“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela

Long before France came onto its own as a modern democratic state it ambitioned to raise a nation to the image of the principles its most elite thinkers wanted to see manifest. As Emile Durkheim writes in ‘Education et Sociologie’, “Each nation has its own education system, one which comes to define its most inner nature, to the same token as its morals, political views, and religious inclinations reflect its national identity.”

Indeed, in every nation’s educational tone it is that nation’s social vision which is reflected. A child born and bred in and of the Republic, will surely come to be endowed of those qualities the Republic most hold dear … or so the theory holds.

In his analysis of the role played by education in society, Durkheim posits that the state will ultimately ambition to mould the next generation to its image by putting forth an education system in line with its political and philosophical vision. History concurs to that effect if we consider what role education played in Soviet Russia as both a conduit and extension of the state’s founding principles.

If education, or more accurately, the right to education has long been social activists’ crusade, in that they thought to architect a social system where inequalities are waved through access to knowledge, modern realities have made education an extension of any one nation’s socio-political and financial footprint – an inherent part of any one nation’s strategic planning.

If Nelson Mandela was clearly referring to education as a mean for individuals to rise above their social station to manifest whatever reality they see fit, education within the context of state-building has too the power “to change the world.”

As far as Education as an institution stands, France has a wealth of wisdom to impart developing nations. Unlike many of its contemporaries, France has looked upon education on the basis of its intellectual and libertarian merit, as opposed to an industry to draw a profit from.


2015 data –

Over the past 40 years, France has closed the gap that it had with a great many OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in regards to its population’s educational attainment. The significant rise in the proportion of young people completing their studies with a secondary school diploma or the equivalent, and the successful mass expansion of higher education enrolments in the 1980s – with the creation of IUTs (“university institutes of technology”) in 1966 and the development of university-level curricular pathways and grandes écoles – are among the achievements of the French education system.

Rising levels of educational attainment in France have been accompanied by a substantial boost in the skills level of the population.

Overview of the education system (EAG 2017) OECD

  • 89% of young graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector are in employment, compared to 77% of graduates in arts and humanities, social sciences, journalism and information.
  • Annual expenditure by educational institutions on primary students (in this context, the term ‘primary’ corresponds to elementary school, i.e. the five-year cycle from preparatory classes (cours préparatoire – CP) to the second year of middle-level classes (cours moyen deuxième année – CM2) is 15% lower than in OECD countries, whereas it is 37% higher for upper-secondary students.
  • International students account for 10% of enrolments in French institutions, whereas only 4% of French students decide to go and study abroad.
  • With higher education graduates comprising 44% of 25-34 year-olds, France is above the average across the OECD and in European countries.
  • In France, a high number of young children are enrolled in nursery school (including almost all 3 year-olds), and expenditure on nursery schools, at 0.8% of GDP, is above the average across the OECD.
  • The success rate in vocational pathways (professional baccalauréat, CAP/BEP or the equivalent) has increased significantly in France, and there is higher investment in these programmes than in general programmes. Nevertheless, the employment rate for young people with a professional qualification is lower than in other countries.
  • Primary students attend 162 instructional days per year, the lowest number across the OECD. However, they attend more hours of class: 864 hours compared to an average of 800 hours across the OECD.


Throughout the many centuries and decades which saw rise and fall several systems of governance, France has been confronted with one constant: the formulation of its educational system. Unlike many of its contemporaries however France recognised education to be a right before it could be conceptualised as a political tool. It is maybe because France saw beyond its immediate political and institutional needs that the nation asserted itself both a model and an inspiration as far as Education stands.

The first question the Third Republic was confronted to as it thought itself an education system – one capable of freeing and empowering all its citizens on the basis of social and legal equality, was to whom the school ought to belong to — to the Church, as it had been for a very long time, to the families … or to the State?

While the question was not new, its answer would come to define the very matrix of the French republican establishment and allow in more ways than one for the ‘French model’ to be exported and thus translated to other countries. If secularism has had its critics, it has nevertheless allowed for the French education system to democratise knowledge as a social tool of empowerment.

Knowledge as it were, became a right individuals are owed, as opposed to a privilege only an elite few could afford.

Even before the Revolution, some thinkers such as Louis René de Caradeuc of La Chalotais or Jean-Baptiste Crevier had already affirmed the need for the formulation of a national education system – an education made by the State and for the State, “because any nation has an inalienable and imprescriptible right to instruct its members; because the children of the state must be raised by members of the state “ posited La Chalotais.

The Third Republic – heir to both the Enlightenment and the Revolution, could only be part of such perspective, thus affirming the place of an educating State that stands out from the power of the Church and families.

France, it has often been asserted became its motto: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity the day Jules Ferry declared the public school: free, secular, and mandatory. Not only did education became a right, but it also became a legal obligation.

A second question, undeniably linked to the first and equally fundamental, was posed to the reformers of the Third Republic – how to ensure that the school would truly become a tool of democratisation and allow all to be emancipated from the burdens of social determinism. Since we are all the products of our environment, how could the Republic formulate a complex which would allow for all manners of differences to be transcended, and yet serve the spirit of a pluralist society?

