Schools in France: A Guide to the French Education System

Schools in France: A Guide to the French Education System

The French school system can seem confusing for expat families but Catharine Higginson’s indispensable guide will help take you through the different stages of your child’s education, from ‘maternelle’ to ‘lycée’, and the exams they will sit in France

Every educational system has its advantages and disadvantages and like any other, the French system is not without its detractors. Equally, it is greatly revered for its overall high standards, 99% literacy rate and lengthy higher education. Education in France is obligatory between the ages of three and 16 and the state is heavily involved in both financing and organising the education system.

The system’s main principles were established in 1958 and provide for free, secular instruction for all. Pre-primary education starts at the age of three, at an école maternelle and some establishments will take children from the age of two and a half. Children are expected to be toilet-trained (although no one will bat an eyelid at the occasional accident) and will generally spend the entire day at school, eating at the canteen, having a nap in the afternoon and working on basic numeracy and motor skills.

This class is known as petite section and from here the children progress through moyenne section and then onto grande section. And yes, it is a ‘proud parent’ moment when your child ‘passes’ from one section to the next at the end of the academic year!

All primary schools offer a before and after school club type service – la garderie – which usually runs from 7am until the start of school and from the end of the school day until around 6-6.30pm in the evening. This may seem like a long day for small children but it is a boon for working parents. Fees are means-tested and incredibly reasonable. The garderie staff will administer after school snacks – le goûter –and supervise homework.

Are there school busses in France?

In smaller communes there may be a ‘regroupement scolaire’ in place. This means that children from the different local communes will be bussed into one primary school, or possibly even two different schools so that class sizes are larger. In my case three communes were involved. All three operated a morning garderie and then the bus would collect children from the two communes which were now minus a working school, and take them to the village with one.

In the evening the process would be reversed, but all the children attending the garderie were taken to the former primary school in the larger of the two villages and parents collected them directly from there. Again, it may seem strange expecting even quite small children to take the bus but the system is well organised and in France children do this from a very early age. Most regions provide free or heavily subsidised transport and you can find out where and how to apply for a bus card – titre de bus – through the mairie or online via the commune’s website.

Primary school in France

In France ‘primary’ education includes both the école maternelle (from petite to grande section) and the école élémentaire classes which start with CP and end with CM2. CP or cours préparatoire is the first part of the second cycle of primary education (maternelle being the first) and is where more formal education begins; this class is when children are expected to learn to read.

CP is followed by CE1 and CE2 – cours élémentaire première année (CE1) and cours élémentaire deuxième année (CE2) – where the emphasis is on basic literacy and numeracy skills.  Pupils finish their primary school with the classes known as CM1 and CM2 (cours moyen 1 and 2); these years are part of the third cycle which is a period of consolidation of everything the children have worked on to date and which ends during the first year of secondary school or collège.

Secondary school in France

The first class in collège is known as 6ème (the sixth year of education) and children spend four years in collège until they reach 3ème. In their first year, pupils have 26 hours of obligatory classes in French, maths, a foreign language, history and geography, art, music, PE, science and technology and civic education. There will be another three hours of optional subjects to be added to the timetable too and in the fourth and fifth years Latin, German, Spanish or another regional (French) language may be added.

Pupils sit the exam known as le brevet in 3ème and while they do not need to pass this to be accepted into a lycée (high school), or continue with further education, success is considered fairly essential. The exam is seen as both a right of passage and an evaluation of the skills and knowledge acquired in secondary school, and is thus generally considered to be important.

The brevet results are based equally on continuous assessment (contrôle continu) and the exams (les épreuves). These take place over two days and include a three-hour French exam, two hours of maths, a two-hour history, geography and EMC (enseignement moral et civique) paper and an hour-long physics/chemistry/science and/or technology evaluation.

High school in France

After secondary school and assuming that the conseil de classe was favourable (in other words, that the subject teachers were in agreement)  children move onto lycée or high school. They might go to a general and technical or professional (lycée d’enseignement général et technologique/un lycée professionnel) establishment depending on their capabilities and planned future direction. They will then enter the ‘first’ class (which is confusingly known as seconde) and opt to study for either a seconde générale et technologique, seconde professionnelle or a certificat d’aptitude professionnel (CAP) – 1re année. In the case of a seconde générale pupils can add various options to the core subjects and choose which ‘bac’ subjects they will study for the baccalaureat exam taken at the end of the three year period.

Some technical diplomas (such as catering, graphic design and dance for instance) begin in the first year, i.e. seconde, so it is essential to factor this in when choosing a lycée. Technical lycées offer the bac pro. This offers three years of further education, practical training, hands-on experience in a professional environment, covers 75 specialist professions and results in a qualification.

In some cases, students go onto further studies after their diplomas. The CAP is another more practical qualification covering around 200 specific careers mainly within the industrial, commercial and service sectors.

Shopping for school supplies in France

Depending on which year they are in and the subjects they will be studying, your child will need to provide their own supplies and the lengthy list of school equipment required for the coming academic year does seem strange initially. The list will be sent out at the end of the summer term or at la rentrée (the back to school period) and will include everything from paintbrushes to slippers, glue sticks and exercise books. These lists are often extremely specific, especially when it comes to art supplies and cahiers (exercise books); buy the wrong size and shape and both you and your child will be in trouble!

Most of the big supermarkets and office supply stores will have everything you require and there are lots of special offers. The office supply stores tend to be slightly more expensive but often offer a ‘click and collect’ service, which can be a lifesaver especially if you have multiple children who all need different items. The costs do add up but families in receipt of the family allowance equivalent (les allocations familiales) receive a special one-off payment; this is known as the ARS (allocation rentrée scolaire) and is a generous €392 for children aged 6-10, €413 for children aged 11-14 and €428 for the 15-18 age group.

Find out the 10 biggest differences between French and British schools and test your knowledge of school vocabulary with this quiz. Here are 12 things you need to know about French schools.

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