French Schools: Understanding The French Education System (2023)

French Schools: Understanding The French Education System (1)

Are you moving to France and wondering what to expect from the national school system? Or just curious about teaching in a country that birthed Voltaire, Monet, and the language of Molière?

We look at how the French education system works with intriguing comparisons to the US. You might be surprised at the differences and the occasional similarities.

Is the French education system any good?

Let’s start with a question every transatlantic parent will worry about: is the French school system good?

The short answer is yes.

Any country that produced 71 Nobel Prize winners (4th overall, globally) must be doing something right.

But the French school system is far from flawless. The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) places France just 26th of 41 assessed countries in 2023.

However, PISA looks at more than educational skills. For reading, literacy, math, and science, France scores a respectable 494, above the OECD average of 488.

For comparison, the US is ranked 8th globally and scores just one point higher (495) for core skills.

What’s differences will American students notice?

Ask an American in France about the French vs. American school systems, and several differences are regularly mentioned. It’s a mixed bag of stuff that matters and things that are simply surprising. We’ll let you decide which:

  • Schooling in France is highly centralized, and curriculums are consistent across départements.
  • There are no school board elections. Parents may join a group organizing school activities, like the annual kermesse (summer fete,) but have little influence on teaching.
  • French teachers teach – they are rarely involved in after-school activities.
  • Schools in France are strict, and the teacher-student relationship can be very formal.
  • School days are longer in France but include a full or half day of closure on Wednesdays.
  • There are no yellow school buses. Free or subsidized buses are typically provided up to 15 years old.
  • There is no dress code for any age.
  • French children have unnervingly neat handwriting drilled into them from a young age.
  • University education is essentially free in France.
French Schools: Understanding The French Education System (2)

The school system in France

Behind those headline differences, there is some info that every parent should know when moving from the US to France.

Education in France is compulsory from 3 to 16 years old. The law was changed in 2018, reducing the mandatory starting age from 6.

Public schools in France are free and secular. Stationery and other ancillary costs are out-of-pocket costs. Insurance is required for sports and school trips, and a copy of the certificate will be requested.

At primary level, you will find private, typically Catholic, schools. Private schools in France are cheap, around €300 annually. Many are in demand, with a higher teaching reputation.

(Video) French School System |

There are very few private schools at the high school level. Most are expensive international schools located in cities with large expatriate communities, notably Paris.

The choice of public schools is determined by geography, and parents have little say in which schools their children attend. Consequently, private tutoring is widespread.

Between 16-18, educational paths are chosen. The French school system is geared towards graduating with a baccalauréat (aka, le bac). It is broadly equivalent to a High School Diploma.

There are three academic and eight technical baccalauréat, in addition to vocational equivalents.

At 16, it is possible to opt for a course only offered at a preferred lycée. This explains why some teenagers suddenly develop a keen interest in Latin or ancient Greek history.

The four stages of schooling in France

There are four stages of education in the French education system, discounting post-18 education (university or vocational colleges):

École maternelle (preschool and kindergarten) – for children aged 3 to 6. This is typically provided at an école primaire and prepares kids for primary teaching.

École élémentaire (primary school) – The first stage of measured education for children aged 6 to 11. Children follow a teaching curriculum from this point, which includes a second language.

Collège(Middle School and Junior High) – pupils aged 11 to 15 follow a broad program of study.

Lycée (High School) – further secondary education until age 18, although students can leave at 16. The final two years teach narrow baccalauréat subjects.

Grading – France vs. American Education system

Another clear difference between French vs. American school systems is how grades are described.

The first three years of school (3-6) are known as the first cycle, or La Maternelle (kindergarten.) Equivalent to preschool/kindergarten in the US.

(Video) FRENCH SCHOOL SYSTEM EXPLAINED | how french school works | french school vocabulary 📚🏫🇫🇷

At the primary school level, grades are named rather than numbered. The terms loosely describe the level of learning, which starts with CP, or cours préparatoire (preparatory,) stretching to CM 2 (cours moyen) at age 11 (5th grade.)

For college-age upwards (11+,) numbers take over, but in reverse. The US counts up from 6th grade, and the French system counts down from 6ème. The final year (i.e., 12th grade) is terminale (final.)

French Schools: Understanding The French Education System (3)

Universities in France

A world-beating feature of the French education system is that public universities are free for residents and international students.

There are some annual admin fees, typically €170 (Undergraduate) and €243 (Master’s,) but that’s a drop in the ocean compared to university fees back home. Private universities in France are more aligned, averaging €10,000 per annum.

There are 140 universities in France, the EPSCP – Éstablissement public á caractére scientifique, culturel et professionnel (Public Establishments of a Scientific, Cultural or Professional Character).

83 are public institutions, and the remainder is elite Grands éstablissements public, like the illustrious Sorbonne.

