Whether you are planning to move to France with kids, or are just curious to know how life is like elsewhere, you may be interested in hearing about schools in France.
Beyond an overview of the French education system, I thought I would mention a few facts about French schools so you get a better flavor for how it works, beyond the reading, writing, and arithmetic. So let’s get to it, shall we? Allons-y!
- 1. The School year
- 2. The French School week
- 3. No School on Wednesdays
- 4. Activity and leisure centers
- 5. Study Hall
- 6. School holidays throughout the year
- 7. Cursive Handwriting
- 8. Dictation
- 9. Memorizing Poetry
- 10. Learning English
- 11. Philosophy exams
- 12. Home schooling is legal in France but discouraged
- 13. Public Schooling is free
- 14. No school uniforms
- 15. Boys and girls together
- 16. School canteens
- 17. Outside the classroom
- 18. Education grants from the government
- 19. Boarding schools
- 20. Grading
- 21. No grading on a curve
- 22. French teachers cannot be fired
- 23. Parental approval
- 24. Doubling school years (Redoublement)
- 25. Teaching assistance
- 26. Elite schools: Henri IV and Louis le Grand
- 27. Lycée Français overseas
- 28. No Graduation Ceremonies
1. The School year
The school year in France starts in September and ends the 1st week of July. The first day of class is known as the Rentrée, and it is such a big deal that many offices give their employees the day off to take their (small) children to school.
2. The French School week
School starts at around 8:30am every morning and continues until 4:30pm. There is a 2-hour break in the middle of the day for lunch and recreation.
Older middle school and high school children will have varying hours based on the classes they are taking.
3. No School on Wednesdays
Most preschool and primary school students don’t have school on Wednesdays. It is supposed to be the day for extra-curricular activities, to rest, etc. There was a move in 2018 by the government to insist on Wednesday morning classes, however, the teacher unions and parents protested.
This led to some towns having school on Wednesday mornings and reducing hours on other days, while other towns did not.
☞ READ MORE: Should everyone protest like the French?
In junior high (collège) and secondary school (lycée), the schedule is much more 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.
As you can imagine, these varying timetables can leave a lot of families in France scrambling, especially if both parents work.
4. Activity and leisure centers
For working parents who cannot keep their children home each Wednesday, or pick their kids up at 4:30pm, there are the leisure centers.
Each town offers a centre de loisirs (activity and leisure center), where parents can drop off their children on Wednesdays at a minimal cost that is based on income levels. In real terms, the cost is around €5-20/day including lunch.
These leisure centers are in the same school that the child attends, with animateurs watching the kids and proposing a variety of activities. These leisure centers are also open in the mornings for parents who need to head to work early in the morning.
These centre de loisirs hold a variety of craft activities, sports, dance, and other programs based on the age of the child. They also sometimes do field trips to nearby farms, the cinema, museums, etc.
5. Study Hall
In addition, starting in primary school, children are offered an accueil des études (study hall), where they can do their homework afterschool while waiting for their parents. It usually lasts an hour, after which they can join the regular centre de loisirs.
There are two types of study hall, étude surveillée and étude dirigée. Etude surveillée is supervised study hall, where the child works somewhat independently on their homework, rather than waiting to get home to do it.
Etude dirigée, on the other hand, is more of a directed study hall for students in difficulty, who would benefit from small class size and more personal attention. The type of study hall offered depends on the school.
6. School holidays throughout the year
French kids have a 2 week holiday every 6 weeks. This means all kids in France are off of school for 2 full weeks during each of the following months:
This is part of the regular cycle of holidays in France, and many parents also take the time off to go somewhere with their kids, for at least one week out of the two weeks. (French adults usually have between 6-10 weeks holidays, and so can afford to do so.)
To reduce the number of people going on holiday at any one time, the map of France is divided into 3 zones, A, B & C. The school holidays (other than Christmas) are staggered within a few days, so that the entire country is not on holiday at the same time.
Nevertheless, if you are holidaying in France around that time, expect higher prices, more drivers on the road, and longer lines at tourist attractions. School holidays are an “event” in France.
During all school holidays including each summer, the centre de loisirs is open to look after preschool and primary school kids whose parents are working. The centers are usually run by some of the same animators who run the Wednesday programs so children are usually already familiar with the process.
7. Cursive Handwriting
Handwriting still matters in France. Kids in maternelle are taught to draw in boucles (curls) in order to later learn to write in cursive. By the time they finish primary school, students are expected to master the cursive and write beautifully.
Along with beautiful handwriting, la dictée (dictation) is also a big part of French learning. Unlike English, French is a language with a lot of accents and hidden sounds and accords.
As such, learning to write with the teacher dictating a paragraph of French literature is part of the culture.
9. Memorizing Poetry
Along with dictation, students study famous French poets and classic poetry in school, and at times are expected to be able to memorize it and recite it in class. The idea is to listen to understand “the diversity of language”.
☞ READ MORE: Top French Songs for Kids
10. Learning English
The joke among French people is that they don’t know how to speak that “universal language”, English. It may certainly be not as well as the Dutch or Scandinavians do, but French children actually do get exposure to English at a young age.
Even babies in crèche get some exposure to English, as do kids in maternelle and up.
11. Philosophy exams
Unlike the U.S. or U.K., one of the subjects that is mandatory in France is philosophy. It is obligatory in the final year of high school, to emphasize “the learning of freedom through the exercise of reflection”.
