The French school system

Nursery, primary and secondary school

The French school system

The French education system consists of various schooling types: Nursery school, primary school and secondary school. The following article gives you a complete overview of the French school system.

 Nursery and primary schooling

Nursery and primary schooling are divided into educational cycles (cycles pédagogiques). There are three cycles, each of three years’ duration, as follows:

1.  Cycle des Apprentissages Premiers, comprising the three sections of nursery school from the age of three to six (les petits, les moyens and les grands).

2.  Cycle des Apprentissages Fondamentaux, comprising the final year of nursery school and the first two years of primary school ( cours préparatoire/CP and cours élémentaire 1/CE1).

3.  Cycle des Approfondissements, including the primary school years cours élémentaire 2/CE2, cours moyen 1/CM1 and cours moyen 2/CM2.

Although each cycle normally lasts three years, it can be completed in two or four years, depending on a child’s progress. The decision whether a child is ready to progress to the next cycle is made jointly by a teachers’ council (conseil des maîtres du cycle), the school director, the pupil’s teachers and a psycho-pedagogical group. It’s no longer possible to fail a year and have to repeat it, as the new system allows pupils to progress at their own speed and doesn’t require them to repeat the same work as in the previous year. Parents are able to appeal against a school’s decision regarding progression to the next cycle. A school record book (livret scolaire) is maintained for each child during the three cycles.

 Nursery School

France has a long tradition of free, state-funded, nursery schools and has one of the best programmes in the world, although in many areas facilities are in short supply and you may need to enrol your child virtually at conception! (Normal enrolment takes place during the April before the start of the school year.)

Around 80 per cent of women with one child and around 50 per cent of those with three children work, and most make use of some form of nursery school. Around 30 per cent of children attend nursery school at the age of two, and virtually all by the time they’re four – a level of attendance matched only by Belgium.

Children between two months and three years can be left at a nursery or crèche (crèche), normally provided that both parents work. There are four kinds of crèche: ‘collective’ crèches (crèche collective) run by the local community, which are the most popular choice and therefore oversubscribed (only around 9 per cent of parents find places); ‘mini-crèches’ (mini-crèche), which are similar to collective crèches, only smaller; parental crèches (crèche parentale), organised by groups of parents and limited to 16 children; and family crèches (crèche familiale), where you leave your children at the home of an ‘maternal assistant’ (assistante maternelle). If you leave your child with an assistante maternelle, make sure that she’s accredited (agréée) by the Protection Maternelle et Infantile (PMI).  

Crèches are usually open between 07.00 and 19.00 on weekdays. The cost of a crèche collective varies according to the number of children accommodated, the parents’ salaries and the commune; an assistante maternelle costs a minimum of €22 per day. To find out about parental crèches, contact the Association des Collectifs Enfants Parents Professionels  (ACEPP, 01 44 73 85 20).

If you need to leave your children only occasionally (i.e. both parents don’t work full time), children between three months and six years old can be left for up to a day at a time at a halte-garderie or jardin d’enfants or a multi-accueil centre (limited to 20 children); prices vary but can be as low as €2 per hour. If your children need looking after for a short time before or after school, they can be accommodated by an accueil péri-scolaire or a centre de loisirs sans hébergement (minimum age three years), sometimes attached to a nursery school (see below).

If you can afford it, you can employ a child-minder (garde d’enfant à domicile) or nanny (nounou), who must however be declared to the authorities as a salaried employee. A child-minder or nanny must be paid at least the minimum wage. Note, however, that you can obtain a tax reduction against crèche or child-minding expenses.

Nursery schooling (école maternelle) from the age of two to six years is optional. However, a place is theoretically available in nursery school for every three-year-old whose parents request one. The place must be in a nursery school or an infant class (classe enfantine) in a primary school as close as possible to the child’s home. Priority is given to children living in underprivileged areas, children with two working parents, children from families with three or more young children, and children who live too far from school to go home for lunch.

