Education in France

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Education in France
Education nationale logo.png
Ministry of National Education
Deputy Minister
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem
National education budget (2009)
Budget€64.6 billion
General details
Primary languagesFrench
System typeCentral
Literacy (2003)
Total15.0 million2
Primary6.7 million
Secondary4.8 million
Post secondary2.3 million3
Secondary diploma79.7%
Post-secondary diploma27%
Jump to: navigation, search
Education in France
Education nationale logo.png
Ministry of National Education
Deputy Minister
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem
National education budget (2009)
Budget€64.6 billion
General details
Primary languagesFrench
System typeCentral
Literacy (2003)
Total15.0 million2
Primary6.7 million
Secondary4.8 million
Post secondary2.3 million3
Secondary diploma79.7%
Post-secondary diploma27%
School system in France

The French educational system is highly centralized and organized, with many subdivisions. It is divided into three stages:


Jules Ferry

While the French trace the development of their educational system to Napoléon, the modern era of French education begins at the end of the nineteenth century. Jules Ferry, a lawyer holding the office of Minister of Public Instruction in the 1880s, is widely credited for creating the modern school (l'école républicaine) by requiring all children between the ages of 6 and 12—both boys and girls—to attend. He also made public instruction mandatory, free of charge, and secular (laïque). With these laws, known as Jules Ferry laws, and several others, the Third Republic repealed most of the Falloux Laws of 1850–1851, which gave an important role to the clergy.


All educational programmes in France are regulated by the Ministry of National Education (officially called Ministère de l'Éducation nationale, de la Jeunesse et de la Vie associative). The head of the ministry is the Minister of National Education, one of the highest-ranking officials in the cabinet. As of May 2013, the Minister is Vincent Peillon.

The teachers in public primary and secondary schools are all state civil servants, making the ministère the largest employer in the country. Professors and researchers in France's universities are also employed by the state.

The different Académies and school zones in France
ACaen, Clermont-Ferrand, Grenoble, Lyon, Montpellier, Nancy-Metz, Nantes, Rennes, Toulouse
BAix-Marseille, Amiens, Besançon, Dijon, Lille, Limoges, Nice, Orléans-Tours, Poitiers, Reims, Rouen, Strasbourg
CBordeaux, Créteil, Paris, Versailles

At the primary and secondary levels, the curriculum is the same for all French students in any given grade, which includes public, semi-public and subsidised institutions. However, there exist specialised sections and a variety of options that students can choose. The reference for all French educators is the Bulletin officiel de l'éducation nationale, de l'enseignement supérieur et de la recherche (B.O.) which lists all current programmes and teaching directives. It is amended many times every year.[1]

In the Metropolitan territory, the school year extends from early-September to early-July. The school calendar is standardized throughout the country, and is the sole domain of the ministry.

In May schools need time to organise the exams (for example, the Baccalauréat). In the overseas departments and territories of France, the school calendar is set by the local recteur.

Major holiday breaks are as follows:

Primary education[edit]

ecole maternelle (Nursery School)
3 -> 4Petite sectionPS
4 -> 5Moyenne sectionMS
5 -> 6Grande sectionGS
ecole primaire (Primary School)
6 -> 7Cours préparatoireCP / 11ème
7 -> 8Cours élémentaire première annéeCE1 / 10ème
8 -> 9Cours élémentaire deuxième annéeCE2 / 9ème
9 -> 10Cours moyen première annéeCM1 / 8ème
10 -> 11Cours moyen deuxième annéeCM2 / 7ème
Collège (Junior High)
11 -> 12Sixième6e
12 -> 13Cinquième5e
13 -> 14Quatrième4e
14 -> 15Troisième3e
Lycée (High school)
15 -> 16Seconde2de
16 -> 17Première1ere
17 -> 18TerminaleTerm or Tle

Schooling in France is mandatory as of age 6, the first year of primary school. Many parents start sending their children earlier though, around age 3 as nursery classes (maternelle) are usually affiliated to a borough's primary school. Some even start earlier at age 2 in pré-maternelle or très petite section classes, which are essentially daycare centres. The last year of maternelle, grande section is an important step in the educational process as it is the year in which pupils are introduced to reading.

After nursery, the young students move on to primary school. It is in the first year (cours préparatoire) that they will learn to write and develop their reading skills. Much akin to other educational systems, French primary school students usually have a single teacher (or perhaps two) who teaches the complete curriculum, such as French, mathematics, science and humanities to name a few. Note that the French word for a teacher at the primary school level is maître or its feminine form maîtresse (previously called instituteur, or its feminine form institutrice).

