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Macron’s closure of the ENA will not work

Lebanon and France – Imperialism vs Intervention

Roar writer Aman Patel on the state of education in France and the UK.

Emmanuel Macron’s presidency has been rocked by the Yellow Vests, a movement of mass protests and riots. According to Gabriel Attal, a French government spokesperson, the movement is a reflection of years of social divide in France. In an effort to heal this social divide Macron is set to close the École Nationale d’Administration. Also known as the ENA the École Nationale d’Administration is an elite school in France that in recent years has become a fast-track for France’s elite to top public and private sector occupations. Macron, himself being one of its alumni, seeks to close the ENA and replace it with the Institute for Public Service (ISP). Future ISP graduates would have to prove their worth in other roles before taking the best administrative roles in the Civil Service. This is as opposed to the status quo that has developed where ENA graduates are automatically given top roles. Macron hopes that closing this school will have the effect of curbing the elite establishment’s domination of the administrative and public sector.

The brutal irony is that the ENA was founded with the purpose of democratising access to the civil service and breaking the hold of the nobility. Initially, things started well with “only” 45% of its students in the 1950s and 1960s being from France’s elite. However, over time this proportion increased to around 70% between 2005 and 2014. To make matters worse, the proportion of those from working-class families fell to only 6%. The ENA has ended up propagating and facilitating the elite’s hold on the public sector and civil service. The reason for this is that the ENA is a post-graduate university; in essence a finishing school. By the latter stages of further education, the elite’s disproportionate academic credentials as compared to the working class have already set in. No matter how supposedly meritocratic or socially diverse the new ISP attempts to be, provided it admits the most academically qualified candidates, as it should, these candidates will almost inevitably be disproportionately drawn from the elite.

An elite school educating a disproportionately privileged cohort who go on to take top public sector roles. Sounds pretty familiar does it not? The UK is far from innocent in this issue and is actually a really useful case study to explain why Macron’s reforms are not enough. According to data from the Sutton Trust, a charity and think thank, successful higher education applicants from independent schools obtain higher grades than non-selective state schools: ABB compared BCC. As a result, students from independent fee-paying schools are seven times more likely to be admitted into Oxford and Cambridge and twice as likely to be admitted into a Russell Group university. All this shakes out to mean one thing; private school students dominate top UK universities. As a result of this, the UK’s political class, which disproportionately draws from these top universities, is similar to that of France in that it heavily skews towards the economically privileged.

Russel Group universities and Oxbridge are, like the ENA, supposedly meritocratic institutions that admit students based on academic credentials. However, this is not all that universities admit on. Anyone who has written a personal statement knows that your extracurricular fluff is just as important as your academics. The work of Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison demonstrated this brilliantly in their book, The Class Ceiling. Instead, the point is that looking at the issue from UK’s bottom-up rather than top-down perspective reveals a crucial point that Macron missed: a university that admits candidates from schools that skew towards the privileged will inevitably end up like Oxbridge or the ENA, no matter how supposedly meritocratic they aim to be.

The ENA, Oxbridge or Russel group universities are not the problem – the whole education system is.

So we have established that Macron’s top-down university reforms are not enough and that he would need a bottom-up approach. So what would this look like and which country can Macron look to as an example? Japan is this example. In Japan, teachers are hired not by individual schools but by the prefecture, in essence, the state or county, which then assigns the best teachers to the deprived areas and students that need them the most. In Japan, teachers in richer prefectures do not earn much more than those in poorer ones since the national government also contributes teacher wages. What this leads to is an education system in which the best teachers are not simply drawn to the best schools in the richest areas. There is no postcode lottery as there is in the UK. Notice how Japan does not try and bring the privileged down; instead, Japan uplifts the disadvantaged. They aren’t eating the rich and nor do they ban private institutions, they are just levelling the playing field in an inherently sensible way. The OECD has shown that in Japan, only 10% of the variance in test scores can be explained by the student’s  socio-economic background. In France, it is 20%. What this means is that a student’s grade is twice as influenced by their income and background in France as in Japan.

Emmanuel Macron seeks to ‘build a society of equal opportunities’ and extinguish the fires of social divide that spawned the Yellow Vests Movement. Unfortunately, closing the École Nationale d’Administration is not the way to achieve this goal. Without bottom-up measures that uplift the disadvantaged, the Institute for Public Administration will become everything it strives to defeat.

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