Middle school in France: Navigating the ‘Collège’ experience

Find out what Middle school (Junior high) in France is really like. From the subjects learnt, grading, the Brevet exams in collège and much more.
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In France, the word “Collège” in French is not “college of higher education” as we know it in North America, but actually Middle school or Junior High.

This middle school is the third stage of education after maternelle and école primaire, and covers children from ages 11 to 14. Public middle school is compulsory and free for all children in France, and is intended to provide a common educational experience for all students, regardless of their social or cultural background.

The U.S. equivalent of 6th grade is the sixème (6ème) in France, although the in French the numbers count backwards:

French School GradeU.S. EquivalentAge of Child
6ème6th grade11
5ème7th grade12
4ème8th grade13
3ème9th grade14

The French education system is governed by a series of laws known as the Règlementation pédagogique. The guidelines and standards for teachers are set by the French government, and the teachers are part of the Education nationale.

The curriculum includes a wide range of subjects, including French, mathematics, history, geography, science, physical education, and foreign languages. Students also have the opportunity to learn about different cultural and artistic disciplines, such as music, art, and theater.

At the end of middle school, students take an important exam known as the brevet des collèges. This exam assesses their knowledge and skills in a range of subjects, and is used to determine whether they are ready to move on to secondary school.

Applying and getting into Middle school

In public education, children are assigned by the Academy Inspector to the college in the geographical area around your residence. However, not all middle schools offer a full range of courses, so French students apply to get into the middle school of their choice.

Applications include the grading results from the end of CM2 (5th grade in primary school). Recommendations from teachers may also be required for special programs such as bilingual programs, private schools, etc.

Learning cycles

The 6ème (6th grade in France) is part of what is called the 3rd cycle of learning, a continuation of CM1 and CM2 in primary school.

School years 5ème to 3ème (7th to 9th grades) are part of the 4th cycle of French education, known as the deepening cycle. The main topics taught in the 4th cycle are:

  • French – literature, poetry, essays, etc.
  • Maths and geometry
  • Physics and chemistry
  • Science of life and the earth
  • History and geography
  • Media and Information
  • Technology
  • Foreign languages – English, German, Spanish and regional languages.
  • History of Art
  • Arts and crafts
  • Music
  • Physical education and sport
  • Moral and civic education


In terms of the school day, school in France typically runs from 8:30am to 4:30pm, with a break for lunch in the middle of the day.

In middle school (collège) and secondary school (lycée), the schedule is much variable depending on the school. Some schools have classes on Wednesday, for a 1/2 day or full day, while others even have classes and exams on Saturday mornings.

Foreign languages

Languages: In 6ème, students pick one of two foreign languages that they will study through the rest of their scholastic career. Known as Langue Vivante 1 (Living language 1), the most common languages chosen are English, German, Spanish or Italian.

The following year, in 5ème, they will pick the 2nd language, known as Langue Vivante 2, amongst the choices offered at their middle school.


In 3eme, there is a required internship “stage” for around 5 days. It is noted in the curriculum as “an opportunity to discover the world of work, share the daily life of professionals and benefit from concrete experience.

It is also an opportunity for students to gain autonomy, gain confidence in a new environment and possibly confirm an orientation project. The internship is required to graduate from middle school.


Starting in collège, the French grading system becomes quite hard. A 12 out of 20 is considered a pretty decent mark. Unlike North America, where a good portion of the class is expected to be in the 70%-90% range, this is not the case in France.

The official grading for the BAC shows at what point the student can earn a “mention”:

MentionEnglish TranslationGrade out of 20
Assez BienSomewhat good12.0 – 13.9
BienGood14.0 – 15.9
Très BienVery Good16.0 – 17.9
Très Bien avec félicitations du juryVery Good with congratulations from the jury18.0 – 20

Doubling a year

Redoublement, meaning to redoing the scholastic year, is not uncommon in France. In addition, there is no social stigma to doing so. This is especially the case for the scholastic years that are at the end of a learning cycle (in CE2, 6ème, 3ème).

A child will be held back if he cannot demonstrate the necessary competence in that cycle. The idea is to have the student catch up before he gets any further.

The Brevet Exams

At the end of 3ème, French students must pass an exam known as the brèvet, which includes testing on French, mathematics and other subjects. It is an important test, but not an important test, as everyone is expected to pass the brèvet.

Middle schools are judged on their ability to get their students to pass the Brèvet, so French families will often decide what neighborhood and what school to send their children to, based on the brèvet results even though college may be years away for their kids.

The Brévet is the first general exam in the French schooling system, that is given to kids at the end of Collège (Middle school) around 14-15 years old. French people say that it means absolutely nothing, you don’t “win” anything if you get your brévet, it is not really a diploma.

And it is not supposed to be a difficult exam. Indeed, many collèges have a 100% pass rate amongst their kids. However, certain collèges have a rate below the average, which was 88% as per Education.gouv and are generally considered “weaker” collèges.

At the end of collège, children apply to lycées (high schools) based on their general results in school as well as their brévet results.


If you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more about family life France. A bientôt!

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