Secondary education[edit]

French secondary education is divided into two schools:

The completion of secondary studies leads to the baccalauréat.

Brevet des collèges[edit]

The Brevet des collèges (or brevet) is the first official diploma a pupil has to sit. It is not required in order to enter lycée. Until 2006 the school marks for the whole of the third (4ème) and final year (3ème) were taken into account for a percentage of the mark. The rest of the mark consisted of the final exam, the Brevet. Pupils were only tested on French, Mathematics, History/Geography/Citizenship for the exam.

Starting in 2007, only the marks from the final year (3ème) were taken into consideration[vague]. Since 2011, pupils are tested on History of the Arts, an oral test.


For more details on this topic, see Baccalauréat.
International educational scores (1995)
(13-year-old's average score, TIMSS
Trends in International Math and Science Study, 1995)
 South Korea360725654
 Czech Republic456465742
 Belgium (Fl)5565555011
 Hong Kong6588452224
 United States245002853417
 New Zealand255082452522
 Belgium (W)275261947136
Source: TIMSS data, in The Economist March 29th, 1997, p.25

The baccalauréat (also known as bac) is the end-of-lycée diploma students sit in order to enter university, a classe préparatoire, or professional life. It is generally taken at age 18 if the pupil has not repeated a class during secondary school. The term baccalauréat refers to the diploma and the examinations themselves. It is comparable to English, Northern Irish, & Welsh A-Levels, the Irish Leaving Certificate, Scottish (Higher and Advanced Higher), New South Wales's Higher School Certificate and the German Abitur.

Many students sit for the theory-oriented baccalauréat général which is divided into three streams of study, called séries. The série scientifique (S) is concerned with the natural sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, the série économique et sociale (ES) with economics, social sciences and mathematics, and the série littéraire (L) focuses on French, foreign languages, philosophy history-geography and the arts (as an option). However, these séries are not exactly specialisations and every bac-possessor has the right to enroll at any public university in the catchment area if this applies to the subject they wish to apply for. Students having followed the L series do not have enough scientific knowledge from their secondary education alone to succeed in science university courses, therefore some combinations of baccalauréats and university courses are very rare. In the same way, students having followed the S series do not have enough literary knowledge to succeed in language or literature courses in university.

There is also the baccalauréat technologique and baccalauréat professionnel. The former mixes theoretical and vocational training and prepares students for professional higher studies, whereas the latter focuses on vocational training and prepares students for a direct entry into the marketplace. Nowadays, most pupils are following these ones because they do not imply long studies and not many pupils from this kind of "baccalauréat" are going to university. That's why "baccalauréat général" is seen as more prestigious, and its pupils are formed to be the elite of tomorrow.

Higher education[edit]

Higher education in France is organized in three levels or grades which correspond to those of other European countries, facilitating international mobility:

In addition, the Licence and the Master are organized in semesters: 6 for the Licence and 4 for the Master.

These levels of study include various “parcours” or paths based on UE (Unités d’Enseignement or Modules), each worth a defined number of European credits (ECTS). A student accumulates these credits which are generally transferable between paths. A Licence is awarded once 180 ECTS have been obtained. A Master is awarded once 120 additional credits have been obtained.

Licence and Master degrees are offered within specific DOMAINES and carry a specific MENTION. SPECIALITES which are either research-oriented or professionally-oriented during the second year of the Master. There are also Professional Licences whose objective is immediate job integration. It is possible to later return to school through continuing education or to validate professional experience (through VAE, Validation des Acquis de l’Expérience[2]).

Higher education in France is divided between grandes écoles and public universities. Grandes écoles admit the graduates of the level Baccalauréat + 2 years of validated study (or sometimes directly after the Baccalauréat) whereas universities admit all graduates of the Baccalauréat.

A striking trait of French higher education, compared with other countries, is the small size and multiplicity of establishments, each specialized in a more or less broad spectrum of areas. A middle-sized French city, such as Grenoble or Nancy, may have 2 or 3 universities (focused on science or sociological studies), and also a number of engineering and other specialized higher education establishments. In Paris and its suburbs there are 13 universities, none of which is specialized in one area or another, and a large number of smaller institutions which are highly specialised.

It is not uncommon for graduate teaching programmes (master's degrees, the course part of PhD programmes etc.) to be operated in common by several institutions, allowing the institutions to present a larger variety of courses.

In engineering schools and the professional degrees of universities, a large share of the teaching staff is often made up of non-permanent professors; instead, part-time professors are hired to teach one only specific subject. These part-time professors are generally hired from neighbouring universities, research institutes, or industries.

