The complete guide to the French school system

What is school like in France? It’s a question you might find yourself pondering as you study French and get to know more about French culture.

In some ways, French school is like school in many places in the world, including the US and UK – but there are a number of key differences, including a few that give some interesting insights into French culture as a whole.

Explaining just about any country’s education system is a complex task, since there are so many different aspects to look at. The French education system in particular is known for being complicated when it comes to things like different categories and types of diplomas and tests.

Hopefully, this article will give you a good overview and some important takeaways about school in France and the French school system.

French school vocabulary

Before we start discussing the French education system, there are some words it might be helpful to know – or words you might already be wondering how to say. How to say “school” in French, for example.

When you think about it, there’s a lot of vocabulary related to school, from school supplies, to types of exams, to traditions. But when talking or learning about school in France, here are a few that are especially useful. 

Note that you’ll find additional vocabulary, including school grades/levels, diplomas, and more, in the sections of this article that focus on them.

l’école – school. This is a general word for school in French, but as you’ll see in later sections of this article, schools of different levels have different names, just as they do in many other places (nursery school, high school, etc.).

un professeur/une professeur(e) (often shortened to prof)– teacher. This is the general word for “teacher” in French. It used to be exclusively masculine, even if the teacher was a woman. But in recent decades, it’s become accepted to use it with a feminine article when talking about a female teacher. In Canadian French especially, to people may add an “e” to the end when referring to a female teacher, as well: une professeure.

In France, teachers are usually referred to by their first names until collège (middle school/secondary school). Then, they’re referred to as Monsieur or Madame [Last name].

un maître/une maîtresse – a teacher in preschool/elementary school. Teachers of younger kids are usually referred to this way. Their students usually refer to, or, in preschool/nursery school, call them, by their first name.  By elementary school, to be polite, they will usually just call them Maître or Maîtresse when addressing them directly, but will still use their first name, for instance, to say who their teacher is.

un instituteur/une institutrice – a more formal, less common term for an elementary/primary school teacher.

un directeur/une directrice – the principal/headmaster or headmistress of a school.

la rentrée – back to school. This can refer to the first day back at school or the general back-to-school period. La rentrée is also used as a general term for a return to the routine after summer vacation, so you will see it in other contexts, as well.

la cantine – the cafeteria or canteen/dining hall.

les devoirs – homework. If you’re in French class, you probably already know this word quite well!

la récréation/la récré – recess.

l’étude – study hall.

les notes – grades or marks.

la classe – class/classroom.

un cours – a class (for middle and high school/secondary school).

un examen – a test.

une interrogation (often called une interro) – a quiz.

faire l’école buissonnière – to skip school.

sécher un cours – to skip a class.

le centre de loisirs –after school program/vacation program. This usually includes activities as well as free playtime, and sometimes a study hall option or sports options.  During school vacations, the centre de loisirs is a sort of (optional) day camp for preschool and elementary school kids.

We’ll cover many other French school vocabulary words throughout this article. You can also find more school-related French words here.

Basic facts about the French school system

A person's hands carefully hold a ruler and a pen on a notebook.

Public (state) education in France is compulsory for children aged 3-16.

Until recently, it was 6-16, but that changed in 2019. So, if you’re reading an older source on French education, keep that in mind.

Another big change is that, as of the 2020-2021 school year, people aged 16-18 who have stopped their studies are required to be employed or involved in an internship or volunteer work.

Public (state) and university education in France are free or extremely affordable. 

All state-run primary and secondary education in France is free. This includes la maternelle (preschool/nursery school). People from countries where  preschools/nursery schools are private and expensive will probably be impressed by this (I know I was, not to mention grateful).

In fact, one of the principles of education in France seems to be affordability. Even universities, which do charge tuition, only charge a few hundred to a few thousand euros per year. There are some universities that cost more, but these tend to be private ones that, interestingly enough, aren’t usually considered as prestigious.

There aren’t really “good” and “bad” public (state) schools in France.

