Reforming the baccalauréat: the start of a new era?

27 June 2019


Pierre Mathiot, Director, Sciences Po Lille, speaking at the IIEP Strategic Debate.

By Pierre Mathiot, Director, Sciences Po Lille, and Michaela Martin and Ana Godonoga, IIEP-UNESCO


Spring is generally a popular time of year in France. However, for those in their last year of high school, it is marked by an intensive period of studying for the renowned baccalauréat. Students need to study for a dozen exams, all crammed in over a few days in June. Many wonder about the relevance of these exams, as higher education institutions will only take into account whether or not a candidate passes, and not their specific results. France’s 170,000 teachers are also under high pressure at this time of year, as they are preparing to mark some 700,000 exam papers.

The organization of the traditional baccalauréat has long represented a titanic undertaking for many. However, in 2018, the Ministry of National Education and Youth tasked Pierre Mathiot, Professor of Political Science and Director of Sciences Po Lille, with designing a new reform, which aims not only to revamp the baccalauréat but also to transform teaching and learning in the French upper secondary education system. The first edition of the new baccalauréat will take place in 2021.

What are the core objectives of the reform?

The reform aims to simplify the organization of the baccalauréat, make it more relevant as a certification of competencies gained from secondary schooling, and ensure its relevance to higher education. To this end, the reform has also led to a reform of the broader upper secondary education system. More specifically, it advocates for the development of student-centred teaching and learning by addressing the following three issues:

Diversifying the curriculum and assessment to enable the development of a wider range of skills. The cumulative score of the new baccalauréat will be determined based on a mix of summative and continuous assessment. The summative assessment comprises five exams that students take during their second or final year of high school, including French, Philosophy, two specialized courses selected by the students, and the oral exam (grand oral). The continuous assessment – known as the contrôle continu – consists of a number of mock baccalauréat exams that students take throughout the school year. The contrôle continu is believed to have a more formative value, by taking into consideration students’ achievements throughout high school. 

Giving students greater choice and exposing them to cross-disciplinary learning. During their first year of high school, students will study a core group of subjects, including French, history, and two modern languages. In their second year, students will be able to select three specialized courses out of 12, including two new cross-disciplinary courses – Humanities and Classical Literature and History, Geography and Political Science.

Providing students with support and guidance to facilitate their transition to higher education. Support and guidance for students in upper secondary education is a core feature of the reform. This is particularly relevant in a context where around 60% of Bachelor-level students fail during their first year of studies, often because of selecting the wrong course and a lack of preparation for their desired field of study. With the new reform, high school students will be able to benefit from 54 hours of guidance per year on areas related to their orientation and progression to higher education. The initiative also aims to build closer links between upper secondary education and higher education through closer curricular alignment and the use of results that students receive in the baccalauréat in their admission to higher education.

How has the reform been received by the education community?

Despite its promising objectives, the implementation of the reform faces challenges due to path-dependencies and long-established traditions in the French education system.

Building consensus and convincing key stakeholders of the benefits of the reform has not been an easy task. The complexity of the education sector in France, the plurality of stakeholders involved in its governance, and the routinized ways of managing and delivering education makes the implementation process challenging. For this reason, any change introduced needs to take into consideration the context in which the education system operates and the realistic capabilities of teachers and school managers to institutionalize the reform. 

The teaching profession is deeply rooted in disciplinary identity, making collaboration for the development of pedagogical competency and cross-disciplinary teaching difficult. In France, as in other parts of the world, there is an increasing need to train teachers on the importance of multi-disciplinary collaboration for the development of effective pedagogical competencies. It is likewise important to support teachers in becoming better mentors for students.

What are the implications of the reform for the broader education system?

Such a large-scale reform has implications for the education system at large. Cohesive vertical and horizontal transitions are required throughout the entire education system, including general, technical, and professional education. There is also a need to build stronger coherence in the curriculum and assessment between and within different levels of education. Finally, well-articulated learning pathways need to be complemented with strong guidance and counselling systems to support students at different stages of their studies. 


Watch the related IIEP Strategic Debate with Pierre Mathiot: