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Reform of The French Baccalaureate Exam - No More Cramming? 3 Questions to Christian Forestier

Analyses - 16 February 2018

By Institut Montaigne

Christian Forestier, former Rector of “four academies”, former Director General of higher education, Director of Cabinet of the Minister of National Education (2000 - 2002), and board member of Institut Montaigne, reacts to the project of the Minister of National Education to reform the French baccalaureate.

What do you think of the reform project on the baccalaureate presented Wednesday 14 February by Jean-Michel Blanquer? Does it go too far, or on the contrary, not far enough?

This reform project goes in the right direction, as it aims to both simplify and modernize the baccalaureate. It is coherent with the Mathiot report, submitted to the Minister of National Education on 24 January, although it is far less ambitious.

Indeed, continuous assessment throughout the lycée - the last three years of French high school - is not as valued as I expected, as the school report - which monitors each student’s grades - will only count for 10% of the overall grade, which, in my opinion, is insufficient. The rest only amounts to a better distribution of exams through time. Of course, this will allow the government to escape criticism regarding the risk of grading inequalities between different high schools - as each might have different grading criteria - but the goal of alleviating the weight of exams in the baccalaureate final grade has not been reached. It is a shame, as the APB platform - the French admissions services for higher education - has proved that school reports were generally representative of students’ academic level. Indeed, admissions before the passing of the baccalaureate exam were in fine barely impacted by the results of the baccalaureate. 

I am also concerned by the possibility offered to (too) many students, to pass the general baccalaureate exam while having stopped all mathematics teaching at the end of the first year of lycée. Announcing the withdrawal of mathematics from the core curriculum in the last two years of high school, just a few days after the submission of  excellent Villani-Torossian report - which promotes the importance of scientific teaching - seems problematic. One must not forget that some high school students are to later become school teachers. Otherwise, I believe adding a course entitled "scientific and digital humanities” to the core curriculum, as announced by the Minister, is an excellent idea. Its success will nonetheless largely depend on the content of this course, and on the people who will monitor it.

On a more general note, I have been concerned for a long time by the declining level of the teaching of physical and engineering sciences in French high schools and higher education. Of course, this problem concerns most developed countries, except for Asian countries - which does not mean it should be reassuring. The scientific track at the lycée has often been criticized for constraining students to study science against their interests, which was obviously problematic. Yet should we always take students’ preferences and taste into account?

Besides, it seems to me that the announcements made regarding the technology track must be specified. Personally, I have always been in favor of bridging the gap between the general and the technology tracks.

What will be the consequences of this reform on the current organisation of the lycée

I do not think that this reform will have major consequences on the lycée’s current organization, provided that schools are big enough to offer a wide range of subject choices to students. Indeed, the organization of our high schools will remain as rigid as it is today, with an almost static weekly schedule! It is worth noting that this reform will not fundamentally change the cost of high school. Yet we have one of the most expensive high schools in the world, while our primary and higher education are insufficiently funded

Do you reckon that this reform will allow lycée students to be better prepared for higher education and the professional world? 

Our lycée is not known for encouraging its students to take incentives, and has the legitimate reputation of leaving little room for autonomy and teamwork, which partly explains the difficulties students face in higher education. Will this reform change anything to this situation? The latter certainly explains why I am very much in favor of the oral examination announced by the Minister, which will focus on a project prepared by students from their penultimate year of high school. Indeed, such an examination should encourage students to build a project of their own in the long term, thus giving them more responsibilities, and to stimulate the development of skills useful to the pursuit of their studies and the integration of a professional environment.


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