Some French high/secondary schools are known for their high level of academic achievement and for carefully selecting students (this is similar to the high school system in New York City, for those familiar with it). Or there might be schools where outside problems like crime rate or poverty contribute to the general environment.

But generally speaking, because of the strict way school is viewed, the rigorously upheld national curriculum, and the fact that in the early years of their careers, teachers are usually required to teach in other French regions besides their native ones, French schools are fairly uniform when it comes to their quality. Again, there can be some exceptions, but the actual level of education in public schools tends to be perceived as the same, at least in my experience.

A major principle of French public (state) schools is la laïcité (separation of church and state).

Students aren’t allowed to wear religious symbols (although a very subtle one, like a small necklace pendant, may be tolerated) or clothing, and no religious holidays are celebrated or even particularly discussed at school.

In some cases, there may be a school celebration or play around Christmastime, but even this tends to be referred to as an “end-of-year” celebration. That said, in this predominately Christian country, some schools may put up a small Christmas tree, and classes and after school activities may involve Christmas-themed coloring pages or crafts, but it’s never particularly overt and these decorations never feature religious symbols like angels, a manger/creche, etc.

Although education is compulsory until age 16 in France, an estimated 64% of students stay in school until age 18.

A little over 50% of them will continue to university or an apprenticeship.  

More than 80% of schools in France are publics (public schools (US)/state schools (UK)).

Most of the remaining 20% of schools in France are private schools (public schools for our UK readers). A majority of them are run by the Catholic church, but they tend not to be intensely religious. One of the reasons for this is that French private schools can be sous contrat – that is, affiliated with the state, including for the payment of their teachers’ salaries, if they follow certain rules, like adhering to the national curriculum. 

Homeschooling (usually called le homeschooling) is legal in France, but very rare.

Only about 0.3% of school-aged kids are homeschooled here.

There is a standard national curriculum for every grade/level.

Grades/Notes in French public school are based on a maximum of 20 points.

So if a student gets a 20 on a test or assignment, they got a perfect score.  10/20 is usually considered at least a passing grade.

Starting as early as CP (1st grade/1st year), it’s common for French students to have to memorize poems and recite them in front of the class.

Each student may have to recite a poem, or a student might be randomly called upon to do it.  It’s kind of terrifying, but it also leads to many French people knowing at least a few lines of famous poems by heart.

School supplies are very standardized and important.

One of the strangest things for me when I started teaching in French elementary schools is how each child has the same kind of supplies (even though some of these, like backpacks and folders, can be personalized), and how they use them in the same way.

For instance, if you ask an elementary school child to write something down, they’ll often take out an ink pen and make a neat line with a ruler to head their paper. Students have many different kinds of notebooks (a school planner, a notebook of poems and texts to memorize, etc.) and folders, and overall are encouraged to be very organized and precise.

French students still learn cursive.

In certain places, like the US, many schools have stopped teaching cursive, but in French, it’s still taught – even from kindergarten/year 1 (grande section). In fact, handwriting is a big part of French learning.

The types of French schools

There are five types of French schools, although some may be combined, especially in areas with a small population.

Note that kindergarten/year 1 is grouped with preschool/nursery school, and not elementary school, like it usually is in the US.

The five types of French schools are:

  • la maternelle (preschool and kindergarten/nursery school and year 1) for students age 3-6
  • l’école élémentaire (elementary school/primary school) for students age 6-11
  • le collège (middle school (including ninth grade)/secondary school) for students age 11-16
  • le lycée (high school/secondary school) for students age 16-18
  • l’université, often called la fac (short for la faculté) (university/college) for students 18 and up

These schools cover three main categories of education:

  • l’école primaire (primary school). This includes la maternelle and l’école élémentaire.
  • l’école secondaire (secondary school). This includes le collège and le lycée.
  • l’enseignement supérieur (higher education) – l’université.

We’ll look at the equivalents of each grade/level a little further on.

The French school year, week, and day

A class of young children wearing backpacks walks somewhere. We see them from the back.