Nursery school hours are generally from 08.30 or 09.00 to 11.30 or 12.00 and from 13.30 or 14.00 to 16.00 or 16.30, with the exception of Wednesdays, when there’s no school. Young children usually sleep for two hours after lunch. Children can attend for half a day, which many foreign parents prefer, particularly at first when a child doesn’t speak French. There’s usually a morning session on Saturdays, depending on the département, although this is optional. Children may have lunch at school canteen by arrangement. If parents are unable to collect their children when school is over, there’s usually a supervised nursery (garderie) until around 18.00 for a small fee.

Nursery school has traditionally been divided into three stages, according to age: les petits – from two to four years; les moyens – from four to five years; les grands – from five to six years. The three years of primary school from age three to six are included in the first of the new cycles pédagogiques and the last year is incorporated in the second cycle.

Nursery school is designed to introduce children to the social environment of school and to develop the basic skills of coordination. It encourages the development of self-awareness and provides an introduction to group activities. Exercises include arts and crafts (e.g. drawing, painting and pottery), music, educational games and perceptual activities, e.g. listening skills. During the final years, the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic are taught in preparation for primary school.

 Primary School

Primary school (école primaire) attendance is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 11 for 26 hours per week. Schools are established and maintained by local communities, although overall responsibility lies with the state.

Since the ‘80s, the primary school population has been decreasing, causing a reduction in the number of classes. In many rural areas this has led to the closure of schools and children having to travel to schools in neighbouring towns, or schools having to share teachers and equipment such as computers. There are several schemes in operation around the country to find better ways of organising primary education, particularly staff, half of whom are over 50 and reluctant to change. One scheme makes part-time use of graduates to assist teachers in an attempt to inject new blood into the system.

Each primary school has a director (directeur/directrice), who presides over the school council (conseil d’école). The council makes decisions regarding school regulations, communication between teachers and parents, school meals, after-school care (garderie), extra-curricular activities, security and hygiene. The school council usually meets twice a year and comprises a teachers’ committee (comité des maîtres), a parents’ committee (comité des parents), and representatives of the local education authority and municipality. The parents’ committee is the equivalent of the parent-teacher association (PTA) in many other countries.

The five years of primary school are structured as follows:

The subjects taught at primary school are divided into three main groups: French, history, geography and civic studies; mathematics, science and technology; physical education and sport, arts and crafts, and music. Minimum and maximum numbers of tuition hours are set for each group of subjects, up to a total of 26 hours per week. Teachers are allowed some flexibility in determining the hours so that they can place more emphasis on certain subjects for particular pupils, based on their strengths and weaknesses.

 Learning and consolidation of the basics

The main objectives of primary school are the learning and consolidation of the basics: reading, writing and mathematics. There are no examinations at the end of primary school, although a child’s primary record is forwarded to his secondary school. However, all children are expected to be able to read and write French by the end of their first term in primary school and are tested to see whether they’re up to standard. Primary school children have a notebook (cahier de texte) that they bring home each day. Parents sign the book to verify that a child has done his homework and teachers use it to convey messages to parents, e.g. special items a child requires for school the next day.

An hour’s foreign language tuition per week is included in primary school years CM1 and CM2. Most pupils (over 80 per cent) choose to learn English, although the French government is trying to encourage them to learn other foreign languages, including regional and immigrant languages, e.g. Arabic (all part of the losing battle to counteract the growing influence of the English language in France!).

Foreign language tuition is necessarily basic, and English-speaking parents shouldn’t expect it to improve their children’s English; in fact, they would be better off starting to learn a third language.

Homework is required from the start of primary school, and the transition from CE1 to CE2 can be a difficult one, children suddenly being subjected to increased pressure of work and having to undergo regular tests in all subjects.

 The discovery class

One of the unique aspects of French primary education is the ‘discovery class’ (classe de découverte), when pupils spend one to three weeks in a new environment. It may be held in the country (classe verte/classe de nature), mountains (classe de neige), by the sea (classe de mer) or even abroad. It isn’t a holiday camp and pupils follow their normal lessons, augmented by field trips and other special activities. The most popular discovery class is the skiing trip, which usually takes place in January or February. Financial assistance is available for parents who are unable to pay.

