How does the French school system work?

by Audrey Sivadier
June 10, 2020

In France, education is compulsory for all children, from the age of 3 to 16. Parents may choose to send their child to a school (public or private) or to provide this education themselves. So how does it work?

The French school system explained. 

Primary school: maternelle + élémentaire

L’école maternelle

Every child aged 3 must attend school, it only became compulsory in 2019. Previously, children didn’t have to attend school until they were 6. 

 Children in “maternelle” go through three different classes:

  • PS (petite section) – 3 years old
  • MS (moyenne section) – 4 years old
  • GS (grande section) – 5 years old

 Some schools (depending on the number of students) even offer the TPS (Toute Petite Section) class for children aged 2.

 “La maternelle” is an important step. The French have understood it, that’s why it became compulsory in 2019. The students learn to live together, as well as develop their fine motor skills, letters and sounds in French.

L’école élémentaire

French elementary school children go through five different classes:

 CP (cours préparatoire) – 6 years old (this is when the child learns how to read)

  • CE1 (cours élémentaire 1ère année) – 7 years old
  • CE2 (cours élémentaire 2ème année) – 8 years old
  •  CM1 (cours moyen 1ère année) – 9 years old
  • CM2 (cours moyen 2ème année) – 10 years

 Students call their teacher “maître” when they are a man and “maîtresse” when they are a woman. Be careful with the word “maîtresse” if it is used in a different context from that of the school, this word can mean a “lover”! 

 In elementary school, students learn French, maths history, geography, science, sports, music, art and English.

 French primary schools are managed by the municipality of the town where you live.

French secondary schools: collège + lycée

Le collège

 The names of the middle school classes make more sense than the primary:

  • 6ème “sixième” – 11 years old
  • 5ème “cinquième” – 12 years old
  • 4ème “quatrième” – 13 years old
  • 3ème “troisième” – 14 years old

 In 5ème, students must choose a second language to learn (other than English). They usually have the choice between Spanish or German, or sometimes even Italian (especially for those living near the border). They have other optional choices, for example, they can learn a regional language, such as Breton or Occitan.

 At the end of secondary school, students take the Brevet. This diploma attests to the knowledge they have acquired up to that point.

 From there, students can choose a general, technological or professional path and select their “lycée” (high school) according to their speciality.

 The “collège” is managed by the department in which you live and teenagers must go to the “collège” closest to where they live. 

Le lycée

 The names of the classes follow those of the college:

  • 2nde – Seconde – 15 years old
  • 1ère – Première – 16 years old
  • Terminale – 17 years old

 At the end of “lycée”, students take the Baccalaureate or “Bac” in their chosen speciality. This is an indispensable diploma to be able to go to university.

 High schools are managed by the region in which you live. There are 18 regions in France.

 In middle and high school, and even afterwards, your teacher is called “Monsieur” or “Madame”.

Les études supérieures (Higher education)

 In France, you have several possibilities after the Bac. We go through them below.

A university course followed follow an LMD course:

  • Licence (3 years)
  • Master (2 years): at the end, ” un mémoire ” must be written.
  • Doctorat (3 years): at the end, you have to write ” une thèse ” and you become ” Dr. ” But this appellation is very little used in France and is often reserved for general practitioners.

 Les grandes écoles (5 years)

Students are recruited on the basis of a competitive examination, after having passed 2 years of classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE) (khâgne and hypokhâgne). These are two very hard years, where you have to study a lot of subjects in an atmosphere of tough competitiveness.

They provide high-level training. Here are some names:

  • ESSEC – Business School (Management, marketing, finance, law)
  • ENS (École Normale Supérieure) – multidisciplinary.
  • Mines Paris Tech or “Les Mines” (Sciences, biology, energetics, mechanics and materials, mathematics, economics, management)
  • Polytechnic (Biology, chemistry, economics, humanities and social sciences, computer science, mathematics, mechanics, physics)
  • HEC (Management, Economics, Finance, Law)

Private and public schools in France

From nursery school onwards, you can choose to enrol your children “privately”. Private schools are often Catholic schools, where religion classes are offered, which is not the case for the public. But they follow the same curriculum as public schools.

There are also more and more private schools offering alternative pedagogies such as Montessori or schools based on bilingualism or that are more connected with nature.

Some parents decide to home-school. They have to follow the national curriculum and are inspected by the Ministry of Education.

When we say “private school” in France, it does not necessarily go hand in hand with “expensive”. Sure, they are not free like public schools, but they are not extortionate either, like some independent schools in England, for example. Prices usually are between 300 and 500 euros per child per year.

This is clearly the advantage of the French school system: it has been (mostly) free since 1881! So that’s it, are you tempted to study in France?

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