By Peter Walker for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Business schools are generally seen as a fairly modern phenomenon, although some do have some significant heritage, for example the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, founded way back in 1881.
One country, however, has had a whole system of highly elite management schools ever since the late 19th century -- the "grandes écoles" of France.
The system, which means great, or elite schools, refers to a group of highly selective institutions outside the normal university framework, which specialize in particular subjects, for example engineering or -- as 28 of them do -- business.
These grandes écoles for management, which have no direct counterpart in other countries, have a reputation for not only academic excellence but also great selectivity, and are renowned as the launch pad for the vast majority of France's future CEOs and business leaders.
According to the institutions' membership body, the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles, more than 60% of the current managing directors and chief executives of France's 100 largest firms are graduates of the schools.
Rather than a two-year -- or even one-year -- MBA, students spend anything up to six years studying after leaving high school, beginning in preparatory classes and taking in a far broader range of studies than their contemporaries in standard business schools.
Also, the schools tend to be far smaller than many standard universities, producing perhaps only a few hundred graduates each year.
But while the grandes écoles for management have a decidedly French flavor, they are designed to prepare graduates for the global business world.
Successful entrants usually speak two foreign languages, and many spend a year of their studies at an overseas university.
This internationalization is now also going the other way, with increasing numbers of non-French students applying to learn management at a grande école.
According to one recent analysis, almost a quarter of the total students enrolled at the 28 elite business schools in the 2003-2004 academic year -- 7,756 out of 32,278 -- were not French.
France's business schools, both the grandes écoles of management and more traditional ones, have a growing reputation.
The recent 2007 MBA rankings by the Financial Times saw France breaking up the near-total U.S. dominance with two schools in the top 20, joint French/Singaporean-based Insead in seventh, and Paris's HEC at 18th.
And if entry into a grande école of management isn't quite elite enough for you, there is always France's -- perhaps even the world's -- most exclusive academic institution, the École Nationale d'Administration, or ENA.
Producing just over 100 graduates a year, the ENA is a sort of business school for future top civil servants and government administrators, also a favorite training ground for France's political leaders.
If you are one of the academic elite who can get a place, then a glittering future awaits -- among its esteemed alumni are the current president and prime minister of France, Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin respectively.
Illustrious graduates: Jacques Chirac (r) and Dominque de Villepin.
FACT BOXFT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Hong Kong UST, China
3. London Business School, UK
4. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Kellogg, U.S.
9. Stern, NY, U.S.
10. Cass, City University, UK
Source: Financial Times 2006
FACT BOXEMBA SNAPSHOT
Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.
A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.
A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.