The French school year starts in early September and usually finishes around the first week of July.

Up to university level, students have a two-week break every six weeks or so.

There’s one in mid-October to early November (les vacances de la Toussaint), one in mid-December to early January (les vacances de fin d’année), one in February (les vacances de février), and one in March or April (les vacances de printemps). Additionally, there is a two-month summer break (les vacances d’été / les grandes vacances).

There are also a lot of holidays on the French calendar, including three in the month of May alone. Add to this the very likely possibility that there could be a teacher strike or a strike that affects teachers’ ability to come to the school (like a transportation strike, for instance), a teacher being sick and the school not being able to find a substitute, teacher workdays, and so on, and you will discover that while kids in French schools work hard, they do, luckily, get a pretty decent amount of time off.

French students from maternelle through lycée go to school five days a week (Monday-Friday).

School times and schedules can vary a bit, especially as kids get older, but generally speaking, school starts between 8 and 9am and ends anywhere from 3-4:30pm. Kids might stay at an after-school program until as late as 6:30pm.

If you’re reading or watching something that dates to pre-2008, you may notice that the school schedule was a bit different. Before that time, schools were open on Wednesday mornings, and then also also on Saturday mornings.

The idea was to give kids a bit of a mid-week break, as well as time to pursue extracurricular activities (more on that in a bit). But as a working parent, I cannot imagine how complicated it must have been…or how annoying to have to wake up early on a Saturday to get your kid to school for a few hours…not to mention to have to have part of your Saturday blocked.  Fortunately, that’s no longer the case today.

There are no longer classes on Saturday mornings, but typically, maternelles and écoles élémentaires still only offer classes on Wednesday mornings until lunchtime. Parents can sign students up for after school programs and activities that allow them to stay at the school for the typical amount of time if they prefer, or if they need to due to work.

French school life

Here are some important things to know about school life in France:

French students in public (state) schools don’t wear uniforms.

French students in public (state) schools don’t have an equivalent of something like the Pledge of Allegiance, morning prayer, etc.

Most French public (state) schools don’t allow students to bring their lunch from home.

Students either eat at the la cantine (cafeteria/canteen) or go home for the allotted lunchtime (usually an hour or two).

Meals served in French schools are usually considered decent to good quality.

I’ve heard that in a way, meals served in French schoools are a form of education, exposing students to many traditional French dishes. As early as la maternelle, children eating in the school cafeteria also start learning things like how to cut their meat, how to drink from a real glass (as opposed to a plastic one), etc. These are some of the reasons why my son eats at the school cantine – he gets to try traditional French meals it may not occur to me to make at home, and he reviews and brushes up on his table manners.

French schools aren’t closely tied with extracurricular activities or dances. 

In places like the US, school is a huge part of students’ lives, especially as they get older. Many activities, including music, sports, debate club, the school newspaper, yearbook, and so  on, are organized through the school and take place on the school grounds. But this isn’t the case in France.

For the most part, in France, school is school. You will have physical education or art or music classes during the day, but if you want to do more than that, you’ll have to sign up with an outside after-school program.

This also means there isn’t a sense of “school spirit” or “the big game” that you see in a lot of American TV shows (and experience in real life if you go to an American school). French schools also don’t organize school dances or have yearbooks, or even graduation ceremonies in most cases.  The idea behind this, I think, is that school is about academics: the French are very serious about students being there to learn and do their work.   

French education and activities are as affordable as possible.

Each year, based on their income tax, families are given a tarif familial. This determines how much they’re charged for things like school lunches, field trips (although some of these are free) and other activities, supplies, etc. 

Is bullying an issue in French schools?

A teenage boy in a blue hoodie holds his hands over his face and appears to be upset or crying.

Bullying exists in French schools but, in a way, on a lesser scale than in some other places.

Bullying (le harcèlement) does, unfortunately, happen in French schools. But it’s not the sort of systematic thing it is in the US, where the bully is a stock character in every high school-set TV show, and the results of real-life bullying often make news headlines.