Secondary School

Secondary education is compulsory until the age of 16 and includes attendance at a collège until the age of 15. At 15, continuing education is decided by examination, students with the greatest academic aptitude going to a lycée (high school) until they’re 18 ( cycle long) to study for the baccalauréat and others following shortened studies (cycle court) in a vocational course.

These include the study for a brevet d’enseignement professionnel (BEP) or certificat d’aptitude professionnelle (CAP), which can lead to a baccalauréat professionnel, in a ‘professional’ lycée. At the end of collège, a certificate of competence is issued for particular skills, provided a certain level of language ability has also been attained. Students can repeat a year until they pass the final examination (diplôme national du brevet (DNB)), and few leave without a certificate.

The secondary school(s) your child may attend is primarily determined by where you live. In some rural areas there’s little or no choice, while in Paris and other cities there are usually a number of possibilities. As in all countries, the schools with the best reputations and exam results are the most popular and are therefore the most difficult to gain entry to. Parents should plan well ahead, particularly if they want a child to be accepted by a superior collège or lycée. Some collèges are attached to lycées, with collège students granted preferential entrance to the lycée.


At the age of 11 all children attend a collège (formerly known as a collège d’enseignement secondaire/CES), headed by a principal. Each collège has a school council (conseil d’établissement) composed of administrative staff and representatives of teachers, parents, students and the local authorities. Its task is to make recommendations regarding teaching and other matters of importance to the school community.

The school year is organised on a trimester basis (a period of three months equating to a term), students being evaluated by teachers (conseil des professeurs) at the end of each trimester. This evaluation is particularly important, as it determines the future studies open to a student and the type of baccalauréat he may take. Parents’ organisations (associations des parents/délégués des parents) also play an important role in determining a student’s future studies.

It’s common for school class councils (conseil de classes) to recommend that a student repeat a year of collège, although this can be done only with the parents’ permission. If parents don’t agree, they can appeal against the decision, although if they lose the appeal they must abide by the appeal commission’s decision.

A few collèges offer boarding (internat), although this isn’t as common as it used to be; arrangements are similar to those for an internat at a lycée.

The four years of collège education are numbered from the 6th to the 3rd and are divided into two, two-year cycles:

  Cycle d’Observation : The first two years of collège (sixth and fifth forms) are called the ‘observation’ cycle, where all students follow a common curriculum. General lessons total around 24 hours per week and include French, mathematics, a modern foreign language, history, geography, economics, civics, physics and chemistry, biology and geology, technology, artistic subjects, physical education and sport. An extra three hours (heure de soutien) of lessons are set each week in subjects selected by the collège (usually French, mathematics and a foreign language), depending on individual students’ needs. At the end of the fifth form students move to the orientation cycle (fourth form) or repeat the fifth form.

  Cycle d’Orientation: The last two years of collège (fourth and third forms) are called the ‘orientation cycle’ because students are allowed some choice of subjects and can thus begin to decide the future direction (orientation) of their studies. Students follow a common curriculum of around 25 hours of lessons a week in the same subjects as in the sixth and fifth forms. In addition to the core subjects, there are compulsory lessons in one second foreign language chosen from a list of options (option obligatoire), and optional classes (options facultatives) in a regional language or a classical language (i.e. Greek or Latin). Decisions regarding future studies are made at the end of the third form (at around the age of 14), when exams are taken to decide whether students go on to a lycée and sit the baccalauréat, attend a vocational lycée or take an apprenticeship.

Technology fourth and third forms offer a more practical educational approach for students suited to a less academic form of learning. Students who attain the age of 14 or 15 and haven’t reached the necessary level to move on to the fourth form are taught in small pre-vocational classes (Classes Préprofessionnelles de Niveau/CPPN). Here they receive extra lessons and special assistance, particularly in French and mathematics, in order to enable them to continue their studies. Others move into preparatory apprenticeship classes (Classes Préparatoires à l’Apprentissage/CPA).

At the end of their last year at collège, students sit a written examination (brevet des collèges) in French, mathematics and history/geography. The brevet is the entrance examination to a lycée, although failure doesn’t exclude students from going on to higher education.

Further reading

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