Schools in France: Demystifying the French Education system
Photo by Sarah Pflug¹

Schools in France: Demystifying the French Education system

When you start to look into the French school system, you are immediately hit with an alphabet soup of initials: CP, CM, CE1, etc. French people refer to the school years with these acronyms, which to an outsider makes no sense at all.

In the U.S., school starts with kindergarten and then 1st grade, 2nd grade, up to 12th grade and graduation. Congratulations you are fully up to speed, easy peasy! Well, the French have never found a topic that they have not managed to complexify. With acronyms and scholastic cycles, it is not the easiest to decipher.

So let’s demystify the schools in France and the education system, shall we?

The French School Year

The school year 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.

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.

No school 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.

For working parents, 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.

French school holidays

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.

France Zone A B C holidays vacances scolaire
French School Holiday Zone Map

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 the same animators who run the Wednesday programs so children are usually already familiar with the process.

These centre de loisirs hold a variety of craft activities, sports, dance, and other programs based on the age of the child. They also do field trips to nearby farms, the cinema, museums, etc.

French School System by age

First off, we should note that schooling for all French children is mandatory in the calendar year the child turns 3. This means if your child is born in December, he will be entering school at 2 years and 8 months old.

Thus in the chart below, when it says “age”, it means the year that that child turned that age.

i. Maternelle (Preschool)

French School GradeAcronym meaningAge of Child
PSPetit Section (Small Section)3
MSMoyen Section (Middle Section)4
GSGrande Section (Large Section)5

To translate into American schooling standards, Moyen Section is pre-school, Grand Section is kindergarden, and little 3 year old Petit-Sectioners would still be in nursery.

Don’t be fooled however, Petit Section in France is not nursery. French three-year-olds learn to sing the alphabet, to count, to draw, etc. They also do activities with their class such as going swimming, riding a bike in the school courtyard, etc.

If there are a lot of really young children (i.e. children born at the end of the year), the town will open a TPS or Toute Petite Section for the really littles.

Most public maternelles in France also start a dose of English instruction, about 45 minutes once a week.

All the children get a report card twice a year, at half-term before the Christmas holidays, and at the end of the year in June.

ii. École primaire (Primary school)

French School GradeAcronym meaningAge of Child
CPCours préparatoire (Preparatory course)6
CE1Cours élémentaire 1 (Elementary course)7
CE2Cours élémentaire 2 (Elementary course)8
CM1Cours moyen 1 (Middle course)9
CM2Cours moyen 2 (Middle course)10

The French primary school operates on cycles. Maternelle is the first cycle, and from there CP to CE2 is the 2nd cycle where children are expected to learn the fundamentals.

They start to move from having one teacher for all the subjects, to specialized teachers for each subject. Similar to other countries, the emphasis is on reading, writing, maths, science, language, etc.

In the 3rd cycle, from CM1 to the 1st year of Middle school, the emphasis is on “consolidation of knowledge”.

iii. Collège (Middle school)

Collège in French is not “college of higher education” as we know it in North America, but actually middle school. Here finally the French drop the acronyms and the U.S. equivalent of 6th grade is the sixème (6ème) in France.

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

APPLYING TO MIDDLE SCHOOL: Not all middle schools offer a full range of courses, so French students apply to get into the middle school of their choice.

School years 5ème to 3ème are part of the 4th cycle of French education, known as the deepening cycle.

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.

BREVET: 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 families will often decide what neighborhood and what school to send their children to, based on the brèvet results.

iv. Lycée (High school)

The 5th cycle of the French school system is the lycée and it is all about preparing French students for the future.

French School GradeU.S. EquivalentAge of Child
2ème10th grade15
1ère11th grade16
Terminale12th grade17

APPLYING TO HIGH SCHOOL: The courses offered at the high school will be based on the type of high school diploma that the student is working towards. After the brèvet at the end of middle school, students must apply to one of 3 types of high schools:

Type of High SchoolLycée (High School) Degree
Lycée GeneralBAC General
Lycée TechniqueBAC Technique
Lycée ProfessionnelBEP (Brevet d’enseignement professionnel) /
CAP (certificat d’aptitude professionnel) /
BAC Professionnel

BAC EXAMS: The BAC is similar to the American SAT, in that it is a nationwide exam that all French students must pass to move on to higher education. While the SAT is usually one exam, the BAC is a series of exams over several days in a variety of subjects, depending on what the student has chosen.

There are also several technical diplomas for students who specialize in technical areas such as the Brevet de technicien supérieur (BTS) or Le brevet des métiers d’art (BMA), etc.

v. International Language Sections

All throughout the schooling system, from maternelle to high school, there are International sections with options such as American English, British English, Dutch, Arabic, Japanese, etc. working towards the International Option Baccalaureate (OIB).

These international sections allow students to study certain subjects in a foreign language of their choice. Both French and foreign students can apply to them, but in cities like Paris, the competition is tough. (The earlier the child applies in their scholastic career, the easier the chances are to get in.)

The workload in the “other language” is on top of the regular French workload, and the chances of the student getting in depends on their high scholastic abilities as much as their fluency in the other language.

vi. Universities and Higher Education

Once students have their BAC in hand, they are able to apply to a series of public universities and institutions across France. These are free in France and every French student is guaranteed a spot somewhere, along with a student bursary from CAF (a govt department).

More interestingly, some schools like the National School of Public Administration ENA, actually pay the students a stipend of around €1700/ month to attend. Competition is tough to get in, and students are required to work for the government for 10 years after graduating, or they pay those funds back.

Grandes écoles: The best students, however, will aim to get into one of the grandes écoles. These schools are quite exclusive, and the equivalent of the American Ivy League. Students don’t get in immediately after high school but spend 2 years doing private courses known as “preparatory classes”, or prépas, so they can sit for an entrance exam (concours).

Entrance into one of the Grandes écoles is meant to grant the student a surefire job and a high flying career.

Other Important facts about the French School System

So beyond the basics, I thought I would mention a few facts about the French School system so you get a better flavor for how it works, beyond the reading, writing, and arithmetic.

1. Cursive

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.

2. Dictation

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.

3. Poetry

Along with dictation, students study 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”.

It starts early in maternelle with nursery rhymes and french songs, before moving to poetry as they move into primary school.

4. Philosophy

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

5. Home schooling is legal in France

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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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:

French school canteen menu
Maternelle and Primary school canteen menu

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. Grading

Starting in primary school, 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

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. Parental approval

Parents have to give their approval for child to move up a grade. At the end of each year, parents receive a form called the Poursuite de Scolarité with the decision of teacher, school and district to either promote the student or keep him/her behind.

Parents have a 3-4 weeks to approve or appeal the decision.

16. 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.

17. 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).

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So is the French school system similar to schooling where you are from? Comment below and let me know.

A bientôt!

¹ Featured Image: Sarah Pflug for Shopify Burst

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Schools in France: Demystifying the French Education system

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