Education in France

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A comprehensive guide about the education system and international schools

Concerned about the education your children will receive in France? Don’t be! France has one of the best education systems in the world, with great options of schools – both public and private – as well as excellent universities.

Finding the best schools and thinking about higher education will be on the mind of any expat parent in France. Schooling is required for all children ages 6 to 16: state schools are free of charge and open to any child residing legally in France. Education options include state schools, state-subsidized private schools, or wholly independent private schools.

Public schools in France are well-funded and secular. Religious symbols, such as headscarves or large crosses, are not permitted in French public schools: students wishing to practice their religious beliefs may prefer to attend private school.

International schools are a popular option for expat children in France, so parents should apply early. These schools teach primarily in French and English, but other languages are available as well. Most international schools are based around Paris. France’s higher education system also contains some world-class universities and tuition is relatively low for public institutions.

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How is the education system in France?

From Calculus to Chemistry: The French Education System

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 15until 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,ora 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, aspecialist 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.

Daycare and kindergarten

At a Glance:

  • Some crèches accept babies at the early age of three months, but waiting lists for the state-run daycare centers can be rather long.
  • While there are some bilingual nursery schools, choosing a French école maternelle might help your child integrate into life in France.
  • A French nanny, called nounou, has to be professionally trained and approved by the state.
  • Hiring an au-pair or babysitter can offer more flexibility, but communication can be an issue.

Preschool in France is not compulsory, and unlike in elementary school where children are registered automatically, parents must enroll their children. However, for those wishing to get back to work or take up a few hours, there are several options available.

Highly Contested Crèches

It is possible for mothers in France to go back to work soon after birth, as the French government provides state-run daycare centers known as crèches. Maternity leave tends to end when the baby is three months old, andcrèches accept babies from this young age. A list of crèches in the area can be found at the local town hall, the mairie. It is worth applying as early as possible for a place for your child, as waiting lists can be long.

There are three types of crèche in France:

  • La crèche parentale is managed by parents with professional staff.
  • La crèche d’enterprise is offered by a company and provides professional childcare for its staff.
  • La crèche familial is a family crèche, in which a childcare professional is hired to look after children from different families under one roof and the cost is then split between families.

There are also crèches which are privately run, and the price of sending children to a private crèche can vary; however, it is usually around 300 to 400 EUR for those living outside of Paris. In the capital of France, prices tend to be higher.

Finding a Nursery School

French nursery schools, or rather écoles maternelles, are state-run, free of charge, and attended by children between the ages of two and six years old. When applying, be aware that older children tend to be given preference over younger children.

While it is recommendable to place your children in a French nursery in order to integrate them into their new location, there are also bilingual schools available for young children. The Bilingual Montessori School of Paris educates children between the ages of two to nine years old and organizes education activities, as well as prepares its students for the next steps of their education.

Alternatively, the United Nations Nursery School accepts children from two and half years old up to six years old. The teachers are bilingual, speaking both English and French, making the school a perfect environment for your child to settle. The classes are small, and there is also a focus on music and art, allowing the children an extensive education from a young age.

Your Nounou: Nannies in France

A French nanny is charmingly named a nounou, and will have been professionally trained and approved by the state. The state will also cover the nanny’s social, health, and retirement benefits. Nannies may care for up to five children at one time, depending on the age of the children being cared for.

A nounou should be given a contract which specifies their hours and monthly salary, and must be formally paid with a pay slip. If theyare caring for your children for over five hours a week, it is necessary to declare yourself an employer with the URSSAF.

On average, a nounou will charge around 3.50 EUR per hour, as well as 3.50 EUR for every meal the child eats, however, this varies according to your area and it is worth talking to other parents to see what they are paying in your local area.

Finding Babysitters and Au Pairs

Alternatively, you may opt to engage a babysitter or an au pair. Babysitters can be casually paid and employed as and when is necessary. They are often recommended by word of mouth, or else found online and should have civil liability insurance. If the babysitter is younger than 15 years of age, their parents should be made aware of the arrangement. Babysitters in France tend to charge anything between 6 EUR and 12 EUR per hour, as this can vary on location and level of expertise.

Au pairs often come with fixed salaries from au pair agencies and it is customary to provide them with accommodation and an agreed amount of pocket money, which will be decided on before their arrival. Au pairs tend to come from abroad to learn French or another language, so consider if communication will be an issue.

International schools

At a Glance:

  • Children of all ages can attend international schools.
  • Many international schools in France are based in and around Paris.
  • Fees for international schools vary according to a wide range of factors.
  • It is advised that parents apply to international schools as early in advance as possible.

International Schools

International schools in France are available for children of all ages, through nursery, primary and secondary education. Lessons are usually taught in French and English, although schools occasionally teach in other languages.

Many schools for English-speaking expat children are centered around Paris, and there are also schools catering to German, Iraqi, Japanese, Spanish, Swedish, and Russian students. In addition to Paris, international schools can be found in cities where large multinational businesses operate, such as Bordeaux and Toulouse.

International schools have a reputation for their high-quality teaching and smaller classes. They also provide children with the opportunity to discover other cultures through their fellow students. The schools offer internationally recognized qualifications as well: this makes for a smoother transition to other schools for those students who often move location with their expat parents.

These qualifications include UK-based iGCSE and GCE A levels, as well as the US high school diploma. There may also be the opportunity to take the International Baccalaureate or the French Option International du Baccalauréat (OIB), which provides admission to higher education in France.

