Education in France

If you are moving to France with school age children one of your foremost concerns will doubtless be finding out about the education system and where the schools and colleges are in the vicinity of the property you are looking to buy. Here is a helpful guide to how education works in France.

It can be a worry if you are uprooting children to another country with a different language. The good news is the French school system is generally renowned for setting high standards for its students, as the French take education very seriously.

School is not compulsory in France until children are 6 years old. However, almost all 3 year old children are enrolled in the voluntary écoles maternelles.

The school day usually begins at 8.30 am and the younger children spend the morning playing educational games and being read stories.

Children aged 5-6 will spend their final year preparing for 'big' school (primaire) and it is the year homework is introduced in most schools. In state schools, children attend school from 8.30 am - 11.30 am and then from 1.30 pm to 4.30 pm from Monday to Saturday, with Wednesday and Saturday afternoons free. Variations occur according to the level of education and some schools have Wednesday off completely.

Many French schools have now abolished Saturday school, switching to a new 4-day system, with both Wednesdays and Saturdays free but shorter summer holidays. Check with the local shool what system they have adopted. The good news for working parents is that there are a number of government-funded child care options for after-school care.

Enrolment

Enrolment takes place at your local mairie, on the published dates (normally around March), and can be performed as soon as your child is 2 years old. At enrolment, you will be informed of the school catchment area you fall into. It is possible to choose another school, but it is often a long procedure.

Little Ones

Classes offered in the école maternelle roughly equal:

  • Early learning in the UK = French year 1
  • UK reception class = French year 2
  • UK year 1 = French year 3 (5-6 year olds)
  • The younger children are integrated into French school, the quicker they will pick up the language and fit in. They are less self-conscious than adults and will mix with local children without worrying too much about their language abilities. They soon learn rhymes, games and songs in another language, activities which form the foundations of a country's culture and traditions. If your child is already enrolled at école maternelle, they will automatically be enrolled at your local school.

    'Big' school

    In the école élementaire (6-11 year olds) the course of study may change according to the area you live in. Basically, children are taught to read and write, along with basic maths and a few less academic subjects.

    As children grow older, they are rigorously taught the grammatical rules of French language, including speaking and the use of tenses. They are usually tested at the end of each term and there is less hands-on work and lots of memorisation and repetition. Tradition mental arithmetic has always been regarded as important. The standard of education is very high and children are rewarded on results. Marks are usually out of 20, and if pupils get less than 10 they may have to repeat the year. By the final year of primary, most children receive over an hour of homework per school day and a lot more at weekends.

    Collège days

    From the 6ème to the 3ème (11-15 year olds), children attend a collège. Some may be older than 11 when they start due to the fact that they have retaken 1 or 2 years in primary school, which is more common in France than it is in the UK and less of a stigma.

    At collège, pupils have a different teacher for each subject, and classes generally last about 50 minutes. Maths and French are still the most important subjects and are still considered as the keys to a child's success.

    Practical subjects that we are used to in the UK, such as home economics, woodwork and drama, are not common in France where they concentrate on more academic subjects. Homework increases dramatically at this stage.

    As in the UK, students can leave school when they are 16, but approximately 94% go on to further education. At the end of the 3ème (aged 14-15), students take an examination known as the brevet. This is simply a knowledge test for the end of this section of the child's education. The choices made at this stage will affect the type of lycée to which your child will next progress.

    Lycée

    The final school years are seconde, première and terminale. The latter is when the final baccalauréat (bac) examination is taken. The bac is taken at a lycée at the age of 18 or 19 and is an automatic entrance qualification to French university.

    A lycée is either a sixth form college or a school with a sixth form. Competition is fierce, as there are fewer lycées than colleges in France and all ambitious students want to go to one. Some lycées in rural areas offer boarding from Mondays to Fridays because of travelling distance. Pupils are treated like university students, but monthly tests take place.

    There are 7 compulsory subjects plus physical education and 2 optional subjects. At the end of the première, there are written and oral French tests for bac candidates. For those who fail at the first attempt, it is possible to retake the bac.

    Students also have the option of working towards vocational certificates such as Certificate d'aptitude professionnelle (CAP) and Brévet d'enseignement professionnelle (BEP), which either lead to a job or a vocational technical bac.

  • The BEP certificate demonstrates that the student has the knowledge required in industrial, commercial, administrative or social sectors.
  • The CAP is a more specialised award for a skill such as carpentry or plumbing. Both include work placements with relevant companies as well as school lessons.
  • There are also new variations on the bac, updated options being available from the school.
  • University

    The only entrance requirement is normally a pass at the bac and universities must accept anyone who has passed their bac. As a result, there is generally high competition to enrol on the course of your choice at the university of your choice. University students don't pay tuition fees and the university runs from October until June.

    Going private

    Most students go into the government-supported public school system, but some go into private education where fees are not generally as high as in the UK. Private schools are often Catholic and most have Saturday mornings off (typically following a 5-day week like in the UK). Most public schools have up to 2 hours for lunch and school ends around 5pm or 6pm, whereas private schools tend to insist on pupils lunching at school, thus they have a shorter break, with the day ending at 4pm or 4.30pm.

    Holidays

    French schoolchildren and teachers have 5 holidays a year: 1 week at the end of October, 2 weeks at Christmas, 2 more in February and the whole of the summer in July and august. For a breakdown of school holidays according to area, see the Maison de la France website (www.franceguide.com) under 'practical information'.