The class of France of 68 gives bitter lessons to the children of today

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How serious could this crisis be for UK schools and, more importantly, for their students? While we think they will not be back until September – and even under a bizarre and arbitrary set of rules – it is tempting to consider this long hiatus in education as unprecedented. There is, however, a useful earlier example of a cohort whose education has been turned upside down – the French schoolchildren who studied in 1968.In that year, widespread rebellions against the established order swept across the West. Nowhere else have these troubles been more intense than in France, which began with student protests in May. At one point, 10 million workers were on strike, while the government of Charles de Gaulle vacillated before the return of stability in June.

Just like in Britain today hit by Covid, we saw the normal exam system suspended in 1968, the French baccalaureate – which represents both the success of secondary education and a passport to university – has been plunged into chaos by upheaval.

Here, in place of the usual GCSE and A-level, grades will be assigned to students by combining teacher assessment, class ranking and school history.

This week, after complaints about the unfairness of this approach, the watchdog Ofqual announced that students who are not satisfied with their marks will be able to take exams in all subjects this fall. But it will be too late for many students who then considered going to university and could be refused a place or forced to delay their entry by a year due to an arbitrary and ill-judged assessment. A recent survey found that almost a third of university applicants feel less confident that it will be able to go to their preferred institution due to the pandemic.

The reality is that a system without proper examinations lacks integrity and jeopardizes the life chances of young people. From now on, the 2020 generation will know that their CVs will be viewed with suspicion.

This is exactly what happened to Gallic students in 1968. The university sector was already cracking there before the revolt, due to an exaggerated expansion. In 1938, there were 60,000 students in France, a figure which increased to 605,000 in 1968.

Then, in an incendiary atmosphere of defiance against conservative values, student leaders lobbied for the rigor of the baccalaureate to be greatly diluted, in the words of one activist, “to avoid harming students who have spent a lot of time To fight”. As expected, the authorities surrendered. The Minister of Education, Fran├žois Xavier Ortoli, decided that a simple oral exam, without a written exam, would be “good enough”.

The success rate for the baccalaureate in 1968 increased by 30% compared to previous years. But the apparent triumph for individual rights has had disastrous consequences. With the proliferation of students, French universities – which could not impose selection criteria and had to admit anyone with the necessary qualifications – became hopelessly overloaded, while the exams deteriorated further. Fifty years later, 90% of students pass the baccalaureate, but only 40% actually graduate before they start.

Worryingly, post-Covid Britain could head in an equally stupid direction, where allowances for students who missed much of their education this year could lead to lower standards and exams less rigorous. The likely ripple effect on university standards will only be compounded by the need for money-hungry institutions to do their utmost to attract the few who have not been put off by the prospect of teaching. remotely.

The French heritage of 1968 is miserable. It fostered a culture of fabricated grievances. He undermined democracy by raising the protest above the ballot boxes. And it has proven to be deeply reactionary in strengthening public sector privileges. The influence of 1968 is a central reason why reforming the state is almost impossible in France. The power of unions in British schools today shows that we cannot afford the same thing to happen here.

The late French philosopher Raymond Aron described 1968 as “the utopian negation of reality”. There is nothing utopian about the price paid today by students for this disturbance.

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