Those numbers exclude the famous Grandes Écoles – uber-elite private universities akin to the Ivy League, with specialist teaching. For example, the Institut National Du Service Public (formerly the École Nationale d’Administration) teaches much of France’s political class.

French Schools: Understanding The French Education System (4)

French degrees vs. US degrees

The annual QS rankings place 13 French universities in the top 500 globally. However, this is eclipsed by US universities, with 12 in the world’s top 25 alone.

A French degree still opens doors. And since 2004, they’ve been easier to compare internationally, when France adopted Le système LMD: LicenceMastersDoctorate. This corresponds to Bachelor’s-Master’s-Doctorate.

In the past, you would have seen the qualifications tied to a baccalauréat. A Licence, for example, was Bac+3 (baccalauréat plus 3 years of further study.)

Now, the system allocates degree level and length of study. An L3 is a 3-year licence, equivalent to a Bachelor’s.

An L2 is equivalent to an associate degree in the US.

Master’s degrees are studied for one or two years: M1 or M2.

(Video) French school System - (in French with subtitles)

PhDs are broadly comparable to doctorates in the US but focused on training for research, incorporating other components in addition to a primary thesis.

France uses the Bologna Process, participating in the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS.) ECTS facilitates transfer and comparison between degrees issued by European universities.

How long is the school day in France?

Search online, and the most common observation is that school hours are longer in France.

A typical school day in France is from 08:30 to 16:30. Excluding breaks, a school week delivers 24 hours of lessons.

The biggest shock for many is that école élémentaires are usually closed on Wednesdays. And collége and lycée are typically closed on Wednesday afternoons. Efforts to remove this parenting inconvenience invariably hit a brick wall with teaching unions.

A local périscolaire (extracurricular) may be the solution for young children. It’s essentially a kid’s club, open when schools are closed. It is a lifeline for working parents with young children and is usually subsidized and inexpensive.

School vacations in France

Vacations are cherished in France. Parents may have generous workplace allowances but must contend with long school vacations totaling 16 weeks over 5 different periods. That’s in addition to jours fériés (public holidays) that fall outside vacations.

There are three teaching zones in France, each with different vacation start and end dates to stop the beaches from getting too crowded.

The school year in France begins on the 1st of September, following the 8-week vacances d’été (summer vacation.) Even for non-parents, La rentrée signifies the end of summer fun. Or perhaps a moment to sigh with relief.

Lunches in French Schools

We round out our guide to the French school system with the obligatory section about food, namely school lunches. The French love of food and dining etiquette begins at school.

Schoolchildren have 1-1.5 hours of lunch. Primary school children often pop home for a nap.

When they’re old enough, most children eat at the school canteen and enjoy hot, varied multi-course meals.

Lunches vary in price and level of local subsidy, usually €3 to €5. Quality is high, including starters, mains, cheese, and desserts. And wine (only kidding.)

(Video) Outstanding or outdated? The ins and outs of French education

Here’s a taster — don’t look if you’re hungry, as it all looks delicious!

There’s no junk food on the menu, except on the occasional Friday. Only those with special diets can bring their own lunch, with prior permission.

Final thoughts

US parents living in France will discover there are many, many subtle differences comparing French vs. American school systems. We’ve only scratched the surface. But hopefully, this guide to the French school system has answered your most burning questions and at least highlighted the major differences.

Discover more:

  • French classroom vocabulary and phrases
  • List of school subjects in French
  • French school vocabulary

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David Issokson

David Issokson is a lifelong language enthusiast. His head is swimming with words and sounds as he speaks over six languages. Of all the languages he speaks, he's the most passionate about French! David has helped hundreds of students to improve their French in his private online lessons. When procrastinating working on his site,, David enjoys his time skiing and hiking in Teton Valley, Idaho.

(Video) Understanding the French School System: Preschool to University

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What are the 3 stages of education in France called in French )? ›

It is divided into the three stages of primary education (enseignement primaire), secondary education (enseignement secondaire), and higher education (enseignement supérieur).

What is unique about French schools? ›

The children do not wear school uniforms. The school week is 24 hours long, split into manageable chunks throughout the five days of the working week. State education is free. Lunch break in France lasts between an hour-and-a-half to two hours.

Why France has the best education system? ›

Each year, public authorities invest massively in education and research. Education is the State's biggest budget item, representing over 20% of the budget. This policy has enabled France to provide students with one of the best systems of higher education in the world and the most accessible at the same time.

How does the French higher education system work? ›

In France, Higher Education is a double-component system: universities (“Université”) and Higher Schools (“Grandes Ecoles”) which offer scientific and management curricula. This system is inherited from the political and economic history of our country.

What is the French school curriculum? ›

The French Department of Education has developed a national curriculum, called the Common Foundation of Knowledge, Skills and Culture. This national curriculum identifies the knowledge, skills and attitudes essential for a student to be successful in his educational and personal life and as a future active citizen.

