Education: overview, structure, exams, costs

We move to France for wine and sunshine, bigger houses and gardens or that elusive 'quality of life'. Now, an increasing number are adding education to this list. 

With its emphasis learning, tests and discipline, French education is likened to education 'as it used to be' or akin to a UK private eduction – without the fees.

Another plus is that almost all children attend their local school so that you don't find that the bright or middle class pupils have been creamed off by the private sector. This also means that you don't have to jump through hoops to get your child into the 'right' secondary school! (More about private schools here)

The government spends one of the highest proportions of its budget on education in the OECD and schooling culminates in the baccalaureate – the bac – which some 62% of students achieve while a full 90% leave school with some kind of educational qualifications.

But while education and testing are rigorous, the system can be accused of being too top down with children expected to take in information rather than learning to question and analyse.

The emphasis on academic results also means that non-academic subjects such as music and art are largely absent – although they are well catered for outside the school system (see extra curricular).

That said, children who are less academically inclined can start taking vocational courses and apprenticeships from around the age of 14. 

Although the system is rigorous on testing, children are nevertheless expected to learn to work autonomously as they move through the system – there is far less handing in and marking of homework, for example, and by lycée they are expected to organise their own files and notes.

'Redoubling' – repeating a year – is an integral part of the system). It is sold as a 'privilege', in that children who have done badly but are not likely to benefit from repeating a year will not be invited to do so. However, the subject is under constant discussion with many questioning the value of redoubling which can leave children a couple of years older than the rest of their class.

Children can also be invited to skip a year. Remember, in France, children are put into classes according to the year of their birth from January - December, not September - August as in the UK so that children moving from the UK into the French system who were born between iSeptember and the end of December may find themselves skipping a year.

Finally, all state education is strictly secular – no religious teaching, assemblies or  Marys, Josephs or donkeys in the December school play. And no wearing religious symbols to school.

Class structures:
Ages 2-6: Maternelle (Nursery School)
Ages 6-11: Primaire (Primary School)
Ages 11-15: Collège (Lower Secondary)
Ages15-18: Lycée (Upper Secondary)

And in detail:

17-18: Terminale (T) 
16-17: Première (1ère) 
15-16: Seconde (2nde) 

14-15: Troisième (3e) 
13-14: Quatrième (4e ) 
12-13: Cinquième (5e) 
11-12: Sixième (6e)

10-11: Cours Moyen 1 (CM1) 
9-10: Cours Moyen 2 (CM2) 
8-9: Cours Elémentaire 2 (CE2) 
7-8: Cours Elémentaire 1 (CE1) 
6-7: Préparatoire (CP) 
5-6: Ecole Maternelle Grande Section 
4-5: Moyenne Section 
3-4: Petite Section


Children sit the Diplôme national du Brevet (DNB), more commonly known as the brevet, at the end of collège. This is very roughly equivalent to GCSEs, although  taken a year earlier. Marks are accorded according to both continuous assessment during the final two years of college as well as the final exams. The continuous assessment counts for a large portion of marks which means that children who have done continuously well may find that they have already passed their brevet before the final exams – the extra marks they get in the exam going towards better grades. 
10/20 is a pass, 12/20 a mention assez bien, 14/20 mention bien and 16/20 mention très bien.
Children who pass their brevet are entitled to go on to a lycée course of their choice.

Students sit their baccalauréat, or bac at the end of lycée: There are two types of bac – the academic bac general and the more vocational bac pro (professional). For a full breakdown of the many lycée options see here.

Administrative structure

Schools are run at regional level by a series of Académies, each headed by a recteur who is a government appointed civil servant and also de facto Chancellor of universities in the region.

School heads are: the Directeur at Primary School, the Principal at college and Proviseur at lycée. 

All schools have a School Council, comprising parent representatives, teachers, the education authorities and, at secondary schools, pupils. The council meets three times a year to discuss budgets, rules and regulations and discipline procedures. 

In secondary schools there is also a Conseil de classe, including pupil representatives elected by the pupils, which discusses teaching issues including how each pupil is progressing and whether or not a child should repeat a year. 

At secondary schools there is also a Conseil de discipline, which deals with serious disciplinary cases, involving the possible temporary or permanent exclusion of a child from the school. Again, both parents and pupils are represented on this committee.

NB: At collège, a child's attendance and behaviour is marked and included in their end of term report – and this mark is counts towards their brevet. There is much debate about the fairness or otherwise of  a child's behaviour influencing their academic results.


Although state schooling is free, there are a number of costs that the parents are expected to bear. In many cases there are grants available to help cover these costs – see education grants.  

Books: Course books are provided at prima ire and college but parents are expected to buy many of the manuals at lycée. Some regions subsidise book buying and there is generally a good sec on-hand market in manuals. (Remember to sell yours off when you have finished with them!) 
Tip: although you will be presented with a list of necessary manuels at the beginning of the school year, some teachers don't actually use them so it is worth finding out which these teachers are to avoid buying unnecessary books as they are quite expensive. 

Stationary: from college upwards you are expected to buy your child's stationary and you will receive a baffling and extensive list of what is needed at the beginning of each academic year.

Tip: if you can't face battling through the supermarkets looking for exactly the correct squared paper, you can give the list to a stationary shop and they will prepare it for you.
By lycée, children are generally expected to work out what stationary they need by themselves.

Clothing and equipment: you may also need to buy overalls for science,art.

Lunches: expect to pay around €5 per meal. NB your child can either eat in the school cantine or at home but there is generally no provision for children to bring packed lunches to school.

Transport: The costs of the school bus vary from region to region – in some areas it is free, in others highly subsidised and yet others it can be quite expensive. 

Insurance: all children must be insured to attend school and you have to provide a certificate at the beginning of the year. This is to cover both damage or injury to your child or their effects as well as damage or injury caused by them to others and to insure them for out of school trips. 
This might be covered by your home insurance so double check first. School insurance costs roughly around €30 per year per child. 

School trips: You may be expected to contribute towards day trips and longer, often overseas, visits and exchanges. Most schools have funds set aside to help parents who cannot afford such trips, see here, to ensure that children are not deprived for financial reasons.


1 comment:

  1. There are 3 types of Lycee. General, Professional and Apprentiship. They higher the pass mark then more likely you are to get into a General, if not they you go to a Professional or an Apprenticeship Lycee. The General Lycees seem to be able to choose the pass mark each year dependant on how clever the children are in that year.


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