In the French public education system your child’s schooling is free from nursery school through to 16, which is the minimum age for mandatory schooling. In the state system your child will go to the nearest school to where you live. Other school options in France are private schools, bilingual schools and international schools where English and French are of equal importance. We discuss these below, but first we look at the public education system in France, which is well respected on a national and international level.
The French difference
The French school system focuses on structured learning, with a view to attaining certain standards and achieving good exam results. British parents can find there is an absence of creativity and self-expression compared to more liberal education systems.
Repeating a year
One effect of the rigid approach to learning is that a child can get left behind, or find themselves ahead of their group and bored. There is no shame in repeating a year in France, it is not unusual, sometimes it is because a child hasn’t mastered enough of what is expected from that year, or perhaps they are emotionally not mature enough for the next class. Equally, if the school thinks it would benefit a child, they can skip a year. About 30% of children repeat a year at some stage in their schooling.
In France there is very little in the way of extra-curricular activities at school – sport, music, arts all take place outside of school. But there are many local associations and clubs that cater to these activities. There is no school on Wednesday afternoon or Saturdays so these are the key days for children’s activities.
There are no school uniforms in France, and schools are secular – no religious instruction, no morning worship, no mention of religion really.
The school year
The school year starts at the beginning of September (called la rentrée). There are three terms/semesters per year. Summer holidays are about 2 months, there are 2 weeks at Christmas and Easter, as well as half-terms.
Most schools have a child-minding service before and after school for working parents – la garderie. There is usually homework to do in the evenings, from an early age, and for older kids this can be a couple of hours of work.
Enrolling your child
The first step to get your child enrolled in a French school is to go and talk to the mairie (town hall). If you are thinking about the beginning of the school year in September, which is the ideal time to join a school, you should organise this by June of that year.
Up to Primary School a child has to go to the school in the commune where they live, or the nearest one. For college or lycée you can choose and should contact the school direct. Bear in mind that the school bus will only cover the area served by that school.
Nursery school – Ecole maternelle – up to 6 years old
French schools start with the école maternelle (nursery school). This is up to the age of 6 and the age it starts depends on how many places are available at the beginning of the school year, but generally at 3 years of age.
Typical hours would be 9am-12pm and 1.30-4.30pm, Monday to Friday, except Wednesday afternoon when there is no school. Lunch is provided by the school for about 3-4 euros per day, or you can take your child out of school for lunch.
You can introduce your child to school gently by starting with mornings only.
After lunch in nursery school there is a sleep for at least the younger children.
Nursery school is an excellent way for children from a young age to socialise, integrate and quickly learn the language. If you introduce a non-French-speaking child to nursery school, for a few days they will not be able to communicate, but then amazing things happen. Soon they will have friends and love going to school.
French nursery school is all about play, fun, art, music and group activities, and it is only at the end that basic reading, writing and math skills are introduced, in preparation for the step up to Primary School.
Reading is deliberately not taught any earlier than 6 years old. When they do start to read, it can come very quickly, without the struggles and blockages associated with learning at a younger age.
Primary school – Ecole primaire/élémentaire – 6 to 11
Primary school in France goes from 6 to 11 years old, and equates to years 3 to 6 in the UK and grades 1 to 5 in the US.
Which year you go into is determined by the calendar year you were born in, from January 1 to December 31. So a child born between 1 January and 31 December, 2011 will start the school year in September 2017 in the first year of primary school, called CP.
The minimum aim of primary school in France is that every child leave literate and numerate. So there is a lot of emphasis on these skills rather than other parts of the curriculum like arts, crafts and self-expression.
There are no exams at primary school, there are evaluations to make sure children have reached the milestones for their class.
A foreign child entering the French system at primary school, who doesn’t speak French, will be treated on a case-by-case basis. Typically the child will be entered into a school year below their age so they can learn the language before being challenged by schoolwork, and once they are up to speed with French they will be moved up to the correct year for their age.
At primary school each class has one teacher for all subjects. Schools in rural areas, where populations are more spread out, often have combined school years in one class. The same teacher will teach two years. It just depends on how many children there are in the area. A school will not have the funding to take on an extra teacher to teach smaller class numbers, so combining classes is the only way. In really sparsely populated areas there could be more than two school years in one class.
Communicating with the school
There will typically be a class meeting at the beginning of the school year: not necessarily a parent-teacher session where you can discuss your child individually, more the teacher telling you what is going to be done in the year to come, and where you can ask questions. There is also a parents’ committee voted by parents each year, and this acts as the interface between you and the school . You can of course request to see your child’s teacher, head-teacher, or both, by appointment after school.
