The coronavirus pandemic may have resulted in more women getting into one of France’s most elite schools, but is the system fit for purpose?
A leading French academic institution in Paris has seen the number of women being accepted double, a fact that now has some suggesting that the pandemic has exposed discrimination that previously favoured men.
Normally entrance to the Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS), one of the most prestigious schools in the country, which produces future academics, politicians and bureaucrats, is governed by two exams: one is a face to face oral exam, and the second, an anonymously written one.
Due to the coronavirus restrictions this year, oral exams did not take place, with blind exam papers being the only method of evaluation. It resulted in an 80 percent success rate of women being accepted to the humanities division.
The results sparked debate about whether the examination process at the ENS needs a rethink.
Some pointed out that while the humanities department saw an increase in women, the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics sectors of the ENS saw a dramatic drop, with only 3 women accepted for maths, and none accepted for psychics, chemistry and engineering.
Professor Sandra Lapointe, who sparked the online debate, explained “I’m getting the sense that this will force an assessment of bias in current examination practices. This is also the opinion of French colleagues. It would be remiss to try to explain this away as anything else.”
Another prospective academic highlighted the need to introduce greater anonymity in exams as a way of reducing the gender gap.
France’s Grande Ecole
The ENS is part of what, in France, has been termed as the country’s Grande Ecole, a system of elite schools that runs parallel to, but separate from, the country’s universities.
While few know much about the Grande Ecole system outside of France, among the French, they are the omnipresent academic temples that have shaped France for the last 200 years.
Resistant to change, and even considered “counter-cultural”, the students form an elite club shaping the contours and direction of the state.
Each year, the institutions that fall under this elite umbrella admit a few hundred students per institution – they generally go on to form the top crust of French politics, business and society. In some circles, this has been likened to a “caste system.”
One academic described them as “the pinnacle of French education. Graduating from a Grande Ecole sets you up for life, and not graduating from one holds you back”.
The system, naturally, has its critics. They have been called a threat to France’s claim of being a theoretically meritocratic society.
France has often found it difficult to talk about institutional discrimination, in particular about race and faith, believing itself to be a colour blind nation. Yet, without knowing France’s composition, it may be difficult to tackle structural discrimination.
The country’s Grande Ecole system stands at the centre of a system that has been described as “a self-perpetuating, predominantly white elite that excludes many students from the provinces and France’s banlieues, suburbs with high concentrations of immigrant communities.”
The French President Emmanual Macron, who is himself a graduate of such schooling, and has been unable to shake off the perception of being an elitist, has spoken publicly about the need to reform some of the country’s elite schools.
Earlier this year, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), which trains the country’s senior government officials, including Macron, escaped closure.
In a move that showed how deeply entrenched and resistant the Grande Ecole system is to reform, the review was ordered by the former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, an ENA graduate, and led by a lawyer Frederic Thiriez, another ENA graduate.
In a book written in 2013, France’s Got Talent: The Woeful Consequences of French Elitism, journalist Peter Gumbel lays out the case that Grande Ecoles, like the ENA, far from promoting a meritocratic society, favour pupils from well-off backgrounds.
The elite French schooling system promotes an “old boys network” says Gumbel, which contributes to groupthink and a lack of critical thinking. The book was written to warn the French public about the enduring extent of the country’s elitism and the impact it has on much of its current problems.