For over two centuries French students have faced a gruelling rite of passage: the week-long high school exit exam and its infamous philosophical essay, which bedevils college hopefuls with stumpers like "Do we always know what we desire?"
The philosophy brain-twister will remain, but the government has unveiled proposals for a major revamp of the rest of the baccalaureate, tackling a "national monument" based on a structure created under Napoleon in 1808.
Emmanuel Macron pledged to overhaul the Bac, as it is known, during his presidential campaign, saying it was failing to adequately prepare teenagers for university and the modern job market.
Once in university, roughly 60 percent of students fail to secure their diplomas marking the first three years of study.
The proposed reform presented this week, which would halve the number of Bac tests to just five including a new 30 minute oral exam, aims to orientate students toward specific degrees sooner. The three broad subject choices — science, literature or social sciences — would also be eliminated.
Before their final year students would choose two specific "major" subjects as well as two "minors" alongside the standard curriculum — a system that will sound familiar to American college graduates. And instead of being based purely on results in the final exams, the new Bac grade would incorporate marks and test results obtained throughout the two
final years of school.
Even class schedules will change by 2021 if the reforms are passed, with the year now divided into two semesters instead of three trimesters, and the tests spread over several months instead of a single week.
The government hopes that introducing specialization at a younger age will help students better choose their university – where places are currently free and guaranteed to anyone who passes the bac ordeal.
For Pierre Mathiot, former president at the Lille branch of the prestigious Sciences Po university who drafted the overhaul, students will be able to secure a high school degree under "more realistic conditions".
"I'm not saying there should be fewer baccalaureates, but that there should be 'better' graduates… and that the average Bac grade should better reflect a student's actual level," he said on Thursday.
He also argued that it was more forgiving for students, since strong results in one area of the test could make up for less than-stellar work elsewhere.
The goal is also to save money: mobilizing supervisors and setting up mass testing centres cost the state €57 million ($71 million) last year, French daily Liberation reported.
But critics say students will be forced to make career choices at too young an age. And the ideal of scholastic equality is also at risk, they say, since wealthier students will probably be better prepared to navigate the choices now open to them than those in poorer areas. Increased tutoring is supposed to limit that risk, but many educators aren't convinced: at least one teachers' union has called a strike against the new text for February 6th.
Will teachers go along?
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer faces his first major political test and has pledged to discuss the proposals with educators before presenting a final text on February 14th.
The new bac was announced just weeks after Macron began pushing through the second plank of his education plans: Removing the admissions system for universities and tightening entrance criteria.
The change sparked protests by students who claimed the government was undermining free access to higher education, at a time when it should be investing more in the country's universities. Already several hundred students in Rouen, northern France, marched midweek against both reforms.
The SNES-FSU union, which called the February strike, warned that "hyper-specialization" would deprive students of exposure to a wide range of disciplines, harming in particular "youths from the most fragile social backgrounds". Or as Liberation editorialist Laurent Joffrin put it, referring to students from well-off families: "Those who have more, know more."
Many educators, however, appear to be willing to give the changes a chance. The SNPDEN union, the largest for high school directors, called the proposals "a good basis for changing the baccalaureate for the better".
By AFP's Joseph Schmid