Fees for international schools vary due to a variety of factors, from economic climate to location, so it is best to research your options on the schools’ websites. For example, the Notre-Dame International High School charged an annual 14,990 EUR for tuition fees in 2017. Many international schools also request a registration fee, such as at the Bordeaux International School, who charged 600 EUR for this in 2017.

Finding an International School in France

Prominent international schools in France include:

The majority of international schools, however, are based in Paris, and these include:

It is advisable to apply as early as possible to international schools in France, which often have long waiting lists. However, it is possible to apply to join school mid-term, with a higher chance of gaining entry than in standard schools.

Pedagogical Philosophies: International Method Schools in France

Although international schools are useful in providing an international curriculum, some schools prefer to do things their own way. International method schools, such as the famed Montessori and Steiner-Waldorf schools, are open-minded in their teaching styles compared to the more rigid French curriculum; these kinds of schools tend to encourage students to choose their own activities. Nevertheless, the schools are recognized by the French state, with some of these international schools also offering the French baccalauréat.

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Higher education

At a Glance:

  • France has a complex system of higher education, with several types of institutions.
  • Students in France pay relatively low fees at public universities.
  • Grandes écoles are prestigious, specialist institutions with very high application rates.
  • Students coming from outside the EU or Switzerland are required to apply for a visa.

France boasts having some of the top universities in the world. The grandes écoles École Normale Supérieure, Paris and École Polytechnique ParisTech both make the world’s top 55 at 33rd and joint 53rd place in the QS World University Rankings 2016 to 2017, respectively. This is but one example cementing their reputation as two of Europe’s — and indeed the world’s — leading academic institutions.

Public Universities

The majority of students attend France’s 75 public universities, which offer academic, technical, and professional degrees. Students can study degrees of all disciplines, from agriculture to journalism to European culture. Universities are subsidized by the French national and local government authorities, which keeps fees affordable.

Most courses are offered in French, although some courses can be taken in other languages such as English. Among many other options, students can do degrees in economics, law, some humanities subjects, and mathematics in English. There is also a large international student community in France, as the affordable fees encourage students from abroad to take a degree at a French university.

Schools of Art, Design and Architecture

France has long been renowned for its impressive fine art. It is unsurprising that the country is home to many reputable art and architecture schools for those wishing to pursue a creative higher education. These public institutions are known as écoles supérieures of art, offering nationally regulated diplomas.

Alternatively, other schools require payment of private tuition fees. Such schools have specific degrees according to the institute. Paris also houses one of the best 60 design institutions in the world, Strate School of Design, a prestigious example of France’s private institutes of higher education.

Schools of architecture are also prestigious in France, with 20 national schools regulated by the French Ministry of Culture. Three years of study is rewarded with a degree which is equivalent to a licence — in other words, a bachelor’s degree. A further two years of study allow students to receive a master’s degree, known as diplôme d’État d’architecte. After yet another three years of study architecture students can be awarded a doctorate.

Grandes écoles

Grandes écoles are particularly prestigious universities that specialize in various fields such as engineering, management, as well as veterinary studies or politics. The cost of study varies greatly, depending on whether is the school in question is privately or publicly funded. A basic degree from a grande école is equal to a European Master’s degree and takes around five years to complete.

Grandes écoles are known for their high competition, due to the many applications and high-quality teaching. Upon graduation, students from a grande école can expect an excellent career. Students hoping to pursue a high-ranking career in French politics are expected to have graduated from a grande école. Fortunately for expats, many courses are also offered in English, such as international management.

Low Fees in France

Fortunately, higher education fees in France are not too expensive. Public university prices vary according to the level of study. On average, a bachelor’s degree will cost around 190 EUR annually, while an engineering degree will cost significantly more at around 620 EUR per year, and students of medicine can expect to pay around 500 EUR for the year. Generally speaking, certain specialized degrees are higher in price, and this also applies for master’s degrees. The average master’s degree cost around 260 EUR in 2016.

As mentioned, the prices for public universities are significantly lower thanks to government subsidies. By contrast, the price for studying at a French business school can be as high as 7,000 EUR per year. Fees for a public grande école are usually set at around 600 EUR per year, while private university establishments charge fees of anything between 1,500 EUR to 6,000 EUR per annum.

Education Laws and Education Visas

For those living in the EU or in Switzerland and wishing to study in France, a confirmed place at an institution is required, as well as a passport or travel ID document. For expat students from outside the EU or Switzerland, France has several types of visa:

  • This visa allows students to take entrance exams for a university in France. If the exam is passed successfully, this visa extends to a one-year residence permit, which can then be renewed.
  • (short-stay visa): 
    This free visa is also known as the Schengen visa. It should be applied for by students who are certain that their studies will not exceed three months (e.g. for a language class).
  • (temporary long-stay visa): 
    Students who wish to study in France for up to six months may apply for this temporary student visa, and a separate residence permit is not necessary.
  • (long-stay visa): 
    Also known as the extended-stay VLT-TS, this visa is necessary for students wishing to stay in France for a period longer than six months. This provides a residence permit throughout your studies, such as a four-year PhD.

In order to apply for your visa, you may need to register with the French national agency for international students, Campus France. However, this requirement varies according to your country of origin.

InterNations GO!
by InterNations GO!
08 January 2019
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