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Understanding the French Education system

by | May 19, 2023

Education is highly valued in France, and the school system reflects this. In this article, we will take a detailed look at the school system in France. From the early years of education to the opportunities available for higher education. We will use simple words to help you understand the French Education system!

Early Education


In France, the crèche provides early childhood education and care for children aged 3 months to 3 years. It focuses on fostering a safe and nurturing environment while promoting early development, socialisation, and basic language skills.

There are different types of chrèches (collective, familliale, crèche d’entreprise) and we recommend asking around or even pre-inscriptions during your pregnancy.

Period: 3 months to age 3. Not mandatory

Helpful link: https://www.service-public.fr/particuliers/vosdroits/F607

Primary Education

École maternelle

At the age of 3, children transition from the crèche to école maternelle, which serves as a nursery school. This stage focuses on developing social skills, basic literacy, numeracy, and overall cognitive development.

Period: age 3 to age 6

Helpful link: https://www.education.gouv.fr/l-ecole-maternelle-11534

École élémentaire

From age 6 to approximately age 11, kids attend elementary school – called ‘école élémentaire’. Here, they learn important subjects like math, reading and writing in French, science, history, geography, and art.

Periode: age 6 to age 11

Helpful link: https://www.education.gouv.fr/l-ecole-elementaire-9668

Secondary Education

After primary education, students move on to secondary education which is divided into two stages: collège and lycée.

Collège (college)

The first stage after primary education is collège. Which covers four years of learning for students aged 11 to 15.

Collège includes a wide range of subjects. Such as mathematics, history, geography, sciences, languages, and physical education. Students also study a second foreign language.

The collège ends with a test called ‘le brevet’. Once passed students receive a national diploma ‘le brevet des collèges‘ and is also known as ‘Diplôme national du brevet’.

Period: age 11 to age 15

Helpful links: https://www.education.gouv.fr/le-college-4940 and https://www.education.gouv.fr/le-diplome-national-du-brevet-10613


High school in France is called ‘Lycée‘ and is the next and last stage of primary education. Lasting for three years.

Students can choose from different tracks, including general, technological, or vocational. The general track offers a diverse range of subjects, allowing students to specialise in areas of their interest.

Period: age 15 to age 18

Helpful link: https://www.education.gouv.fr/reussir-au-lycee/le-lycee-41642


Le baccalauréat or ‘BAC’ is a national examination taken at the end of lycée education. The content and difficulty level of the exam vary based on the chosen track.

Successful completion of the baccalauréat is a prerequisite for admission to universities in France.

Period: end of Lycée

Helpful link: https://www.education.gouv.fr/reussir-au-lycee/le-baccalaureat-general-10457

Higher Education

Following the completion of lycée and the compulsory journey of the French Education system. Students have now the option to pursue either a vocational diploma or an academic diploma based on their interests and career goals.

Vocational diploma

The DUT (diplôme universitaire de technologie) and BTS (brevet de technicien supérieur) are two-year degrees that focus on technology.

BTS courses are available in high schools, while DUT degrees are given by universities.

After completing a DUT or BTS, students can choose to study for one more year to earn a licence professionnelle, which is a professional bachelor’s degree.

This extra year helps them gain more knowledge and skills in a specific area and makes them more prepared for certain jobs.

La licence professionnelle is highly respected by employers in France and shows that students have advanced expertise in their chosen field.

The DUT and BTS degrees are good options for students who want practical training and knowledge in technology fields, and the possibility of earning a licence professionnelle offers additional career opportunities.

Academic diploma

When pursuing a academic diploma, you have three options of higher education in France: universities, grandes écoles and specialised institutes.

A) Université

France has numerous universities that provide academic programs across various disciplines. Universities offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees and serve as hubs for research and innovation.

B) Grandes écoles

Grandes écoles are prestigious higher education institutions. Known for their specialised programs in fields such as engineering, business, and administration.

Admission to grandes écoles is highly competitive, and they offer rigorous and focused education.

C) Specialised Institutes

France also houses specialised institutes that focus on specific areas of study, offering specialised training and education in fields such as art, design, hospitality, and more.

Overview school grades and US / UK equivalents

Pre-school grades ‘la maternelle’ or ‘école maternelle’: Niveau 1

  • Toute petite section ‘TPS’ (age 2)
  • Petite section ‘PS’ (age 3)
  • Moyenne section ‘MS’ (age 4)
  • Grande section ‘GS’ (age 5)

Elementary school grades – ‘le primaire’ or école élémentaire’: Niveau 2

  • CP or Cours préparatoire (age 6) = 1st Grade (Year 2 UK).
  • CE1 or Cours élémentaire 1re année (age 7) = 2nd grade (Year 3 UK).
  • CE2 or Cours élémentaire 2e année (age 8) = 3rd grade (Year 4 UK).
  • CM1 or Cours moyen 1re année (age 9) = 4th grade(Year 5 UK).
  • CM2 or Cours moyen 2e année (age 10) = 5th grade (Year 6 UK).

Middle school grades – ‘Collège‘: Niveau 3, stage 1

  • La sixième (age 11) = 6th grade (Year 7 UK).
  • La cinquième (age 12) = 7th grade (Year 8 UK).
  • La quatrième (age 13) = 8th grade (Year 9 UK).
  • La troisième (age 14) = 9th grade (Year 10 UK).

High school grades – ‘Lycée‘: Niveau 3, stage 2

  • La seconde (age 15) = 10th grade (Year 11 UK).
  • La première (age 16) = 11th grade (Year 12 UK).
  • La terminale (age 17) = 12th grade (Year 13 UK).

Legal obligation

Enrolling in school is compulsory, like most countries. But it’s important to know.

If your child is not enrolled in a school. At least without a valid reason, you will receive a formal notice to do so from ‘Dasen’.

Dasen is the abbreviation for Directeur académique des services de l’éducation nationale or Academic Director of the National Education Services.

If you do not respect the formal notice of Dasen to enroll your child in an educational institution, you risk 6 months in prison and a fine of €7,500.

Homeschooling without permission is also not allowed, and you risk a fine of €1,500.

Helpful link: https://www.service-public.fr/particuliers/vosdroits/F1898

In conclusion

In conclusion, the school / French Education system puts a lot of emphasis on doing well academically. And offers a structured education from early years to higher education.

Starting from the crèche and moving through primary and secondary education, students acquire essential knowledge and skills in various subjects.

The baccalauréat exam serves as a significant milestone, determining students’ eligibility for university.

Whether students choose to pursue vocational training or academic degrees. The French education system offers opportunities to meet their unique interests and goals.

A strong emphasis on practical education and specialised programs ensures that students are equipped with the necessary skills to succeed in their chosen fields.

Overall, the school system in France is characterised by its comprehensive curriculum, rigorous examinations, and wide range of educational options. It promotes a well-rounded education that prepares students for the challenges of the future and lifelong of learning and success.

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