Research event

The focus on excellence and the redefinition of the fight against educational inequalities: French widening participation policies since 2000

A presentation by Agnes van Zanten (Centre de recherche sur les inégalités sociales (CRIS) Sciences Po-Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS))

This presentation will focus on recent French educational policies officially aiming to reduce educational inequalities. Its purpose is to show how these policies’ strong focus on ‘excellence’ influences the profile of the institutions and persons involved in their design and enactment, the selection of beneficiaries, and policy content. It will use Ralph Turner’s (1960) model of two idealtypical norms and institutional arrangements — open competition and sponsorship — that orient education-based social mobility, and our analysis of under which conditions this model can still be useful to understand processes involved in the reproduction of educational inequalities and policies aiming to reduce them in contemporary societies (van Zanten, 2018). The analysis will be based on a review of the existing scientific literature on these policies and on our own qualitative research on the widening participation schemes developed by elite higher education institutions in France (van Zanten, 2017). 

The presentation of results will highlight: 1- the historical origins of the focus on excellence in the French educational system and some significant changes on how it is presently conceived due to the growing influence of a market logic and of private actors in educational policy-making and enactment; 2- the way in which this focus has transformed the aim of opening up educational competition for all in the 1980s into providing rather ‘compensatory sponsorship’ (Grodsky, 2007; Zimdars ) for a happy few in the 2000s, and in how this target group is defined; 3- the effects of these changes on the contexts, persons and actions deemed the most effective to reduce educational inequalities.


Grodsky E. (2007). “Compensatory Sponsorship in Higher Education”, American Journal of Sociology, 112(6): 1662-1712.

Turner R. (1960). “Sponsored and contest mobility and the school system”, American Sociological Review, 25(6): 855-867.

VAN ZANTEN A. (2017). "Widening participation in France and its effects on the field of elite higher education and on educational policy" in S. PARKER, K. GULSON, T. GALE (eds.). Policy and Inequality in Education, Singapore: Springer, p. 73-89.

VAN ZANTEN A. (2018). “How families and schools produce an elite. Paths of upward mobility in France” in A. VAN ZANTEN (ed.) Elites in Education, London: Routledge, coll. Major themes in education, p. 195-221.