The setting up of the Grandes EcolesMacTutor Index

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Introduction

For most French people the Grandes Ecoles are still referred to as "la voie royale", the royal path: that is the most elitist and rewarding option, the scientific education with the highest prestige in the country.

The French educational system places a great emphasis on formal intellect and abstraction in the form of a heavy concentration on mathematics. The programme of secondary education, which starts at the age of eleven, is defined and administered by the state education ministry, and ensures a very broad based basic general education. At the age of 15 vocational training is offered as an alternative but the majority of pupils get on with the preparation for the baccalauréat that ensures entry to higher education. In particular the 'Bac Scientifique' has the greatest prestige with its combination of scientific subjects and a great importance bestowed on mathematics. Success at the Baccalauréat guarantees a place at university where a License (a three year degree course) or a Maitrise (a four year degree course) can be undertaken. Sandwich courses with three to five months of industrial placement are common. But the unique feature of the French higher education is the existence, parallel to the traditional university system, of about 200 Grandes Ecoles. They cater for about ten per cent of the students and are in stark contrast to the university with respect to entry selection, program of instruction and last but not least prestige. The elitism of the Grandes Ecoles is apparent in the highly competitive selection process and in the quality and prestige of the education given. The competition for places is fierce: the selection process is a series of exams for which students prepare for three to five years. Mathematical education, and in particular pure mathematics, is the basis of the selection system. Once admitted to the Grandes Ecoles, the diploma takes a further two years to be obtain, during which a wide scientific education is given: the expression being used to describe the training is 'generaliste' and it produces 'jack-of-all-trades' without specialist qualifications. The prestige of the Grandes Ecoles is shown widely in the French society: 75 per cent of the senior executives in large French companies have come through the system. This traditional prestige has been maintained by a number of important lobbies in the French society such as graduates' associations and the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles, that is the association of the institutions that formed the Grandes Ecoles.

Universities started appearing in France from the 12th century onward, but the Grandes Ecoles and the dual system of French higher education originated in the 18th and 19th century, about the time of the French Revolution. This period was also a time of great achievement for French scientists: Fourier, Cauchy, Arago, Becquerel, Lagrange, Laplace, to name but a few, all contributed to a golden age for French science. Many of the great French scientists of the time helped in the creation and development of the Grandes Ecoles and in particular l'Ecole Polytechnique. This paper aims to explain the great influence the Grandes Ecoles have had in the development of mathematical education in France (and indeed the world) by looking at the origins of the Grandes Ecoles, through some of the mathematicians that have contributed to their creation.


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M Ayel May 2002