average in the European Union is 43.5% of students in higher education
with direct assistance). The main reasons given by advisers of the Socialist Education
Ministers in order to justify the limited progress in this respect was the pressure from
middle class students in favour of indirect assistance (for every student, regardless of
their income) and the Prime Ministers opposition (for instance, in the case of Pierre
Mauroy (1981/1984) and Michel Rocard (1988/1991)) to the system of more direct
financial assistance because, among other things, of the costs involved. The first factor
was most important under Savary 16 and the second under Jospin.17 In practice, however, expenditure on direct assistance in higher education shows an upward trend in
relation to indirect assistance, which took the opposite path. In 1980, grants to higher
education students accounted for 43.6% of total social assistance to students at this
level of education.18 By 1994 this figure had risen to 78.78% .19 Therefore, the costs
of studying were reduced through the financial assistance policy, even though the
system was left essentially unaltered as the proportion of students with a grant
remained low.
Private education expanded slightly under the Socialist governments. The enrolment rate in private education stood at 15.5% of the total in 1980 compared to 18%
in 1992.20 At the beginning of the first Socialist government, Savary tried to pass a
law on private education. The project prepared in 1983 included the regulation of private schools receiving funds from the state. Savary spent two years talking, listening
and, negotiating with different groups in the educational spectrum, and above all
with representatives of private and religious education organizations. Savary presented five proposals as the basis for negotiation (Ambler 1985a: 130 1): first, lay
teachers from subsidized private schools would be incorporated into the civil service,
along with public school teachers, but the clergy would continue to teach under contract; second, these private schools would be included in the carte scolaire, an overall
tablissements dinteret public
plan for the creation and location of schools; third, these E
(establishment of public interest) would be run by administrative councils representing the state and local governments, as well as the sponsoring association, which
would continue to own the buildings; fourth, families would be allowed to choose
freely from all schools in their area, subject to review by a committee of school principals, teachers and parents; and fifth, each school (or set of schools) would be allowed
to adopt a particular orientation: spiritual, cultural or sporting. In 1984 the President
of the Republic Francois Mitterrand withdrew this bill in the face of large-scale
demonstrations in favour of private schools. The main reason for these demonstrations was that after agreement had been reached with the mainly Catholic education
groups, the law was heavily amended in the National Assembly (NA) because some
Socialist deputies opposed the original project. According to an opinion poll carried



out in 1983 at the time of the demonstrations 71% of respondents favoured the survival of private education, 52% of these being government supporters (Ambler 1985b:
37; Chevenement 1985: 122). Public opinion on this issue had a major influence on
the Socialists decision to withdraw the bill. After that defeat, virtually nothing was
done until 1992, when Jack Lang reached an agreement with the Catholic education
sector over the outstanding problem of financing. But, in general, state-aided private
schools remained outside the control of the state. So, as regards private education,
the situation after the Socialists was in general terms unchanged. The costs for students
remained basically the same.

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The siz e of the education sy stem

Finally, let us consider the evolution of the size of the education system under the
Socialists. The expansion of the education system was one of the Socialists main
objectives, above all after Chevenement (the second Socialist Minister of Education)
took office in 1984. Chevenement adopted the target of 80% of the age group studying to the level of the bac. A report presented to Savary by the famous historian
Antoine Prost, Les lycees et leurs etudes au seuil du XXIeme sie cle, in 1983 had proposed
the goal of 80% of the age group in upper secondary education. This target was
accepted by Rene Monory, the Minister of Education of the next right-wing government, as well as by subsequent Socialist governments. The 1988, Socialist manifesto
Propositions pour la France, confirmed Chevenements expansionist target. The
preamble and Article 3 of the 1989 Orientation Law, under Jospin, reiterated this
objective in relation to the bac and set another significant target: that 100% of the age
group should have at least a vocational education diploma. Between 1982 and 1993,
in general, enrolment rates rose among 14- to 24-year-olds. It is doubtful, however,
that the expansion of enrolment rates in this period can be only attributed to the
Socialist governments. In 1982, only 44.7% of 18-year-olds were studying, whereas
in 1993 84.1% were studying. In 1982 only 17.7% of those aged 20 were studying,
while this figure increased to 53.2% in 1993.21 In 1980 28.8% of the population
between 2 and 22 years old were in upper secondary education, while in 1993 this
figure increased to 33.3% of this age group.22 This expansion of students in lycees
has been called the `new educational explosion which has, and may continue to
have profound consequences for universities (Robert 1993: 166).
At the same time as these expansionist objectives were set, emphasis was placed
on vocational education, especially at the level of upper secondary education. The
most obvious measure in this regard was the creation of the vocational bac, again
under Chevenement (see the article in this monograph by Antoine Prost). In 1985 a
law, called the Carraz Act, was passed which highlighted the need for vocational education and was intended to increase the number of students in vocational tracks. This
law also envisaged the creation of a vocational bac, which was subsequently regulated
in a decree in 1986. This emphasis on vocational education was not restricted to this
level of education or to Chevenements period in office. Nevertheless, the figures for
this period of time show the opposite trend (it should be remembered that caution
must be applied when attributing responsibility for changes in this kind of figures to
the Socialist governments, and that the choice of pupils and their families is important
and can run contrary to government policy aims). In 1980, 41.2% of students in
upper secondary education were in vocational tracks, while the remaining students



followed either the general or technical track. The proportion of students in vocational tracks dropped to 30.85% in 1993.23 The reason for this quantitative and vocational emphasis, above all after Chevenement came to power, again could lie in the
particular conception of equality of opportunity espoused by Chevenement and the
following Ministers of Education as well as other electoral considerations.24 So, in
conclusion, estimated probabilities of success in education increased for students.
Nevertheless, as the Socialists objectives included an emphasis on the expansion of
vocational education, this could reduce these probabilities in the future.