This said, there have been bullying-related suicides in France, and there are anti-bullying campaigns and helplines. The issue is addressed by school administration. But most French people I know don’t seem to have had problems with bullying (or to have been bullies) when they were in school, and it doesn’t seem like the sort of shared, expected experience that it does in countries like the US.

It’s fascinating to me that there is no exact French word or phrase for “school bully”. I think that this shows two important things about French culture:

1. It’s a bit tougher, maybe some would say more “tough love”, than the culture in places like America. For instance, while a bully would be the only one to make fun of you for not getting a good grade, or generally being “stupid”, many French teachers will point out a student’s inadequacies (at least academically), and friends and acquaintances will liberally correct each other. When I taught in French elementary schools, this was pretty shocking to me.

2. A more old-school “stiff upper lip” mentality still predominates. This is changing, as people become more aware of the effects of bullying and as victims speak out and express themselves on social media and elsewhere. But as with many problems that cause strong emotions or difficult, complex feelings, the idea in French culture is to try to accept it and certainly not to air it out in public.

This said, these are general observations, at a large-scale level. Many parents of kids who are being bullied will take action of some kind, whether that’s confronting the kid or their parents themselves (although schools discourage this), talking to school administrators, or at least considering getting their child psychological help if it’s needed (though therapy is fairly rare and often thought of as strange or unnecessary in mainstream French culture). 

What is each year (level) of school called in French?

Most French students are in school for fifteen years (not counting university) – from petite section at age 3, to terminale at age 18.

Here are the French school grades/levels and their equivalents in the US and UK. For anyone unfamiliar with these school systems, I’ve also included the age a typical student would be in each grade/level.

SchoolFrench levelUS gradeUK levelAge
maternellepetite sectionpreschool year 2nursery3-4
maternellemoyenne sectionpre-kreception4-5
maternellegrande sectionkindergartenyear 15-6
école élémentaireCP1st gradeyear 26-7
école élémentaireCE12nd gradeyear 37-8
école élémentaireCE23rd gradeyear 48-9
école élémentaireCM14th gradeyear 59-10
école élémentaireCM25th gradeyear 610-11
collège6eme6th gradeyear 711-12
collège5eme7th gradeyear 812-13
collège4eme8th gradeyear 913-14
collège3eme9th grade/freshmanyear 1014-15
lycée2eme10th grade/sophomoreyear 1115-16
lycée1ere11th grade/junioryear 1216-17
lycéeterminale12th grade/senioryear 1317-18

Note that there are three types of French lycée (high school/secondary school). These are:

le lycée général – the typical high school you might be thinking of, where students take academic classes in many different subjects.

This said, students in these schools choose a path of study based on their major areas of interest/what they want to major in in university. So some will have more emphasis on math courses, while for others it will be foreign languages or literature, etc. The system is a bit complicated to us outsiders, especially since there are subdivisions. This Frenchman’s account of being a student at a typical French lycée gives some interesting insights. And as he advises, the Wikipedia entry on the baccalauréat  exam also provides some helpful information. The French entry goes into even further detail.

le lycée technique/lycée technologique – This high school (or sometimes just a high school curriculum) focuses on applied technical or technological studies alongside academic ones. Areas of study include laboratory sciences, applied arts, management, and hospitality industry studies.

le lycée professionnel – vocational school. That is, a school that mainly focuses on preparing and teaching students who plan to go to work directly and don’t need or want to pursue their studies into university. Subjects include construction-related work, agriculture, and clerical positions.

Students at all three types of lycée will have to take some kind of exit exam, usually a variant of le baccalauréat. This will determine if they can go to university (and which university will accept them), or, in the case of some lycée professionnel exit exams, like the CAP (certificat d’aptitude professionnelle), if they’re qualified to do a particular job or set of jobs.

What to know about French universities

We see the body of a student in a t-shirt and jean jacket. She wears a backpack and carries some school books and a binder over one arm.

French universities are always called “université”, not college.