Jules Ferry offered a first answer by giving children age 6 to 13 years access to a cohesive and uniform primary school education. There remains the question of access to secondary education, which will be the basis of many reform projects in the inter-war period.

To address social disparities, Minister Edouart Herriot (1926) implemented the principle of amalgation – thus forcing into one classroom pupils of different ages and social background, to better instil in pupils a sense of personal responsibility for one’s success on the basis of merit, rather than social background.

Under the flag of the Republic all stood equal to rise or to fall – in principle at least.

The end of the 19th century is marked in France by the importance of the great school reforms defended by Jules Ferry. By introducing free education in 1881, then obligation and secularism, Ferry architected a national education system opened to all, as to train the future citizens of the then-nascent Third Republic. In this context, the school became the crucible of national unity.

Teachers, as Jean-Michel Gaillard recalls, played an essential role by appearing as “the best guarantors of the republican order and of political and social democracy”.

A quick analysis of Jules Ferry’s writings suggests that the Minister of Public Education and Fine Arts was a strong supporter of the idea of ​​social and academic equality. The title of his famous speech at Salle Molière April 10, 1870 – ‘The equality of education’ pleads in favor of this idea.

Ferry’s point of view was actually more complex. As Claude Lelièvre specifies it was not so much to promote the idea of ​​an “absolute leveling of social conditions, which would suppress the relations of command and obedience in society,” but rather “a question of seeing in the master and the servant only two contractors each having their precise, limited and foreseen rights; each one their duties, and consequently their dignity.”

Théodore Zeldin, quoted by Claude Lelièvre, further clarifies the point, making it possible to fully understand the scope and limits of Jules Ferry’s “democrat” thought. Ferry was not particularly interested – unlike Leon Gambetta – in social mobility. Ferry wanted to make men equal in their rights and dignity. Mutual respect was to replace animosity and contempt. Contracts that gave rights and obligations were meant to replace caste oppression. For him, change was much more moral than economic.

It is especially in the twentieth century that this question relating to the pursuit of a desire for democratisation leading to the idea of ​​redistribution of social cards within the school institution, is really posed. It is with the project of a single school, proposing to question the existence of separate school worlds so as to merge them into a single system, that a new way of considering the relations between school and society is being built.

To under-estimate the role of education as a strategic nation-building tools, and a mean to shape society as part of the expression and reality of the affirmation of the nation-state is to misunderstand what constitutes national sovereignty.

If armies are kept to secure and preserve one nation’s territorial integrity, education, when thought out nationally becomes a powerful weapon against social fragmentation, and socio-economic stagnation.



France, better than most maybe, has formulated its education system around those values it wanted its Republic to embody and exude to the world. It built a nation to its image through education, thus moulding minds to its ways of thinking – the new expression of nationalism.

France’s most prominent, and yet less talked about accomplishment remains its national education system and the values which allowed its inception. A true child of the Lumières and the Revolution, the France of Jules Ferry shed its last link to an age of pre-determined social inequalities on April 1970, when the then-minister declared at the Salle Molière that a prerequisite of education was equality. It is in this speech that Ferry expressed his determination to abolish the privileges of the French Revolution, and to fight against what seemed to be the last inequality from birth: the inequality of education.

“With unequal education, I challenge you to never have equal rights, not theoretical equality, but real equality, and equal rights is the very foundation of democracy,” Ferry declared.

And: “What I call the democratic command is no longer the distinction between the inferior and the superior; There is no longer either inferior or superior: there are two equal men who contract together, and then, in the master and the servant, you will see only two contractors each having their precise, limited and foreseen rights; each their duty, and, consequently, their dignity. “ 

It would take France several more decades and reforms to expand on its ‘free education for all’ scheme, by including secondary, and then university-level education.

Unlike many other modern western democracies, France has maintained its dedication to a free national education system, which tradition allowed for great many innovations – whether scientific or intellectuals.

In the second half of the twentieth century, education became one of the major themes of national political thought. It has been the subject, at the same time, of articles in the daily press, of studies in scientific periodicals, of face to face passionate between experts, of colloquiums, seminars, governmental requests without omitting the recommendations emanating from the most prestigious international organizations. Investments in education are now beginning to be of concern to developing countries, who see the promise of future economic growth.

In terms of research, specialists in educational problems are recruiting in more and more disciplines in order to implement future reforms. In the course of two centuries, education has moved away from being the privilege of an elite few to becoming both an industry and the extension of nations’ socio-political thoughts.

Entrenched in Algiers, General de Gaulle and his generals prepare the liberation of France. De Gaulle himself wrote: “In all areas, the liberation of France must be accompanied by the renewal of its institutions. Deep transformations will have to be accomplished in the political order, in the economic order, in the social order. It is an illusion to believe that liberation can bring about the pure and simple return to the pre-war state of affairs.”