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The analysis of the performance of the French Socialist governments suggests at least
one general conclusion: the institutional structures of education systems show, in general terms, a high degree of continuity and are difficult to change in a short period of
time, in this case a decade. Nevertheless, within this continuist path, the Socialists did
reform the French education system in a way that seems slightly more egalitarian;
that is, they may have increased equality in education. And, in fact, when Socialists
won power in 1981 they had a concept of equality in education that went beyond
mere meritocratic equality and included the principle of positive discrimination in
education in their discourse. But after the defeat of Savary, and mainly with
Chevenement, this concept and this principle became vaguer, more meritocratic and
less compensatory.
Rather than these marginal egalitarian changes the Socialists introduced through
their education policy, what in fact needs to be explained is the continuity in the institutional structure of the French education system during this period. This article has
not attempted to provide a comprehensive or exhaustive explanation, but has pointed
at some of the factors that may lie at the heart of the continuities of certain dimensions
of education policy considered of importance for equality aims. The factors weighing
in favour of continuity include the pressures from teachers unions (usually secondary
teachers unions), from middle class higher education students (both at university
and in grandes ecoles as well as the present elites who are the graduates of grandes ecoles),
public opinion and other electoral considerations (that is, the necessity of consolidating the actual socialist electorate or attracting new voters to the PS).

1. Information comes from an interview conducted with Christian Nique, who hold a series of key posts in the
Ministry of Education and was in the cabinet of the President of the Republic Francois Mitterrand from 1989
to 1995. See also Peignard and van Zanten (1998: 69).
2. See Histoire de la France des origines a nos jours (1995), (Paris: Larousse).
3. It is also true that from 1989 to 1993 (the end of the second socialist period) the public expenditure on education
(as a percentage of GNP) increased from 6.4% to 7.3% (MEN-DEP. 1995. 30 indicateurs sur le syste me e ducatif,
Letat de lecole, 5, p.13). Besides, with the 1989 Orientation Law the Socialists tried to relauch positive discrimination principles in education.
4. I use the word `students both in a generic sense and also to refer exclusively to students in higher education as
opposed to school pupils.
5. See Fernandez Mellizo-Soto (1999). In order to identify the most accurate indicators for equality in education
policy a rational (educational) choice model is proposed, at the same time that evidence for some countries is
provided. Due to the limitations of space, here I will not develop all the relevant indicators. Other indicators
not contemplated in this article are the length of educational tracks and the opportunities to return to education



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or to the prestigious track, including through adult education or special education. The changes the Socialists
made with regard to these specific measures were relatively insignificant. The evolution of special education is
quite similar to compensatory education which is analysed below (see Plaisance 1996).
See also Robert (1993), Derouet (1991), Lelievre and Nique (1995) and Prost (1992). These studies contain very
complete descriptions of the general education policy followed by the Socialists in France.
MEN-DEP. 1993. Geographie de lecole, p. 55.
This information comes from an interview conducted with Louis Legrand (see also Barreau, Garc a and
Legrand 1998).
I obtained this information from an interview with Claude Pair, one of Jospins advisers.
Information comes mainly from Alain Bergounioux, who was in the cabinet of the Prime Minister Michel
Rocard from 1988 to 1991 and has had important positions in the PS from 1985.
This information comes from interviews carried out with Alain Bergouniuox, with Catherine Moisan, one of
Savarys advisers, and with two of Chevenements advisers, Phillipe Barret and George Laforest.
These figures are from MEN (Ministere de lEducation Nationale), Reperes et references statistiques sur les
enseignements et la formation, 1995, p. 51, and Peignard and van Zanten (1998: 70).
See Duru-Bellat and van Zanten (1999) for a description of the decentralization processes in education policy in
These figures are from MESR (Ministere de lenseignement Superieur et de la Recherche), Informations sur le
financement et les effectifs de lenseignement superieur, 1994, pp. 11 and 18, and from MEN, Reperes et references,
1984, p. 23.
These figures are from MEN, Reperes et references . . . , 1995, p. 163.
Information comes from interviews carried out with Jean-Paul Costa, a senior adviser to Savary, and with
Claude Blondel, one of the advisers on educational issues to Mauroy (the first Socialist Prime Minister). A
report on this subject completed in 1982 (Claude Domenach, Les conditions de vie et le contexte de travail des etudiants)
defends the predominance of a system of indirect assistance.
Information comes from Jean Hebrard, one of Jospins advisers. There was a plan `social-etudiant proposed in
this period by Claude Allegre, Jospins right-hand, defending a system of direct financial assistance.
These figures are from OCDE, Evolution des modes de financement de lenseignement. Rapport national: France,
1989, pp. 44 45.
These figures are from MESR, Informations sur . . . , 1994, p.18. Technical note: the 1980 data excludes STS and
CPGE students (some post-secondary education tracks; Sections de Techniciens Superieur and Classes Preparatoires
aux Grandes Ecoles), while these students are included in the 1994 data.
These figures are from MEN, Reperes et references, 1984, p.17 and OECD, OECD Education Statistics 1985 1992,
These figures are from MEN, Reperes et references . . . , 1984, p.19, and from MEN, Reperes et References, 1995,
These figures are from MEN, Reperes et references . . . , 1995, pp. 21 and 79.
Although there were much more students in upper secondary education (see above). These figures are from
MEN, Reperes et references . . . , 1995, p.79. Terrail (1997: 27 28) also showed this trend.
Information comes from an interview with George Laforest.

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