How is the French school system different from the US? ›

In France, the student-teacher relationship is much more formal than in the United States. While many American teachers are involved with students through coaching a sport or leading an extracurricular activity, students only have contact with teachers during class in France.

What is French education system known for? ›

The French education system consists of three stages: primary education, secondary education, and higher education. Most French elementary and secondary schools, as well as a large number of universities, are public institutions that have highly centralized administrations.

What problems does the French education system encounter? ›

Rather than being encouraged once having reached a passing level, students are criticised for not being better. Concurrently, there is no understanding of tiredness, poor mental health, or mental disorders, as students are not expected to ask for help and are turned down when they do.

Why is the French education system unequal? ›

According to the OECD, one of the main causes of these inequalities in France is the lack of social diversity in schools: pupils from poor backgrounds do not attend the same schools as those from richer backgrounds, and a pupil from a disadvantaged background has "only one chance in six to attend the same school" as a ...

What is school life like in France? ›

School routine

Generally speaking, the school day in France is from 8:30 until 4:30, but it varies depending on which area you live in. This is longer than the typical school day in the UK or America, but there is a longer lunch break and two other breaks during the day. There are 24 hours of lessons a week.

Who has the best education system in the world? ›

No. 5: France
  • United States. #1 in Education Rankings. No Change in Rank from 2021. ...
  • United Kingdom. #2 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Germany. #3 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Canada. #4 in Education Rankings. ...
  • France. #5 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Switzerland. #6 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Japan. #7 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Sweden. #8 in Education Rankings.

How are French schools different to English schools? ›

The French education system is designed to help pupils enter employment. Whereas the British education system is more centred on group work and pupils' wellbeing. School in France is considered a professional place where pupils strive to achieve success.

Is the French education system strict? ›

The French education system offers an inflexible approach to education; one where the teacher has absolute authority, tough grading and rote learning are the norm, and high academic standards are demanded in reading, writing and arithmetic. The French don't expect children to have 'fun' at school.

What is the French education system controlled by? ›

The Ministry for Education defines France's national educational curriculum. The Ministry is organized on a regional basis: 17 academic regions responsible for maintaining nationwide standards in education policy.

Is the French education system good? ›

“French schools have enjoyed success over the last thirty years with the average ability of pupils rising. Their skills have risen in certain areas like technology, but at the same our education system has real problems. “Too many pupils are failing at school.

Is the American or French school system harder? ›

I would say that the French assignments are harder than the American ones. My grades here are higher than in France and I work less than during past years. The other difference is in grading. Unlike the American system and its letters, every assignment in France is on a 20-point scale.

Is there homework in French schools? ›

French schools give students homework from a young age and this can be more substantial than your child may be used to.

Why are French school days so long? ›

School days are long – in part to fit in the two-hour lunchbreak which allows children to eat their meals without gulping them down, and to decompress after a busy morning conjugating verbs and learning about Charlemagne. READ ALSO Do French kids get the best school lunches in the world?

What is different in the grade levels system in USA and in France? ›

Note that this is the first major difference between French and English-language school names: The French count school years in descending order (11,10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and a final year called terminale). The US and UK count years in ascending order (2, 3, 4, and so on).

Can I go to school in France as an American? ›

If your program of study in France for under 90 days and you are a US citizen, you will not be required to apply for a student visa or complete the Etudes en France pre-consular application.

What do French students learn in school? ›

The curriculum is organized by subject – French, mathematics, history and geography, civic education, life and earth sciences, technology, art, art history, musical education, physical education, physics and chemistry, and two modern languages constitute the bulk of the coursework.

How many classes do French students have a day? ›

On average the weekly timetable includes 27 hours of lessons. In the morning the students usually receive 4 hours of lessons with a 15-minute break at 10:00. At midday the students usually have a 1 – 2 hour break.

What is the most difficult thing about learning French? ›

Without a doubt, the hardest part of learning French is the pronunciation. Written French and spoken French seem worlds apart at first, since there are a number of rules that dictate when certain letters are not pronounced, or words are suddenly squashed together.

Why do people oppose bilingual education? ›

Grooms finds the principal arguments of bilingual education's critics to be that it hinders students' ability to speak, read, and write in English, and even worse, to assimilate culturally.

What is the main problem with the education system? ›

Our schools are overcrowded.

A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14 percent of U.S. schools exceed capacity. At a time where children need more attention than ever to succeed, overcrowded classrooms are making it even tougher to learn and tougher still for teachers to be effective.

What does the French public think about inclusive education? ›

Results: The present analyses indicated that the public are less favourable to the inclusion of students with an intellectual disability in comparison with students with autism spectrum disorder, a sensory disability, specific learning disabilities or a motor disability.