Several reform plans were thus drawn up and came to inspire the work of a commission dedicated to that of education. Created on 21 January 1944 by René Capitant, Commissioner for National Education and Youth, the motives and trends of this preliminary draft are explicit: “(…) the aspirations for a vigorous rejuvenation are not vague. France knows what was lacking before the war and what it misses more than ever. A plan of reform had been devised in 1937, 1938, 1939, and the cure had been undertaken, in a petty and hesitant way, it is true, but at last the way was traced. We must renew the thread of reforms and boldly resume the cure interrupted, using massive doses of energetic remedies. For five years, we have enriched ourselves with the cruel lessons of experience. It is in the light of defeat and treason, in the light of struggle and resistance that we can judge our educational institutions and their formative value.”

Under the leadership of René Capitant France rethought its entire education system to include a new national vision, proving once more that education at a state level is in fact a grand political act.

Education in the context of France post WW2 was thought out as a mean to redress the upset of the Occupation period and re-assert republican values within a nationalistic narrative.

The reforms which follow reinforce such point. They also open an interesting window into the correlations which exist in between demographic realities: a rise in population for example, and the state desire to ‘democratise’ further its national education system.

With education firmly established as a natural right in France by the 1950s, state officials were called upon to expand, develop, and altogether fine-tuned the education system to meet rising needs and expectations.

Structurally, the 1960s marked the advent of mass education in France This mutation did not happen without pain. Although the education system has been able to cope with the massification of its workforce, it has not yet managed to overcome the challenge of the democratization of education, which remains, even today, a major social challenge for French society.

France’s rethinking of its education system post Occupation – a period of French history which proved to be socially and politically traumatic, stands testimony to the role education has played in sealing France’s national identity and sense of self. Beyond the immediate financial benefits of an educated populace, lies the ever-present notion that a thinking nation sits a free nation.

The question of the education of the new generations being included in the investment plans related to the revival of the country post WW2, and the challenge associated to the democratization of education would be all the more acute, that it involved a fast-changing demographic landscape.

France also had to contend with the rise of technology and technological mass-consumption: television, the internet …

Rethinking pedagogical methods became a crucial issue as schools began to compete with other source of information and knowledge in the rise of a new ‘culture’.

This ‘competitive’ offer of access to knowledge was to be denounced as one of the causes of the mass school failure that was then emerging. In this context, rethinking the place and status of each in a system that excludes individuality ultimately led to a more pertinent notion, one tied to one’s freedom: being able to think oneself outside the school system.

“The access of all children to equal opportunities through the democratization of education is the key to the emancipation of man”, said Pierre Mendès-France.

France’s school proceeds of several movements. The first is the consequence of the demographic effects that led the state to adapt to new structural realities. We need to build more schools to accommodate the children of the next generation. The second movement is linked to the country’s economic development strategies. Investments related to schooling and the increase of cultural capital are linked. In a globalized economy, the development prospects of a nation necessarily require significant expenditure in the education of young people. The third movement is that the school ca not maintain a pedagogical organization whose logic is no longer adapted to children born of the baby boom. The 1960s saw the birth of the first “TV generations”. This shook up traditional benchmarks in school work. Came in the ‘millennial’ generation and more questions arose as to the relevance of the national education system.

The necessity of having an education system however was never a matter of contention.

Taking up these ideas, Louis Legrand writes: “At the idea of ​​a necessary and possible democratization, condition of both economic progress and social progress, follows a new realism. On the one hand, democratization is considered impossible considering the sociological but also biological determinism, the latter explaining this one and better, justifying it. Moreover, economic and technical development requires an early and systematic selection of the most “gifted” who alone will be able to access the high-level of training necessary for the leaders of the electronic age. As for the mass, rather than to develop at it the disputatious and unrealistic attitudes linked to a misdirected general education, it is better to develop in it the attitudes necessary for the smooth running of the companies and the social body in general. From there, the idea of de-schooling is desirable for those who are not able to benefit from high-level general education.”

The question which then arises is to know at which level this orientation should be made to avoid the phenomena of school drop-out. Measures will be taken in this direction from the 1980s. However, we must question the meaning of these adjustments. Is the only diversification of training courses sufficient to correct the effects of this democratisation?

To that effect Antoine Prost writes: “College reform has not only consolidated social stratification: it legitimized it, since it made it based on seemingly academic and not overtly social criteria. She invited members of the various social groups to internalize their respective social positions and to assume them as a consequence of their unequal merit. Before the reform, the victims of the selection could blame the system, which had not given them a chance. By apparently giving them a chance, without effectively combating sociological burdens, college reform has made students responsible for their failure or success. It has transformed into merit or personal incapacity what one would have previously attributed to the chances of birth. The burden of inequality in schools no longer falls on society but on individuals. The college thus buys by weakening individuals, a consolidation of society. With time, the reform that wanted to be democratic and progressive proved to be inegalitarian and conservative.”

A new challenge today would be to formulate a system that would not select but which instead, would guide and then train students according to their previously detected abilities, thus allowing greater social and economic fluidity.

Developing nations have here an advantage in that they can learn from other nations’ trials and errors to formulate a system tailored to their respective needs. Unlike France which back in the 19th century had to contend with many great limitations: geographical disparities, logistics and such, the rise of modern technologies allows for much flexibility – if harness by the state within a cohesive vision.