But you may see this word associated with older forms of higher education in France in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and even around Revolutionary times.

Usually, though, collège means “middle school” in contemporary French.

A university is usually referred to in everyday language as la fac.

This is short for la faculté (school division of a university). The pronunciation of this word may sound a bit obscene to the unprepared Anglophone ear, as this funny, iconic, and NSFW scene from the hit French movie L’Auberge espagnole delightfully illustrates , but when you listen to it more carefully (as you should when the French-speaking character pronounces it), you’ll realize that it really does have a short “a” sound.

Not all French universities are considered equal.

This doesn’t necessarily mean in terms of the excellence of their faculty, but in terms of their funding and prestige.

Any French university will have a certain standard of academics that’s perfectly respectable. But French universities are often no-frills affairs when it comes to funding. There are also no special events like graduation ceremonies and such, and there aren’t donors who regularly gift the school with new wings and materials.

On the other hand, the Grandes Écoles are exclusive, extremely prestigious French universities that students full of academic, career, or political ambition strive to get into. They’re the rough equivalent of Ivy League schools in the US, but unlike an Ivy League school, a Grande École will only have about 200-300 graduates per year.

Unlike countries where your diploma will only take you so far, it’s been observed that every French president has always graduated from a Grande École, not some regular university.

As this article points out, the French university system can be seen as elitist. But at least even the Grandes Écoles only charge a few thousand euros for tuition, which allows them to be accessible based on academic merit, rather than economic earnings (and keeps students debt-free).

So, there are good and bad sides to the system.

After graduating from lycée, most students who want to enter a Grande École will take one to two years of classes préparatoires first.

Affiliated with a lycée and usually called by a singular, shortened name, prépa, this is an incredibly intense year or two of studies, with at least 30 hours a week of work, plus oral exams.

Prépas are organized into different areas of studies, but all of them are intense and challenging.  I know someone who took a year of prépa before going to a prestigious engineering school. He says it was the hardest year of his life, even harder than taking classes at the Grande École he then got into. He just worked and slept.

The reward for this work is getting into a good school and then, hopefully, getting a good job that lets you earn a good living or even fulfill your most ambitious desires, like becoming head of state.

That said, as with any prestigious school, a diploma is a diploma; it depends on what you choose to pursue afterwards. My friend, for instance, went to a Grande École and currently has a well-paid IT job. He’s very happy, but it’s not like his academic career automatically made him the French president or one of the richest people in the country.

La Sorbonne is not considered the best school in France.

Internationally, the best-known French university is probably La Sorbonne, officially known as l’Université de Paris today. Established in the Middle Ages, it was the first university in Europe, and is one of the oldest in the world. Still, while you can get a quality education at La Sorbonne, it is not a Grande École.

When it comes to universities in France, cost does not equal quality.

There are many private French higher education organizations that (like many of their counterparts in the US) are more focused on making money than on education.

These schools are usually very pricey, but have no prestige among the French. As a general rule, the higher the cost of a university/higher education institution in France, the less its diplomas are actually “worth”, although there are a few exceptions. If you’re thinking about studying in France, be sure to research any private institutions you’re considering.

French diploma equivalencies

Most French universities offer a three-year program to get the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in the US or UK. 

But there are a lot more French diplomas than that, and sometimes it can be confusing to find their equivalents in another country’s education system.

Let’s look at the most common French diplomas you’ll come across, and their equivalents in the US and UK.

un DEUG (two-year university diploma) – Associate’s degree (US)/Diploma of Higher Education (UK)

une licence – (a three-year undergraduate degree) – Bachelor’s degree

                Licence dans un domaine littéraire: BA/Bachelor of Arts

                Licence dans un domaine scientifique: BSC/Bachelor of Science/B.S. degree

Master 1/ Maîtrise – Master’s Degree

Master 2/ DEA: A degree given one year before postgraduate studies. There is no precise equivalent for this in the US or UK, as far as I can find, so it still generally corresponds to a Master’s Degree.

