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Private sector creates school students want to attend

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In March, when French entrepreneurs decided to launch a swanky new school for software developers, they thought they were onto something. But even they were startled by its popularity -- for 1,000 student places, starting this autumn on a three-year course, they have fully 50,000 applications.

France has a skills mismatch. Joblessness has reached 10.6 per cent, a 14-year high. For the under-25s it is 26 per cent. Yet, according to a poll by the French Association of Software Publishers and Internet Solutions, 72 per cent of software firms are having trouble recruiting, and 91 per cent of those are seeking software engineers.

Such frustrations spurred Xavier Niel, the billionaire founder of the broadband firm Iliad, and his business pals to set up the new school, which is willfully disruptive of France's highly centralized, state-dominated education system. It is privately financed -- Niel is investing $92 million -- but will be free for students. It will lead to no state-recognized diploma and applicants need no formal qualifications, although would be students are warned they "will have to work hard."

The school will have Google-style premises in the heart of Paris, in a building still under construction that is known as "Heart of Code," open all day and all night. Its name, "42," is the "answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything" in the English science-fiction classic, Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. When the new school was unveiled, to great fanfare, Le Monde politely described it as "strange."

France already trains some 16,000 computer engineers every year, so why the fuss about 42? In part it is about the novelty of the entrepreneurial philanthropy, as well as about Niel's celebrity -- he took on France's established telecommunications giants to supply cheaper mobile services. Yet two other elements matter, too.

First, 42 aims to unearth talent in the banlieues, or poor suburbs, and in other places that do not fit into the French academic mould. France's school system is designed to be meritocratic, but the country is experiencing a worrying fall in social mobility. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a rich-country think tank, socio-economic background has a greater impact on educational performance in France than in most other countries.

Second, teaching methods will be based not on rote-learning but on self-learning. Nicolas Sadirac, 42's Stanford-trained director, wears the standard geek uniform of jeans and a T-shirt, and says the French school system instills knowledge, but not the right state of mind.

"(It) trains people to be disciplined, but afraid of risk," he says, "yet tomorrow's economy will all be about creativity."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 A17

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