Why cant you homeschool in France? ›

In particular, you will need to obtain authorization for your child to be homeschooled. This authorization will be granted for specific reasons. The decree of 15 February 2022 clarifies the new regulations. Education is compulsory for all children in France, French and foreign, from 3 to 16 years old.

Is religion taught in French schools? ›

Since schools in France are secular, there are no specific courses on religion. However, this does not mean that religion is absent from the curriculum.

How long is school lunch in France? ›

At school, the lunch break lasts between 90 minutes and 2 hours, during which a four-course meal is eaten while seated. French etiquette recommends that everyone starts eating at the same time and leaves the table only once everybody is finished.

Is the US education system the best? ›

The education system in US is considered the superior system in the world. This is because they offer a rich and wide range of choices for international students. The most enticing attribute of the US education system is its versatility.

Is the US education system the best in the world? ›

Several publications and organizations rank the world's best universities. Some also rank national systems of higher education. U.S. universities dominate these international rankings. The U.S. system of higher education ranks first in most cases, but not all.

Do they speak English in French schools? ›

Although many French children start their English education earlier, learning English does not become compulsory before the 6ème grade (at 11). Until 6ème schools may decide the language 'according to the available resources' (depending on their teachers' language skills).

Do schools in France teach in English? ›

There are now over 1,500 degree programs in France that are taught in English to ensure their accessibility for international students.

What are the disadvantages of studying in France? ›

Cons of studying in France
  • Like any place in the world, there are a few cons of studying in France as well.
  • Frustrating French Bureaucracy.
  • Language Barrier.
  • High cost of living even in nonprime cities.
  • Exorbitant Private Universities Fees.
Mar 23, 2022

Which country has the toughest education system? ›

Which are the hardest education systems in the world? Ans. The countries with the hardest and most difficult education systems include South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, etc.

Can you wear a cross in French schools? ›

The French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools bans wearing conspicuous religious symbols in French public (e.g., government-operated) primary and secondary schools.

Does France allow corporal punishment in schools? ›

As of 2023, only three (France, Germany and Japan) of seven G7 members including seven (three G7, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and South Korea) of the 20 G20 member states have banned the use of corporal punishment against children.

How is school organized in France? ›

Education in France is organized in a highly centralized manner, with many subdivisions. It is divided into the three stages of primary education (enseignement primaire), secondary education (enseignement secondaire), and higher education (enseignement supérieur).

What has France done to improve education? ›

In 2021, France has allocated more than one billion euros to education. At the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron recalled that the contemporary challenges arising from globalization, such as major migration or terrorism, can only be met through education.

What are the advantages of the French education system? ›

PROS of Studying in France
  • Inexpensive Education. Unlike many universities in the US for example, French universities offer affordable courses. ...
  • Low-Cost Transport and Accommodation. You will find the transportation costs of studying in France very comforting. ...
  • Opportunities Post Graduation in France.
Apr 18, 2022

What is the French curriculum? ›

The French Department of Education has developed a national curriculum, called the Common Foundation of Knowledge, Skills and Culture. This national curriculum identifies the knowledge, skills and attitudes essential for a student to be successful in his educational and personal life and as a future active citizen.

What are the school levels called in France? ›

In France, education is compulsory for children between the ages of three and 16 and consists of four cycles:
  • Preschool (écoles maternelles) – ages three to six.
  • Primary school (école élémentaire) – ages six to 11.
  • Middle school (collège) – ages 11 to 15.
  • High school (lycée) – ages 15 to 18.

What are the grade levels called in French? ›

Equivalent classes
AgeFrenchNorth American
9-10CM1 - Cours Moyen 1Grade 4
10-11CM2 - Cours Moyen 2Grade 5
11-12Collège SixièmeJunior High Grade 6
12-13CinquièmeGrade 7
10 more rows

What are the three stages of education? ›

Educational stages are subdivisions of formal learning, typically covering early childhood education, primary education, secondary education and tertiary education.

What are the three stage in French Revolution? ›

The Three Phases of the Revolution- the Moderate, the Radical, and the Conservative Phase- went on for 10 years: 1789-1799.

What is education like in France? ›

The French education system offers an inflexible approach to education; one where the teacher has absolute authority, tough grading and rote learning are the norm, and high academic standards are demanded in reading, writing and arithmetic. The French don't expect children to have 'fun' at school.

How long is a French school day? ›

Generally speaking, the school day in France is from 8:30 until 4:30, but it varies depending on which area you live in. This is longer than the typical school day in the UK or America, but there is a longer lunch break and two other breaks during the day. There are 24 hours of lessons a week.

What is a good GPA in France? ›

French GradeUS Grade
17–17.94 (A+/A)
16–16.93.7 (A–)
15–15.93.7 (A–)
14–14.93.5 (B+)
15 more rows

What grade would a 14 year old be in France? ›

La troisième (14 ans) = 9th grade (Year 10 UK).


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