by Simon Jahnich, France


In 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy right after being elected President announced that school zoning regulations would be first relaxed and then dropped altogether. This action was presented as a measure to foster the free choice of families and to create new opportunities for families from lower economic backgrounds, living in decayed urban areas. Surprisingly, this measure was also part of the programme of the socialist candidate. In the following lines, the text first discuss how this consensus raises issues about the context that made the end of school zoning so tempting for both the right- wing party and the left-wing party (I). Second, it also raises questions as to the aims of such a decision (II). Finally, the text discusses a number of aissues concerned with the consequences of this decision for the French school system (III).

I- The system before the reform

School Zoning was implemented in the 1960’s as an administrative tool to allocate resources and educational offers on the national territory. It allows the national authority to plan the building of new schools according to the demographic previsions. At this time, each zone had to present a standard offer of educational paths. This standard offer had to give equal opportunities to every French student to succeed. School zoning lately became a way to support social diversity. School zones were designed to embrace a city or a neighbourhood. All students living in this area must enrol in the school designated as their “zoned school”.

Throughout the year, zones had slowly differentiated from each other. The basic offer defined by the Ministry of education was adapted to the profile of students. Oberti showed that options and special routes were more available in advantaged area (Oberti, 2007). Highly educated families well organised and aware of the right path to make it to the top of the school system advocated for options and special courses. They boost modifications of the standard educational offer to fit their needs.

In the meantime segregation in urban areas increased. Middle class families fled the block of council flats and the upper class gathered in specific area. The system of zoning that should allow diversity started cracking.

In 1989 the government allow students who would take specific options to enrol in a different school than the one assigned by the zoning system. This kind of special dispensation was named “derogation” and became more
and more used by highly educated families to dodge the school zoning.

Moreover private Schools were held apart from the school zoning. Well off families could thus avoid enrolling in the school of their zone by choosing to send their children into private schools.

Because of these flaws school zoning was presented as an outdated tool that was no longer able to maintain social diversity within schools. And this social diversity was proved to be essential to trigger greater academic achievement and to reduce inequality (social mix effect). Moreover it was ineffective to promote integration which has been seen by political actors as the first aim of School since its creation in the XIX century.

II- Free market principle: A new opportuni- ty for poor fellows.

Acknowledging the limits of School zoning, politics presented the disappearance of this system as the only solution to tackle the problem of social diversity. In order to make the system more egalitarian, the lower class had to be freed from the constraints of the school zoning.

It clearly contradicts the findings of Mons who proves that total free choice could lead to greater inequalities. (Mons, 2007) This solution was also condemned by numerous actors of the educative system particularly principals from disadvantaged urban schools.

To allow lower class families to choose their school, the reform implemented by M. Sarkozy has given them the priority to enrol in the school they would choose. The only condition is that free places should be available in the demanded school. The priority given to the lower class families was supposed to be supported by indicators (statistics about successful carreer and failure) which should make information about the school system simpler and available. This information has never been provided.

During the 2007 presidential campaign, none of the two favorite candidates advocated for the redesigning of the School zoning which could have been a valid solution. The suppression of the school zoning had the advantage of being very popular and easy to sell to the different classes of the society. For some critics it appeared as a renouncement to Policy action.(Oberti, 2007)

III- The illusion of free market choice: a catastrophe for lower class students.

Four years after the reforms, it is already possible to examine some tremendous impacts of this reform on the French system.

Schools labelled as disadvantaged (ambition réussite) have lost part of their student. Some have resisted thanks to an aggressive marketing toward families and children. Among the population that have benefited from the relaxing of the school zoning, most of them are well informed families. The number of derogation asked by lower class families has not significantly increased corroborating the findings of sociologist who studied the U.K and New Zealand reforms.

During our field work on GOETE project, numerous actors pointed at this measure as something that has worsened the situation of their school. P. Merle in his article clearly deconstructs the contradiction that led this reform. He shows that the reform was ambiguous. The reform aimed at fostering social diversity while legitimating the previous system of derogation. It was announced as a break but has confirmed the phenomenon earlier denounced.

To explain this contradiction between what was promoted and what was really observed, P. Merle compare the situation of three territories. He examines three cases before the reform and after the reform. He concludes that the reform has favoured advantaged families whereas disadvantaged families did not benefit from the reform. They were not informed and did not pay attention to this reform. He also shed the lights on an unexpected effect. The reform increased the number of derogation (mostly among advantaged families). In the meantime the capacity of schools did not increase proportionally and it caused a mismatch. As a result family wishes were refused and it led to the impression that family choice had decreased.

Finally the reform of School zoning in France has fixed the French school system more firmly into the classification of “school system with zoning and special dispensation” which is presented by Mons as one of the most inaccurate to foster equity.


OBERTI, M. Le piège du libre choix, Mouvement N°52 nov-déc 2007
OBERTI, M. (2007) L’école dans la ville. Ségrégation-mixité-carte scolaire, Presses de Sciences Po.
MONS, N. (2007) Les nouvelles politiques éducatives, Education et Société, PUF