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An école normale supérieure (French pronunciation: [ekɔl nɔʁmal sypeʁjœʁ]) or ENS is a type of publicly funded higher education in France. A portion of the student body who are French civil servants are called Normaliens. They are selected by a difficult examination, with only 3% of candidates eventually admitted. ENS also offers master's degrees. They could be compared to "Institutes for Advanced Studies" and constitute the top level of research-training education in the French university system.
The history of écoles normales supérieures goes back to 30 October 1794 (9 brumaire an III), when École normale de l'an III was established during the French Revolution. The school was subsequently reestablished as pensionnat normal from 1808 to 1822, before being recreated in 1826 and taking the name of École normale in 1830. When institutes for primary teachers training called écoles normales were created in 1845, the word supérieure (meaning upper) was added to form the current name.
The Savary Law of 1984 restructured higher education in France and classified écoles normales supérieures within Établissement public à caractère scientifique, culturel et professionnel. As of January 2014, there are four ENS: the École normale supérieure located in Paris, the École normale supérieure de Lyon located in Lyon, the École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay in Cachan near Paris and the École normale supérieure de Rennes near Rennes.
A twin institution has existed in Italy since the time of Napoleon: Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa.
After the suppression of the Society of Jesus in France in 1762, a debate arose on how to replace their role in education. The idea of an école normale, a place to train teachers for the secondary schools, is already mentioned in a report on education made in 1768 by Rolland, president of the Parliament of Paris.
The first école normale was established by the National Convention in a decree dated 30 October 1794. Educated people from all parts of France were to be selected to attend the school and to subsequently return to found an école normale in their department for the education of primary school teachers. The école normale de l'an III had renowned teachers such as Laplace, Lagrange, and Berthollet but actually only functioned for four months, from 20 January 1795 to 19 May 1795 or in the then in use French Republican Calendar from 1er pluviose of year III until 30 floréal of year III.
In the decree of Napoleon of 17 March 1808, the institution was re-established as pensionnat normal. The candidates most promising for administration and education roles were admitted through a competitive examination. The students could attend courses at Collège de France, Muséum d'histoire naturelle or École polytechnique. At école normale, they received support from tutors for revising, laboratory experiments and teaching the art of teaching.
Jules Ferry got a law passed on 9 August 1879 in order to force each department to establish and fund an institution to train primary school teachers for each gender (école normale de garçons and école normale de filles). In order to train the teaching body of these schools, so-called écoles normales supérieures de l’enseignement primaire were needed. A decree dated 13 July 1880 set up the one for young women in Fontenay-aux-Roses, and later in March 1882 the male equivalent opened in Saint-Cloud.
Starting in 1891, a section for teacher training named sections normales was established in the École des Arts et métiers of Châlons-sur-Marne (decree of 11 June 1891) and in the École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris (decree of 21 July 1894). A decree published on 15 June 1899 organized sections normales for women. These sections normales were grouped together in 1912 into a single school which was named "École normale supérieure de l'enseignement technique" in 1934.
Their competitive entrance exams for admission to the ENSs are extremely selective. They recruit mainly from scientific and humanities Prépas (Taupe / BCPST and Khâgne), even though a small number of their students (fewer than 10 each year) are recruited separately on the basis of highly competitive exams. The students from France and other European Union countries are considered civil servants in training, and as such paid a monthly salary, in exchange for an agreement to serve France for 10 years, including those of their studies.
The École Normale Supérieure located in Paris is nicknamed "Ulm" from its address rue d'Ulm (Ulm Street). It teaches sciences and humanities. École Normale Supérieure de Lyon in Lyon also teaches sciences and humanities. École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay located in Cachan, a suburb of Paris and École normale supérieure de Rennes located near Rennes teach theoretical and applied sciences, engineering, social sciences, economics and management and foreign languages.
Until recently and unlike most of the other grandes écoles, the écoles normales supérieures did not award any specific diplomas (students who had completed the curriculum they had agreed to with the office of the Dean upon arrival were simply entitled to be known as "ENS Alumni" or "Normaliens"), but they encourage their students to obtain university diplomas in partner institutions whilst providing extra classes and support. Many ENS students obtain more than one university diploma.