Understanding the French Education System

An Overview of the System In France, the centralized public school system is under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education, Research, and Technology. It is for all intents and purposes the same everywhere, including overseas (some 410 overseas schools located in 125 different countries), except for minor differences due to local conditions or constraints.

Schooling is free and compulsory from 6 to 16 years of age. France has a population of 60 million, and there are currently about 12 ½ million children in its primary and secondary schools, with well over 800,000 teachers. These numbers include private schools, many of which are under contract with the state system, although some are not. About 14% of primary schools, and over 20% of secondary schools, are private. Approximately 95% of private schools are Catholic. Teachers must obtain national certification, and belong to a national corps of civil servants.

They are in general fiercely proud of the educational system as a national public service. One of the grievances leading to the most important teacher strike in many years, during the spring of 2003, was the fear that gradual decentralization was going to take place, after a proposal by the government to decentralize some non-teacher employees to local communities or regions. These figures obviously imply a tremendous organizational task, and the overall administration has jokingly been called the “mammoth.”

The Education Nationale is in fact the largest employer in France. Educational administration is organized into large regional districts, or académies, of which there are 28, including two overseas districts. Each académie is headed by a recteur, and has regional inspectors.

There is a national curriculum and national exams, although the exams are given in different versions in the various academies. The old saw about French students doing the same thing at the same time from Marseilles to Dunkirk is untrue. In philosophy and literature in particular, teachers have a certain freedom of choice of texts, and even in other subjects, organization varies considerably.

There are twelve years of schooling, and three years of optional preschool (maternelle) (see charts that follow). Primary school (primaire) lasts for five years, and students begin secondary schooling in the sixth year (U.S. grade 6). The sixth through ninth years are called collège (a confusing term to Anglo-Saxons), while the lycée level covers the last three years, culminating in the celebrated and dreaded baccalauréat examinations, which mark the end of secondary schooling.

The terms for class levels go from 11 (year l) to 1 (11th year), while the last year is called terminale. The preschool and primary grades, however, are most often referred to by their abbreviations; petite, moyenne and grande sections comprise the three years of preschool, while the first year of primary is called CP (cours préparatoire – preparatory grade – U.S. grade 1), followed by CE1 and CE2 (cours élémentaires – elementary grades – U.S. grades 2 and 3) and finally CM1 and CM2 (cours moyens – middle grades – U.S. grades 4 and 5).

Excerpted from the ©AAWE Guide to Education, Seventh Edition, 2006,  with permission from the Association of American Wives of Europeans (AAWE)  To order: http://www.aaweparis.org