The first exam in the BAC series of exams is always philosophy. Here is a recent question from that exam:
Est-il possible d’échapper au temps ? – Is it possible to escape time?Essay Question on BAC exam
12. Home schooling is legal in France but discouraged
If this all sounds overwhelming to you, homeschooling is legal in France although not widely encouraged.
The Mairie in your town will require you to make an annual declaration, as will the rectorat (school inspector). Parents must cover roughly the same curriculum as a French school.
13. Public Schooling is free
If homeschooling is not for you, you will be pleased to know that the normal schooling system is free in France. Parents only pay for the lunchtime canteen, as well as if they use the early morning drop-off or late evening pick-up services.
These services are income-based and tax credits are available as well. The average cost is as cheap as €1-7/day.
14. No school uniforms
Unlike the U.K., students in France don’t wear school uniforms, at least not in public schools. There has been some debate about bringing back uniforms, but none seriously.
15. Boys and girls together
In addition, boys and girls are not separated in separate classes or schools as they are in the U.K. or other countries. Even private schools in France are usually integrated.
16. School canteens
Lunch time is considered part of schooling, and French schools take it quite seriously. No picky eaters allowed here. From a young age, children are introduced to a wide variety of healthy meals and taught to try everything.
Here is a maternelle and primary school sample menu:
☞ READ MORE: French food that all kids will love
And one thing you will not find in a French school canteen: Ketchup. The French government banned it from being allowed in school canteens in 2011, in an effort to combat obesity.
17. Outside the classroom
Beyond classroom learning, students are offered Class Verte or Classe Blanche, which are experiences outside the classroom.
In Classe Verte (green class) is exploring the countryside, with activities such as hiking, canoeing, horseback riding, etc.
Classe Blanche (white class) is usually for skiing and snow-related activities. Students who live the French Alps usually also have day trips to nearby ski resorts in winter as part of their schooling.
These classes are usually in primary school, but are also sometimes offered for Grand Section in maternelle or middle school students. These can be daytrips or overnight trips over 1-3 weeks, where the entire class is expected to participate.
The teacher accompanies the trip with regular lessons in the morning, and the afternoon used to concentrate on the physical activities.
High school students are also offered trips in France and around the world, depending on the town’s resources. Recent trips in high schools in Paris have been to China, India, New York, etc.
18. Education grants from the government
Parents receive aid to send their children to school for supplies, clothing, etc. Allocation de rentrée scolaire (ARS) is an income-based allocation available for children aged 6 to 18 from modest families. It is approximately €400/year per child.
☞ READ MORE: The Surprising benefits large families get in France
19. Boarding schools
While boarding schools are common in the U.K., they are not common in France, especially in big cities. However, in the French countryside where the closest middle school or high school may not offer all the classes the student would like, boarding schools are available.
These schools are called internats, and offer a variety of options such as full days with meals, overnight stays, etc.
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”:
|Grade out of 20
|12.0 – 13.9
|14.0 – 15.9
|16.0 – 17.9
|Très Bien avec félicitations du jury
|Very Good with congratulations from the jury
|18.0 – 20
21. No grading on a curve
As you may have guessed with such a difficult grading system, there is no grading on a curve. If all the students in the class failed, there is no curve to bring them up, even if it shows that something has clearly gone.
22. French teachers cannot be fired
Teachers in France are government employees known as fonctionnaires and cannot be fired (unless there are really exceptional circumstances such as criminal offences, etc.)
Most teachers are hardworking and passionate about their jobs, but this strong job protection does leave a few bad apples in their posts.
23. Parental approval
Parents must give their approval for child to move up a grade. At the end of each year, parents receive two forms for the Poursuite de Scolarité. The first form is the Proposition du conseil des maîtres with the decision of teacher and school to either promote the student or keep him/her behind. Parents have a few days to approve or appeal the decision.
A few days after that, parents will get a 2nd form with la décision of Conseil des maîtres. This decision can then also be approved or appealed by the parents to the Appeals Commission and the School Board.
24. Doubling school years (Redoublement)
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.
25. Teaching assistance
Foreign students who don’t speak French are provided a teaching assistant through Français Langue Etrangère (FLE).
In addition, children who have learning or physical disabilities are provided special assistants to help them navigate the system (Services d’éducation spéciale et de soins à domicile).
☞ READ MORE: Raising bilingual children: A Brit in Paris
26. Elite schools: Henri IV and Louis le Grand
Ecole Louis le Grand was founded in the early 1560s by the Jesuits as the Collège de Clermont, was renamed in 1682 for the Sun King Louis XIV during Louis’s reign.
After the revolution, names of royalty were not popular. Both schools changed names several times, before finally being restored. Today they remain two best high schools in the country, offering scholarships and taking the best students from all across France.
27. Lycée Français overseas
The French government tries to promote French language education around the world, including funding schools for expatriates who want their children to continue learning French.
The schools known as Lycée Français receive funding from the French government, for locations as far and wide as New York in the USA to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam.
28. No Graduation Ceremonies
Congratulations you’ve gotten through school! There is no graduation ceremony however, no gown and gown or getting a diploma from the school principal. This can be a shock to North Americans where schools celebrate this event at every level, from elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, etc.
French parents may hold a small party for their kids, but that is about it. You would be hard pressed to find graduation cards and ballons at your local French grocery store, but I suppose that is life!