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From Calculus to Chemistry: The French Education System

France boasts an excellent educational system, with a 99% literacy rate and 21% of its budget reserved for education. The system can be difficult to comprehend, but our InterNations article guides expat parents through the many types of schools, grades, and examinations for your children.

At a Glance:

  • All children between the ages of 6 and 16 are legally required to attend school.
  • The education system consists of elementary school, middle school, and high school.
  • French schools have five main holidays per year, which vary according to region.
  • Private schools in France have a good reputation and tend to operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.


In France, the state provides free, secular education, which is compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 16. However, the majority of students in France continue in full-time education beyond the legally required time period. There are four stages of education — preschool, elementary school, middle school, and high school. However, children in France are only obligated to attend elementary school, middle school, known as collège, and a lycée (the French equivalent to high school) until the age of 16.

Elementary School

Elementary school in France is called école élémentaire or école primaire; it is attended by children between the ages of six and eleven. School takes place from Monday to Friday, amounting to 28 hours of classes per week. There are five grades in elementary school, which are then divided into three categories and two cycles — cours préparatoire, cours élémentaire, and cours moyen. The five classes are abbreviated to CP, CE1, CE2, CM1, and CM2. The final two years of elementary school — CM1 and CM2 — prepare students for middle school.

Secondary Education

Between the ages of 11 and 15, French children attend middle school, which is known as collège. Most children tend to be eleven years old when they start middle school; however, some are slightly older as it is possible to repeat a year in elementary school. Collège lasts four years, and the grades are called sixième, cinquième, quatrième, and troisième — this is because the French educational system counts the school years down, rather than up.

Following collège, French teenagers must attend high school, known as lycée, from the age of 15 until the age of 16, although it is then possible to continue at the school until pupils are 18 years old; however, this is not compulsory. There is more than one type of lycée — a lycée general for those wishing to pursue university studies, a lycée professionnel for vocational studies, or a lycée technique, which allows students to obtain a two-year undergraduate diploma afterwards. However, a lycée technique cannot always be found in smaller towns.

The “Bac”

There are three grades in the lycèe, known as seconde, followed by the optional and more difficult première and terminale. At the lycèe, pupils sit their most important exam, the final baccalauréat or bac.

Students can choose to take a general baccalauréat, a specialist baccalauréat technologique, or a vocational baccalauréat professionnel. The different types of baccalauréat are subdivided into various streams (séries) according to the students’ respective focus. For example, the baccalauréat général includes options for natural sciences, literature and the humanities, and social sciences and economics.  

School Holidays

In French schools, the academic year spreads over at least 36 weeks, during which there are five main holidays every year. These are All Saints (or autumn), Christmas, winter, spring, and summer break. The actual dates of these holidays vary in different regions of the country, and an overview of the specific dates can be found online.

It is also worth noting that most students in France are given the afternoon off on Wednesdays and alternatively have a half-day of lessons on Saturdays.

Private Education

Private schools in France have a good reputation: they tend to benefit from impressive teaching facilities and smaller classes than can be found at French state schools. France has two types of private schools.

State-contracted schools are funded by the government and must follow the national curriculum, including the baccalauréat examination. State-contracted schools are known for their intensive teaching for foreign students, making them a good option for expat children. Such schools are known as sous contrat d’association schools, as opposed to non-contracted private schools, which are not under government control and are called hors contrat schools.

The private institutions called hors contrat are not funded or controlled by the government, meaning they are often significantly more expensive than state-contracted schools. However, the schools are able to create their own curriculum: students may have many more academic options available, such as sports and the arts or international diplomas. Applications can be made through direct contact with the schools, usually on a first come, first serve basis.

Religious Schools in a Secular State

Around 90% of private schools are Catholic. This contrasts with French state schools: all of them are secular, as they follow the French regime of separating church and state, known as laïcité. Since the implementation of the secularism charter in 2013, religious views may not be promoted in state schools, nor can students have any ostentatious religious symbol on show, from a headscarf to a large cross to a skullcap.

However, students wishing to follow their religious beliefs in the education system can attend high-quality private schools. The Muslim institution Lycée Averroès, for example, has been ranked in the past as France’s best-performing secondary school by Le Parisien.


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