                Master dans un domaine littéraire: MA (Master of Arts)

                Master dans un domaine scientifique: MSC/MS (Master of Science)

                Master dans les affaires: MBA (Master of Business Administration)

Doctorat: Phd/doctorate

This helpful webpage lists a few more specific French diplomas, as well as certain documents and certifications, along with their UK and US equivalents (when applicable).

French school milestones

We see the upper torsoes of two high school students at a desk looking at notes in a notebook.

You may live in a country where school is full of major events. I know that’s certainly the case in the US, where I grew up. Finishing each kind of school can, in some places, be the reason for a celebration or even a ceremony at the school itself. There are school dances, competitions, sports, and more, and of course, when you graduate from high school, there’s the iconic cap and gown ceremony where you receive your diploma.

But that’s not really the case in France. As I’ve mentioned before, the French are very serious about education. Kids may have fun at school, but there isn’t a really fun or “big deal”/ “good job” spin on things. Add to that the fact that most activities like extracurricular sports, clubs, and so on, aren’t associated with schools directly, there are no dances, and there aren’t many big school events.

This said, it may depend on the school, and of course, there can be exceptions. French preschools and elementary schools often host end-of-year carnival-style parties, for instance, and some put on concerts or plays as well.

One thing that does shape the school experience for French students are two important exams.

The first is le brevet des collèges, a major test taken at the end of collège (middle school) and the rough equivalent to the GCSE’S under C Grade or GNVQ Intermediate in the UK. There is no US equivalent.

The biggest French school milestone is taking le baccalauréat, usually called le bac. This exam covers multiple subjects and includes written and oral sections, as well as some parts that may require demonstrating skills (in sports, for example). A student’s overall score and some of the minor subjects covered will differ depending on their area of study.

Le bac is the rough equivalent of A levels in the UK. As for the US, many sources say le bac is similar to AP exams, but personally, since all French high school students have to take it and it influences college admissions, I consider it similar to the SAT’s. The SAT’s are a standardized test covering a limited range of subjects, but when it comes to cultural impact and pre-test jitters, that’s the best match for le bac.

Le bac has many variants and a complex scoring system that I won’t go into in this brief overview of the French education system, but if you’d like to learn more about le bac, I’d recommend this detailed resource.

The biggest difference between le bac and AP or SAT exams, though, is that le bac also determines whether or not you can graduate lycée. In that sense, you can think of it as your high school diploma or a certificate of completion.

The results of the bac are posted on lists in front of the school. French students go to find their scores, then, hopefully have reason to celebrate, and that’s it – lycée is finished. There is no graduation ceremony.

University in France does seem to be a similar experience to US and UK schools, in that students still find ways to have fun, and things are a little more open in terms of scheduling – even though there’s still a lot of hard work.

At the end of post-graduate studies, students write and defend (present) un mémoir (thesis/memoir/ dissertation).  If the jury of academics approve, they and the family members and friends that the student has invited will often finish the presentation with a small celebratory apéro (snacks and drinks).

At the end of some university cycles, there may be une remise de diplômes (graduation ceremony). Students would typically wear business or formal attire, rather than a cap and gown or other traditional clothing. But graduation ceremonies aren’t especially common.

Overall, you could say that the motto for school in France is “it’s not personal, it’s business.”  Whether they’re 3 or 23, French students’ priority is to learn. Fun is something that may happen but it’s not considered an intrinsic part of the educational experience, nor are emotional events like marking milestones.

This doesn’t mean that school in France is a totally joyless affair. You only have to look at comedies old and new that are inspired by the French school experience, including the iconic Le Petit Nicolas and the relatively recent movie Les beaux gosses (sort of like a French Superbad) to see that there are plenty of laughs, good memories, and nostalgia tied to French academic life.

What is school like where you live? What do you like and dislike about the French education system?

Must reads

  1. What are the best French learning apps in 2024?
  2. The 16 best websites and apps for French conversation practice
  3. Duolingo French review: The good, the bad and the ugly

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.