Another original feature of the French higher education system is that a large share of the scientific research is carried out by research establishments such as CNRS or INSERM, which are not formally part of the universities. However, in most cases, the research units of those establishments are located inside universities (or other higher education establishments), and jointly operated by the research establishment and the university.

Tuition costs[edit]

Since higher education is funded by the state, the fees are very low; the tuition varies from €150 to €700 depending on the university and the different levels of education. (licence, master, doctorate). One can therefore get a Master's degree (in 5 years) for about €750-3,500. Additionally, students from low-income families can apply for scholarships, paying nominal sums for tuition or textbooks, and can receive a monthly stipend of up to €450 per month.

The tuition in public engineering schools is comparable to universities, albeit a little higher (around €700). However it can reach €7000 a year for private engineering schools, and some business schools, which are all private or partially private, charge up to €15000 a year.

Health insurance for students is free until the age of 20, so only the costs of living and books have to be added. After the age of 20 the health insurance for students costs €200 a year and cover most of the medical expenses.

Some public schools have other ways of gaining money. Some do not receive sufficient funds from the government for class trips and other extra activities, and so these schools may ask for a small (optional) entrance fee for new students.

Universities in France[edit]

The public universities in France are named after the big cities near which they are located, followed by a numeral if there are several. Paris, for example, has thirteen universities, labelled Paris I to XIII. Some of these are not in Paris itself, but in the suburbs. In addition, most of the universities have taken a more informal name which is usually that of a famous person or a particular place. Sometimes, it is also a way to honor a famous alumnus, for example the science university in Strasbourg is known as "Université Louis Pasteur" while its official name is "Université Strasbourg I".

The French system has undergone a reform, the Bologna process, which aims at creating European standards for university studies, most notably a similar time-frame everywhere, with three years devoted to the Bachelor's degree ("licence" in French), two for the Master's, and three for the doctorate. French universities have also adopted the ECTS credit system (for example, a licence is worth 180 credits). However the traditional curriculum based on end of semester examinations still remains in place in most universities. This double standard has added complexity to a system which also remains quite rigid. It is difficult to change a major during undergraduate studies without losing a semester or even a whole year. Students usually also have few course selection options once they enroll in a particular diploma.

France also hosts various branch colleges of foreign universities. These include Baruch College, the University of London Institute in Paris, Parsons Paris School of Art and Design and the American University of Paris.

Grandes écoles & CPGE[edit]

The Grandes écoles of France are higher education establishments. They are generally focused on a single subject area, such as engineering or business, have a moderate size, and are often quite selective in their admission of students. They are widely regarded as prestigious,[3][4] and traditionally have produced most of France's scientists and executives.

The classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE), widely known as prépas, is a prep course with the main goal of training students for enrollment in a Grande École. Admission to the CPGE is usually based on performance during the last two years of high school, called Première and Terminale. The CPGE programs are located within high schools but pertain to tertiary education, which means that each student must have successfully passed their Baccalauréat (or equivalent) to be admitted in CPGE. Each CPGE receives the files of hundreds of applicants worldwide[citation needed] every year during April and May, and selects its new students under its own criteria. A few CPGE programmes, mainly the private CPGEs (which account for 10% of CPGEs), also have an interview process or look at a student's involvement in the community.

The oldest CPGEs are the scientific ones, which can only be accessed by scientific Bacheliers. Scientific CPGE are called TSI ("Technology and Engineering Science"), MPSI ("Mathematics, Physics and Engineering Science"), PCSI ("Physics, Chemistry, and Engineering Science") or PTSI ("Physics, Technology, and Engineering Science") in the first year, MP ("Mathematics and Physics"), PSI ("Physics and Engineering Science"), PC ("Physics and Chemistry") or PT ("Physics and Technology") in the second year and BCPST ("Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Life and Earth Sciences").

First year CPGE students are called the "Math Sup"—or Hypotaupe—(Sup for "Classe de Mathématiques Supérieures", superior in French, meaning post-high school), and second years "Math Spé"—or Taupe—(Spés standing for "Classe de Mathématiques Spéciales", special in French). The students of these classes are called Taupins. Both the first and second year programmes include as much as sixteen hours of mathematics teaching per week, ten hours of physics, two hours of philosophy, two to four hours of (one or two) foreign languages teaching and two to three hours of minor options: either SI, Engineering Industrial Science or Theoretical Computer Science (including some programming using the Pascal or CaML programming languages, as a practical work). With this is added several hours of homework, which can rise as much as the official hours of class. A known joke among those students is that they are becoming moles for two years. Sometimes three. This is actually the origin of the nickname "taupe/taupin" (taupe being the French word for a mole).

