10 Things you need to know about the French Secondary School System

10 Things you need to know about the French Secondary School System

Whether you’re a student aspiring to study in France, a parent exploring educational options, or simply intrigued by the world-class French education, this guide will equip you with the knowledge you need to make informed decisions and appreciate the uniqueness of the French secondary school system.

1. School Intake Based on Calendar Year

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The school intake is based on the calendar year and not the school year, so a child born in September would usually be in the same year as one born in the previous March. Retaking a year is common at primary school level and before you move, it’s worth discussing with a new school which year you (and they) think would suit your child best.

2. Long and Variable School Days

School days are long, but variable. They typically start at 8.30am and finish at 5-5.30pm, but Wednesday afternoons are usually free, and lessons may well start later or finish earlier on some days. Helena often chooses to spend these free periods at school, but in the first year both kids were glad to be at home whenever they could.

3. Different Zones of School Holiday in France

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School holidays are long and bank holidays can fall on any day of the week. There are three different zones staggering school holidays in France. Pupils get two weeks off in October, at Christmas, in February and at Easter. Whitsun half term doesn’t exist, but there is a four-day weekend in late May. Bank holidays fall on a particular date, such as the 8 May or 11 November and not on the nearest Monday as in the UK.

4. The Conseil de Classe

School finishes for summer in early July. Pupils who don’t have exams, however, will often stop going in after the conseil de classe in June. This school council happens three times a year and comprises class representatives and teachers who discuss progress for the school report. It’s particularly important at the end of middle school, as it determines whether the path the student wants to follow is suitable.

5. Grading System

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Averages are often everything, although some schools are starting to assess students on their competencies instead. In middle school (collège) and high school (lycée) your child will take regular tests and be marked out of 20. A score above 10 means they are likely to pass their exams and below means they may not. Parents and pupils can usually connect to an app that allows them to see grades and access school reports and which the school uses to communicate with parents.

6. Canteen Food

Canteen food is not like in the UK. Usually it is a three-course main meal with a starter, bread, main and dessert and often it is varied and of good quality. Provision for vegetarians or vegans, however, is patchy. Helena eats fish but not meat and at middle school, she would often be eating plain pasta or rice because the fish had all gone.

At lycée meals are more varied and she was entertained to hear classmates complaining that the canteen had run out of caviar and smoked salmon during the Christmas meal. Isaak is allergic to mussels and accidentally ate some, mixed in with ratatouille, two weeks after we moved here. When I phoned the school to ask about registering the allergy, the response was that it was up to him to avoid them, but your child can usually take their own lunch by arrangement.

7. Permanence

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Homework doesn’t have to be done at home, but there is often a lot of it. Free periods at middle school are spent in permanence – a supervised study session that can be used for devoir maison (graded homework) or to study for devoirs surveillés or évaluations (tests). In lycée, free periods aren’t supervised, but places for private study are often provided.

8. Academic Options

Academic subjects aren’t the only choice. At middle school, you’ll choose between different modern languages and can add Latin, additional English or other options. Beyond that, all students take the same subjects for the brevet usually at 15, and schooling is compulsory until 16. Roughly two-thirds of lycéens follow the three-year génerale et technologique academic curriculum, choosing specialisms within that. A third will choose a bac pro course – specialising in subjects such as agriculture, tourism, health or business studies. Those that don’t go to lycée may choose a formation or vocational course, military service or an apprenticeship.

9. The Importance of Language Learning

Learning by rote is the norm; good behaviour is expected and praise is not common. Isaak was used to applying critical thinking in his UK secondary school curriculum and found the contrast noticeable. The curriculum taught is broad, with more emphasis on language learning and at high school, philosophy forms an important part of the core curriculum, along with French, maths, science, languages, geography, history and sport.

10. The Cost Factor- Affordability of various Schools

State schools, including many international ones, are secular while private schools can be religious. State schooling is free, but private schools are not usually an expensive option. It is common, and relatively cheap, to board if the state or private school you choose is at a distance. Home schooling is possible but now needs official approval and this is increasingly difficult to get.

Find out more on How to apply in an institute of higher education in France and French University Guide: Applying for Higher Education in France?

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