Education and Health
Education. Schooling, both to instill appropriate citizenship values into the nation's youth and to prepare them for useful roles in a changing national economy, has been a special concern of the government since the French Revolution. Until that time, education was largely controlled by the Roman Catholic church, and the question of private or public education is still troublesome because religious feeling runs deep despite official separation of church and state. About 15 percent of French elementary schoolchildren and 20 percent of those at secondary levels go to church schools. Education is free in both the public schools and universities of France.
Another characteristic of public education in France is its highly centralized structure. The country is divided into 27 educational districts called academies, each headed by a rector who is responsible directly to the minister of education. This official controls about 17 percent of the national budget and directs more than 900,000 teachers and administrators. The French system ensures uniformity throughout the country, but it limits flexibility and offers almost no scope for local input regarding educational problems.
A typical French student begins preschool activities as early as the age of 2 and enters elementary school at 6. After five or six years of the first educational cycle, called preparatory, elementary, or middle courses, the student enters college (high school) for an additional four years. During the final year of this program, students of 15 or 16 are directed to the second cycle, which offers three years at a lycee (secondary school), or various technical and vocational courses. This is a controversial part of the French system because of the young age at which career decisions must be made and because children of workers and farmers appear to have fewer opportunities to attend a lycee.
Lycee graduates who pass a baccalaureat examination may be admitted to a university. The University of Paris often called the Sorbonne, which is actually the name of one of its major units once dominated higher education in France to an unusual extent. Meanwhile, well-known universities in such provincial centers as Montpellier, Rennes, Lille, Grenoble, and Aix-en-Provence remained comparatively small. In the 1960s, however, student protests about the unavailability of university places for their increasing numbers, together with concern for the nation's growing educational needs, led to a restructuring of the university system and a great increase in financial resources. The University of Paris was divided into 13 distinct university units, and provincial universities expanded rapidly in number and size.
Unique to the French system is a parallel educational network of grandes ecoles, schools that compete with and partly reduce the importance of the universities. These elitist institutions, founded by Napoleon, were designed to provide France with a steady stream of superbly qualified civil servants and administrators, a function they still perform. The best known grande ecole is the National School of Administration, from which most of the high officials of all modern French governments have graduated.
Health. The French have high-quality health care that is generally available to all citizens. The social security system covers all hospital and maternity expenses and about 80 percent of all other medical, pharmaceutical, and dental bills. These benefits have helped raise the average life expectancy in France to 78.5 years for women and 70.2 years for men.