IT WAS by imperial decree that Napoleon founded the French baccalauréat, the country’s school-leaving exam, in 1808. To this day, some 700,000 pupils still take the bac, the great majority of the annual age cohort. It has become the badge of excellence for a French lycée system that offers a model of globally standardised education, including to over 900 lycées with a total of 330,000 pupils abroad. Yet President Emmanuel Macron is now about to announce the most radical overhaul of the exam for over half a century. Why?

Despite spending as much on secondary schooling as other OECD countries, France no longer achieves corresponding results. Between 2003 and 2012, performance in international maths tests fell compared with other countries. The real shock was an international study of reading known as PIRLS, published in 2017, in which French pupils lagged in 34th position, behind those in Spain, Portugal and Italy. Their level had dropped by 14 points since 2001. The bac is an entrance ticket to university, yet too many students drop out once they get there. Fully 70% of undergraduates, says the ministry, fail to complete their degree in three years.

On February 14th Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister and a former director of ESSEC, a top French business school, is due to unveil his reform plans for the bac. The broad contours emerged in a report he commissioned last month. The bac, it said, is too complex, too focused on a single series of exams in the final school year, covers too many subjects and does not allow for enough specialisation. Pupils must study an impressively wide range of subjects: science buffs have to study French literature and philosophy, and even the most poetically minded must grapple with science. The flipside is that this precludes depth, of the sort that arguably better prepares pupils for higher education.

Instead, the diploma will be reorganised around a “major” of four big exams in the final year, down from between ten and 15 currently. Two choices will be specialisms that go into far greater depth, counting for a quarter of the final bac grade, and to be examined earlier in the final year. Two other exams will remain compulsory for all: a written philosophy paper, naturally, and—probably—an oral presentation of a school project. French literature will remain a compulsory exam in the penultimate year of the bac, as it is today. Fully 40% of the final grade is expected to depend on continuous assessment during the last two years of school.

The new French bac, which will be awarded for the first time in 2021, will look more like the school-leaving exam in other European countries, where continuous assessment represents a big chunk of the final grade, and subject specialism, such as for British A-levels, is common. In France, though, the shake-up may well create an uproar. Many in the teaching profession fear that continuous assessment will kill the prized national standard, and in effect bring in a two-tier bac, with more prestigious grades being awarded by top teachers in top schools, rather than by national markers. Teachers of subjects that may become optional are worried about their future. Unions are threatening strikes. So far, Mr Macron has largely avoided big street protests as he has set about modernising France. Education reform, not to mention a looming battle over civil-service numbers, could be the beginning of a much trickier period for him.