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How the French school system works

Some useful information in order to quickly understand the specificities of the French National Education.

Most schools in France are state-run and free, and children are not required to wear uniform. The Education Ministry is responsible for education across the country and decides the curriculum.

In order to enrol your child in primary or secondary state school, you must go to the local town hall (mairie).

Enrolment at lycée level – the final phase of schooling in France – is subject to your child’s academic record.

To sign up you will need:

  • proof of identity
  • proof of residence
  • up-to-date vaccination record

Enrolment at private schools varies by establishment.

Good to know

France has created international sections in private and state schools, in partnership with different countries, to offer bilingual and bicultural education. Students follow the French school system as well as specific learning under the auspices of the French Ministry of Education.

There are 178 International Sections in the Paris region, including 120 in public schools, 20 in semi-private ‘sous-contrat’ schools and 38 fully private. Certain private schools are fee-based but the costs are often lower than the school fees charged in the United Kingdom, for example.

48 of these International Sections are English-speaking.

Creche: from 0 to 2 years old

There are many good quality facilities for young children in France, which undoubtedly explains why the country has the highest number of working parents in Europe.

For children under three there are three childcare options part-funded by the state (according to your financial situation):

  • the crèche collective has 8 to 10 professionals looking after your children from aged three months to three years. They are usually open from 7:30am to 6:30pm. This type of childcare is particularly suited to young children as it offers an introduction to community living.
  • the crèche familiale with an approved childminder who looks after children at their home. This system is usually more expensive than the crèche collective, but offers more flexibility in terms of hours and conditions.
  • the halte-garderie, welcomes children on a part-time basis during the day, from one to three days a week

To sign up for any of these options, please visit your local town hall (mairie) as soon as possible, because the number of crèche places is limited.

You can also opt for a private childminder. Many agencies offer English-speaking childminders who can look after your children full-time.

If you wish you can also hire an au pair to look after your children during the day. In return you offer them accommodation, board and free time to pursue their studies.

School : From 3 to 10 years old

In France, school is compulsory from three years old (since the beginning of the 2019/20 school year) until 16. Your child’s year of birth determines when they start school, and the school year starts at the beginning of September.

Upon arrival in France, children born overseas are supported by the French National Education System to learn the language and become integrated into the mainstream school system.

Ecole maternelle (3-5 years old)

The École Maternelle pre-school is free and open to all children living legally in France. While it is not compulsory, the École Maternelle programme is an integral part of the French school system.

Children are allocated places according to where they live. If you want your child to go to school in a different town or arrondissement, for example to attend an international school, you will need to apply for an exemption from your local town hall (mairie).

Ecole primaire (6-10 years old)

Children spend five years in primary school. The years are known as CP (preparatory class), CE (Elementary class) 1 & 2, and CM (intermediate class) 1 & 2.

Just as at the pre-school phase, public primary schools are allocated according to where you live, with the possibility of applying for an exemption from your local town hall. This rule does not apply to the private sector.

Secondaire (11-18 years old)

At the age of 11, children enter collège (secondary school) for four years. These years are known as 6th, 5th, 4th and 3rd. Children prepare for their first national exam, known as the Brevet des Collèges, which they take at the end of the 3rd class.

At 15, students begin the second part of their secondary education. It lasts three years – known as seconde, première and terminale – and culminates in the examinations for the national Baccalauréat diploma. Enrolment into a public lycée is dependent on where you live, but is also subject to academic record and achievement.

There are three types of lycée in France:

  • lycée général which leads towards further studies in higher education
  • lycée technologique which offers shorter studies
  • lycée professionnel which trains students in a particular profession in fields such as hospitality & catering, mechanics, industrial design and sales
    Students taking the professional option can also extend their training with short-term higher education, such as a Brevet de Technicien Supérieur (BTS, higher technical certificate).

The Lycée General is the traditional route towards further studies in higher education. For their three years at lycée, students study a common core of subjects, and choose options from the second year, in which they will major. The French Baccalauréat is recognised by most universities in the US and UK, including the Ivy League and Russell Group.

French school curriculum

Age Niveau Classe
3  years old
Maternelle / Kindergarten

Petite section

4  years old
Maternelle / Kindergarten

Moyenne section

5  years old
Maternelle / Kindergarten

Grande section

6  years old
Elémentaire / Elementary School

Cours préparatoire (CP)

7  years old
Elémentaire / Elementary School

Cours Elémentaire 1 (CE1)

8  years old
Elémentaire / Elementary School

Cours Elémentaire 2 (CE2)

9  years old
Elémentaire / Elementary School

Cours Moyen 1 (CM1)

10  years old
Elémentaire / Elementary School

Cours Moyen 2 (CM2)

11  years old
Collège / Middle School

6ème

12  years old
Collège / Middle School

5ème

13  years old
Collège / Middle School

4ème

14  years old
Collège / Middle School

3ème

15  years old
Lycée / High School

2nde

16  years old
Lycée / High School

1ère

17  years old
Lycée / High School

Terminale

French school curriculum

Age 3  years old
Niveau Maternelle / Kindergarten
Classe

Petite section

Age 4  years old
Niveau Maternelle / Kindergarten
Classe

Moyenne section

Age 5  years old
Niveau Maternelle / Kindergarten
Classe

Grande section

Age 6  years old
Niveau Elémentaire / Elementary School
Classe

Cours préparatoire (CP)

Age 7  years old
Niveau Elémentaire / Elementary School
Classe

Cours Elémentaire 1 (CE1)

Age 8  years old
Niveau Elémentaire / Elementary School
Classe

Cours Elémentaire 2 (CE2)

Age 9  years old
Niveau Elémentaire / Elementary School
Classe

Cours Moyen 1 (CM1)

Age 10  years old
Niveau Elémentaire / Elementary School
Classe

Cours Moyen 2 (CM2)

Age 11  years old
Niveau Collège / Middle School
Classe

6ème

Age 12  years old
Niveau Collège / Middle School
Classe

5ème

Age 13  years old
Niveau Collège / Middle School
Classe

4ème

Age 14  years old
Niveau Collège / Middle School
Classe

3ème

Age 15  years old
Niveau Lycée / High School
Classe

2nde

Age 16  years old
Niveau Lycée / High School
Classe

1ère

Age 17  years old
Niveau Lycée / High School
Classe

Terminale

Higher education

There are numerous opportunities for international students in France, and the Grandes Écoles often feature in the top 10 universities in the world.

In order to enrol, it is recommended you take a classe préparatoire (preparatory class):

  • classe préparatoire HEC prepares students for competitive exams for entry into business schools including HEC, ESCP, ESSEC and EDHEC
  • « Math Sup » et « Math Spé » prepare students for an exam to enter engineering schools including Polytechnique and Les Mines
  • « Khâgne » et « Hypokhâgne » prepare students for the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris (Normale Sup) or l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po)

Faculty education is also of high-quality, and the Pierre et Marie Curie and Paris-Sud Universities are globally renowned.

Finally, there are less traditional options which deserve being mentioned for their excellence, such as Les Gobelins, the best animation school in the world, and L’Ecole 42, which stands out thanks to its innovative concept, with campuses in Paris and the USA.

To discover all the options classed by subject, level and geographical location, visit www.campusfrance.org/en.

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