The literary and humanities CPGEs have also their own nicknames, Hypokhâgne for the first year and Khâgne for the second year. The students are called the khâgneux. These classes prepare for schools such as the three Écoles Normales Supérieures, the Ecole des Chartes, and sometimes Sciences Po.

There are two kinds of Khâgnes. The Khâgne de Lettres is the most common, and focuses on philosophy, French literature, history and languages. The Khâgne de Lettres et Sciences Sociales (Literature and Social Sciences), otherwise called Khâgne B/L, also includes mathematics and socio-economic sciences in addition to those literary subjects.

There are also CPGE which are focused on economics (who prepare the admission in business schools). These are known as "Prépa EC" and are divided into two parts ("prépa EC spe mathematics", generally for those who graduated the baccalaureat S and "prépa EC spe éco", for those who were in the economics section in the lycée.). The most famous of those business schools are HEC Paris, ESSEC Business School and ESCP Europe which propose a Master degree and an MBA.

The students of CPGE are simultaneously enrolled in universities, and can rejoin the university track in case of failure of their grandes écoles ambitions or if they no longer wish to become engineers and feel unable to pass the Écoles Normales Supérieures competitive examinations. The ratio of students who fail to enter grandes écoles is low in the scientific and economics CPGE, but high in humanities, for the only Grandes Écoles aimed at in these classes are the Écoles Normales Supérieures.

The amount of work required of the students is exceptionally high. In addition to class time and homework, students spend several hours each week completing exams and 'colles' (very often written 'khôlles' to look like a Greek word, this way of writing being initially a khâgneux joke). The so-called 'colles' are unique to French academic education in CPGEs. They consist of oral examinations twice a week, in maths, physics, French and the foreign languages, usually English, German or Spanish. Students, usually in groups of three, spend an hour facing a professor alone in a room, answering questions and solving problems. In CPGE littéraires (humanities), the system of 'colles' is different; they are taken every quarter in every subject. Students have one hour to prepare a short presentation that takes the form of a French-style dissertation (a methodologically codified essay, typically structured in 3 parts: thesis, counter-thesis, and synthesis) in history, philosophy, etc. on a given topic, and that of a commentaire composé (a methodologically codified commentary) in literature and foreign languages; as for the Ancient Greek or Latin, they involve a translation and a commentary. The student then has 20 minutes to present his work to the teacher, who ends the session by asking some questions on the presentation and on the corresponding topic. 'Colles' are regarded as extremely stressful, particularly due to the high standards expected by the teachers, and the subsequent harshness that may be directed at students who do not perform adequately, but they are important insofar as they prepare the students, from the very first year, for the oral part of the competitive examination, reserved for the happy few who successfully pass the written part.

Recruitment of teachers[edit]

Decades ago, primary school teachers were educated in Ecoles Normales and secondary teachers recruited through the "Agrégation" examination. The situation has been diversified by the introduction in the 1950s of the CAPES examination for secondary teachers and in the 1990s by the institution of "Instituts Universitaires de Formation des Maîtres" (IUFM). University teachers are recruited by special commissions, and are divided between:


Religious instruction is not given by public schools (except for 6 to 18 year-old students in Alsace-Lorraine under the Concordat of 1801). Laïcité (secularism) is one of the main precepts of the French republic.

In a March 2004 ruling, the French government banned all "conspicuous religious symbols" from schools and other public institutions with the intent of preventing proselytisation and to foster a sense of tolerance among ethnic groups. Some religious groups showed their opposition, saying the law hindered the freedom of religion as protected by the French constitution.


The French Republic has 65 million inhabitants, living in the 22 regions of metropolitan France and four overseas departments (1.7 million). Despite the fact that the population is growing slightly (up 0.4% a year), the number and proportion of young people under 25 is falling. There are now fewer than 19 million young people in metropolitan France, or 32% of the total population, compared with 40% in the 1970s and 35% at the time of the 1990 census. France is seeing a slow aging of the population—less marked however than in other neighbouring countries (Germany and Italy), especially as the annual number of births is currently increasing slightly.

Eighteen million pupils and students, i.e. a quarter of the population, are in the education system. Of these, over 2 million are in higher education.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Validation des acquis de l'expérience (VAE)" (in French). 2011-05-02. Retrieved 2012-06-22. 
  3. ^ Understanding the "Grandes Ecoles", retrieved 2009-06-07 
  4. ^ "grande école". French to English translation by Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 11th Edition. Retrieved November 02, 2012.