The French Education System Explained

The French school system can be a bit of a puzzle for outsiders. Not only are years in secondary school counted backwards, but the point at which tertiary education begins seems nebulous. In addition, the French educational system always seems to be going through some kind of reform, and efforts are currently being made on the part of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to lower the age of compulsory education and to make changes to the baccalauréat examination. Since the entire educational system can seem quite elaborate, even to participants, we will focus here on preschool, primary, and secondary education, which are fundamental parts of education in France.

State Support for Education is Written into the French Constitution

As in many other countries, a variety of educational options is available for school-aged children, including public, private, and parochial schools, but education is compulsory from ages 6-16. State support for education is written into the French Constitution: “l’organisation de l’enseignement public obligatoire gratuit et laïque à tous degrés est un devoir de l’État”. Public education is state-funded and available to all residents. Enrollment takes place through the local mairie and requires proof of residence. Education is centralized, its programs regulated by Ministry of Education, which determines curricular components within the educational system.


Nursery School

La Crèche

La crèche is for children under the age of 3 and is optional. Parents can choose to send their children to a neighborhood crèche, which is generally operated through the local mairie. It is mainly state funded, with parent contributions on a sliding scale, depending on income. Space is limited, so it is a good idea for children to be placed on a waiting list for a crèche well in advance. Crèche schedules include activities, meals, naps, and excursions.  

La Maternelle

L’école maternelle is for children aged 3-5 years. Although it has been optional, the French president Emmanuel Macron announced in March 2018 that education from age three would become compulsory starting in September 2019. One of the stated goals of this decision is to provide equal opportunities for children in their early developmental stages, and Macron cites difficulties during the first year of primary school as an indication of the likelihood of students to discontinue their education after the age of sixteen. France has been at the forefront of early education, as the French minister of education Jean-Michel Blanquer stated in an address to the public following the 2018 Assises de l’école maternelle, referring to France’s first use of the term école maternelle in 1848. In its modern incarnation, there are three sections of la maternelle:

PS – la petite section age 3
MS – la moyenne section age 4
GS – la grande section age 5

Primary Education  

La Primaire

L’école primaire is the next stage of education in France. La primaire lasts 5 years and offers lessons in grammar, literature, history, geography, mathematics, science, civics, arts, music, and foreign language.  The school week is set at 24 hours. It consists of five levels:

CP – cours préparatoire age 6
CE1 – cours elémentaire 1 age 7
CE2 – cours elémentaire 2 age 8
CM1 – cours moyen 1 age 9
CM2 – cours moyen 2 age 10

School lunches are provided at a small cost and students also have the option of going home to eat during their lunch break. Grading is out of 10, with a 5/10 being a passing grade.


Secondary Education

Le Collège

Le collège is designed to provide fundamental education, before students begin to specialize at the lycée, making it a cornerstone of French education. Le collège offers courses in French grammar and literature, history, geography, foreign language, music, arts, mathematics, technology, civics, chemistry, physics, and biology, which is referred to as sciences et vie de la terre, or svt. The levels are:

la classe de sixième age 11
la classe de cinquième age 12
la classe de quatrième age 13
la classe de troisième age 14

As in primary school, students have the option of returning home for lunch. Grading is out of 20, with 10/20 being a passing grade. At the end of the fourth year, students take a national examination called the brevet. It is difficult and if students do not pass this examination, they must repeat a year of school.

Le Lycée

Le lycée lasts three years. The origins of the word lycée are found in the Latin lyceum, which in turn comes from the Greek lykeion (Lύkeion), the name of the peripatetic school of Aristotle. Students in France have the option of attending a lycée classique, or lycée général, which offers general studies, or else a lycée professionnel or lycée des métiers, which focuses on technical training. At this point, students can decide to attend a lycée that is not in their own neighborhood. The levels are:

la classe de seconde age 15
la classe de première age 16
la classe de terminale age 17

Students in la classe de seconde follow the same program of study. At the end of this year, students decide on where to place their focus for more specialized study, which they begin in la classe de première. When they reach la classe de terminale, students decide whether to prepare for the baccalauréat L (littéraire), S (scientifique), or ES (économique et social). There are also technical exams for those in technical schools.

The baccalauréat, or bac, is a written examination that students take to graduate from their lycée. It was founded by Napoléon in 1808. There are no multiple choice questions, as there are on American examinations, for example. The baccalauréat examination lasts 5 days, 2-4 hours each day, with examinations in the different subjects of the série students have chosen. There is a two-week break after the examination before students receive their results. Results are out of 20, and a 10/20 is passing. If results are between 8 and 10, there is the possibility of sitting for a rattrapage, a supplemental examination meant to improve the average score. Passing the bac is noteworthy in itself, but there are mentions for students who pass with some distinction. These are:

AB – Assez bien entre 12 et 14/20
B – Bien entre 14 et 16/20
TB – Très bien supérieur ou égal à 16/20

The atmosphere in France during the période d’examens is sympathetic, with segments on the bac being broadcast over television and radio, such as the 2018 “Bac de français” series on France Culture’s show La Compagnie des auteurs. This common experience, which allows graduation from the lycée and entry into university, is like a rite of passage for those who live in France.

After the bac, some students opt for two more years of cours préparatoires, usually held at a lycée, which prepare students for an entrance examination for one of France’s grandes écoles. These schools are competitive and admission is very selective. Because of the time it takes to prepare for their entrance examinations, the age of beginning tertiary education in France varies.        

Although education in France seems to be going continually through some sort of reevaluation, this reflects the significant position the educational system holds in French society. Its centralization has recently been countered by efforts toward greater regional autonomy and its relatively large class sizes have also been brought into question, especially with the lowering of the mandatory age at which children are expected to begin school. Such issues are part of an ongoing conversation about the way in which younger generations may be well prepared to participate in life in France and in the rest of the world.

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Difficulties with French spelling are related to phonetic values that vary widely according to context, a good number of homophones, and letters that remain unpronounced. The endings -er and -ez, for example, represent the same sound as -é /e/, and I see these interchanged all the time – by native speakers, no less. One of the strangest aspects of the written language is the third person plural conjugation of verbs, whose -ent ending is sil-ent! (Get it? I just noticed that myself.) One interesting characteristic of French is that while the modern spoken form of the language has gone through quite a lot of phonetic changes since the Middle Ages, the spelling has not and largely reflects the pronunciation of Old French. • • •  Read our blog article "5 Structural Difficulties and Solutions when Learning French" for more details! • • •  #glossika #glossikafrench #french #learnfrench #studyfrench #frenchlanguage #fluency #speakfrench #frenchspelling #speaking

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