There will be a specific list of materials needed for each year – exercise books, pens, equipment, etc. Every summer, every supermarket has an aisle dedicated to this return to school in September, it’s called la rentrée. The school will give you the list and you will be one of many parents ticking off items in the store and trying to remember the difference between a compass and a protractor.
Middle school – Collège – 11 to 15
Middle school in France is called collège. There is no entrance exam for collège, and it is again free. Collège consists of 4 years, from ages 11/12 to 14/15.
A foreign child arriving in collège will generally find a warm welcome, much curiosity and other children practising their English on them. At this age learning the language is a little slower than at primary school but still lightning fast compared to an adult brain.
Collège gives children a general education, in preparation for specialising. Tests are frequent, homework more involved. Marks are out of 20 and there is a requirement to get at least 10 as an average. Failing this may mean repeating the year, which is not uncommon in France and there is no stigma attached to this.
Subjects covered in collège are French, mathematics, history, geography, civics, some science, a foreign language, technology, art/music, and physical education.
At the end of collège children sit an exam called the brevet, testing them on French, mathematics and history or geography. They also need to have passed during the year in computer studies and a foreign language. The pass mark is 10 out of 20, and as there is also a continuous assessment element to the brevet over the last year of college, a child may already have passed before sitting the exam.
After collège, a child can end their schooling at 16. Most carry on to lycée, either a general lycée or if they are not academic there is the lycée profesionnel, which gives vocational training for a job or trade.
High School – Lycée – 15 to 18
The lycée is the equivalent of high school and covers the last 3 years of education leading to the baccalauréat. In the last year there is a choice of 3 ‘series’ to specialise in: literary studies, economic and social studies, and sciences. Of these, sciences is regarded as the toughest.
The lycée and baccalauréat system is complicated and confusing to explain, and as it is highly unlikely you will be moving to France with lycée-age children, it is not covered here.
French universities are not as straightforward as in other countries. There are 80 or so normal universities in France, and then there are the Grandes Ecoles. These are elite schools with competitive entrance exams. And to get in you stay at lycée for two additional years in preparation, so that when you enter it is at the same level as a third-year university undergraduate. The Grandes Ecoles traditionally produce the civil servants, politicians and managers that go on to run the country. The top Grandes Ecoles, like Polytechnique, rank in the same league as Harvard, MIT and Oxford/Cambridge.
A normal state university is generally underfunded but does a good job anyway. Fees are very low, only about 200 euros per year. French university is open to anyone with the baccalauréat. The regular 3-year university degree is called a licence. Then there is the Masters after two more years, and after at least 8 years of study the Doctorate.
What type of school to choose – state, private, or international
The big advantage of a normal state school is that your child will learn French quickly and integrate with local friends who are unlikely to move away.
The younger the child, the easier will be the transition to being a bi-lingual child with easy friendships. Older children will generally find it harder, not just the fact of learning a new language, but having to attain and maintain grades in that language. French schooling is quite rigorous and there may be no English language support available.
State private school
There are private schools that are contracted to the state, and with nominal fees of a few hundred euros a year. Facilities are usually better and class sizes smaller. Often there is the possibility of boarding during the week. These schools have to follow the same curriculum as a state school.
Fully private schools
Private schools that are not under contract with the state are free to teach their own curriculum, but must still be registered with the Ministry of Education. These schools are often Catholic and being private are allowed to include religious instruction. They will include what state schools largely omit – sport, art, culture.
These are state schools that have a bi-lingual section. That means English is used in some classes. The student body will be mostly French.
An international school may or may not suit your situation. First of all they are the most expensive option, at approximately 15,000 euros per year. Teaching is in English and French. Or it may be that other languages are offered instead of English, depending on how much demand there is.
An international school would be a good option if you are coming to France for a limited time. Your child will learn French, but with minimum disruption to their education.
Standards are high at international schools, and graduates leave with an International Baccalaureate (IB) or depending on the school it may also be possible to get the same qualifications as at home (A-levels, SATs).
The IB is well regarded, as it is a tough course, with 6 subjects studied. Students with an IB do not tend to struggle at university.
Class sizes are smaller at an international school and facilities usually better.
The cons of an international school are that they appeal to families who are in the country for a work assignment of one or two years, and therefore your children may lose friends as families move on. On the other hand, there are also French children who live here full time.
Home schooling is legal in France, subject to inspection by a school inspector and your local mairie. But your child would lose out on learning the language, integrating into French society and culture, and making friends.