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Created as state schools in France in 1802, the lycées educated the future French elite for more than a century. They were intended for boys only, recruited pupils mainly from higher classes, and offered a general education, extended to all secondary classes, with no immediate occupational application. Today's lycées are restricted to the last three years of secondary education and to some higher education classes, but their curriculum has been extended to technical and vocational education and they welcome almost all boys and girls. This transformation has been accompanied by deep changes in the lycées' organization, education, and pedagogical practices.

The Classical Lycée

Napoleon Bonaparte created the lycées in order to put the education of future officers, administrators, engineers, and professionals under state control. They took the place of the écoles centrales of 1795, which had failed to fill the gap caused by the suppression of universities and the collapse of the old collèges during the French Revolution. The creators of the lycée were inspired by the model of the collèges, including the presence of religious education and practices. The lycées were closed boarding schools with a military-type discipline, welcoming scholarship students as well as paying boarders and day pupils.

Whereas the écoles centrales had an encyclopedic curriculum, the birth of the lycées marked a return to the humanistic model of education, which meant classical studies and the domination of Latin. The first curriculum, however, left a lot of room to science education, which was carried on afterwards because the lycées prepared some of their pupils for the entry examination to the École polytechnique and other schools of scientific higher education. Up to the 1880s, pedagogical methods were based on memorization and imitation, and involved a lot of written exercises, whose handing out and correction occupied a large part of teachers' courses. The pupils therefore had considerable personal work to perform, which boarders did under the supervision of tutors, who supervised boarders at all times, except during classes.

The Lycées' Modernization

The humanistic model was questioned as early as the first half of the nineteenth century when the curriculum started becoming specialized. In the bigger lycées, physics, history and geography, living languages, art, gymnastics, and natural science gradually became subjects in their own rights with specialized teachers, despite the attempt by minister Hippolyte Fortoul (18511856) to break with the return to encyclopedism. A special education intended for pupils in need of more modern and practical courses developed beside classical studies. From 1880, republican authorities backed up the cause of the modernization of the curriculum and pedagogy. The role of Latin was reduced, despite fierce resistance from supporters of the classics, and new pedagogical methods requiring observation, experimentation, and personal reflection on the part of the pupils gradually imposed themselves. The 1902 reform put modern education at the same level as classical studies, and replaced the traditional two-hour classes with modern one-hour courses.

These changes created anxiety for many teachers. They regarded their new rolewhich implied a more direct contact with the pupilsas a threatening confusion between teaching and tutoring functions, and a fall in the status to the teaching profession. This unrest persisted throughout the twentieth century. In fact, the status and working conditions of tutors improved considerably after 1880. They were better educated and the decline in the number of boarders led the authorities to reform their task. Generally, whereas the teachers who had tenure, holders of the agrégation, reached their best social position ever around 1900, the lot of all the teaching profession improved massively, even in the collègescommunaux (municipal secondary schools). The bigger collèges communaux were gradually converted into lycées, so thenumber of lycées for boys rose from 36 in 1820 to 110 in 1900 (when there were 39 lycées for girls) receiving about 32 percent of secondary education pupils (collèges communaux received 21 percent; and private secondary schools received 47 percent).

Lycées for girls, created in 1880, developed a secondary education distinct from that of boys until 1924. Girls' schools did not teach Latin, which led the way to a remarkable development of the teaching of French literature. Girls' secondary education did not include the baccalauréat, the final examination on which the admission to higher education depended, but many girls managed to take it nevertheless.

From the Education of the Elite to Mass Education

Public secondary education became entirely free in 1934, but the lycées actually switched from the education of the elite to mass education after World War II. Post-elementary schooling rapidly spread to all social classes, and all types of post-elementary schools, like the higher primary schools (1941), the primary higher courses, the technical schools and the schools for apprentices (1959), gradually merged into a sole second degree derived from secondary schools thanks to institutional reforms. From 1963, the lycées lost their first four classes, which were converted into new lower secondary schools called collèges.Collèges were unified in 1975 (le collègeunique ) as was the first grade of the lycées a few years later.

Since then, the specialization in technical or vocational education has been assigned to the last two classes of the lycées. General and technical education have both led on to the baccalauréat, as well as vocational education since 1985. But the equality between all secondary courses is more formal than real. The specialization in vocational or technical education has often been considered a failure. The abilities by which pupils are judged did not change much after the beginning of the twentieth century, and the way these abilities were measured favored pupils from higher social and cultural backgrounds. The extinction of tutoring, in the 1960s, probably made things worse.

Therefore, the lycées' democratization was not completed by the end of the twentieth century. The proportion of French pupils reaching the baccalauréat level soared up to three quarters by the mid 1990s, which represented a great leap forward in a few decades. But, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the probability of reaching the best courses was still strongly connected with pupils' social background, and girls, though generally more successful than boys academically, were a minority in courses like science which led to the best higher studies.

See also: Education, Europe; Gymnasium Schooling; High School.


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Philippe Savoie

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