Marc Colmant
Ministry of Education

Overview of Education System

France’s education system is a state responsibility with the government’s Ministry of National Education, Higher Education, and Research responsible for the definition and implementation of educational policy. The Ministry’s goals are to distribute resources allocated to education, guarantee equal access to this public service, and monitor education policies. Specifically, the government defines educational policies and curricula; recruits, trains, and manages educational staff; determines the status of schools and the rules under which they function; and appoints teachers and administrative staff. Only the state government may define and establish diploma levels.

France’s education system was highly centralized, hierarchical, and uniform in its organization and operations until 1982, when the state began to decentralize, transferring certain government powers and responsibilities to regions and departments.1 The state still retains responsibility for curriculum definition, diploma distribution, and personnel recruitment and development at all levels. However, regions currently are responsible for overseeing investment, operations, and personnel management in upper secondary schools (lycées). Similarly, departments (smaller administrative entities) have the same responsibilities for lower secondary schools (collèges), while individual towns are responsible for local nursery and elementary schools. Towns own school premises and oversee construction, reconstruction, extension, and major repairs; they manage local school equipment, operations, and maintenance, and may utilize school facilities for additional educational, athletic, and cultural activities.

France provides free education for all students in primary and secondary schools, and schooling is compulsory at the elementary and lower secondary levels from ages 6 to 16. Children must be registered at an elementary school at the beginning of the school year (September) in the calendar year in which they reach the age of 6. In 2014–2015, there were 31,883 public schools and 5,126 private schools in France at the primary level (preprimary maternelles excluded).2

Since 1990, education at the primary level has been organized in three cycles: Cycle 1 comprises introductory learning (first and second years of preprimary); Cycle 2 comprises fundamental learning (third year of preprimary, Grades 1 and 2); and Cycle 3 comprises the consolidation of learning (Grades 3, 4, and 5).

A reorganization of the current cycles is underway. A new system of organization is being implemented gradually from the 2014–2017 school years. From 2017, schooling in France will be organized into four educational cycles from preprimary to the end of lower secondary school.

Preprimary school (maternelle) is free of charge but not compulsory, and accepts children ages 3 to 5, and at age 2, when places are available. In 2014, all children in France ages 3 to 5, as well as 12 percent of 2-year-old children, attended a maternelle school.3 All maternelle schools benefit from the services of a local specialized officer, recruited by the town, whose task is to assist teachers with all noneducational activities. The general objectives of maternelle schools are to help children develop and form their personalities and to prepare them for success in elementary school. In nursery school, mastery of language is emphasized; children practice their speaking skills, begin to build their vocabulary, and learn to write. Artistic education also is an important part of the nursery school curriculum, as is discovering the universe of numbers. In 2014, the average class size in nursery schools was 26 students.4

Schooling at the elementary level typically comprises five years, although the period may be increased or decreased by one year based on individual student knowledge. Promotion from primary to secondary education is automatic. At the primary level, many schools have classes composed of two or more grade levels. Some schools, mostly rural, contain only a single class with all grade levels grouped together. Of these one room schools, 97 percent are public, and in 2014, one room schools accounted for 9 percent of French schools. During the 2014–2015 school year, 54 percent of primary schools had 1 to 5 classes, 33 percent of schools had 6 to 10 classes, and 13 percent had 11 or more classes.5 In 2014, the average class size in elementary schools was 23 students.6

The two main components of primary education are French language and mathematics. Student competencies in mathematics for each cycle are summarized below:

  • Cycle 2 (Grades 1 to 2)—Students develop knowledge and understanding of numbers, how to write numbers (including decimal notation), and learn to calculate with small numbers.
  • Cycle 3 (Grades 3 to 5)—Students enrich their knowledge, acquire new tools, and continue to learn how to solve problems. They strengthen their mental mathematics skills. They memorize mathematical procedures and develop an understanding of the associated concepts. The mastery of key elements of mathematics helps students solve problems in everyday life and lays a foundation for secondary education.

Secondary education is divided into two successive stages: lower secondary and upper secondary. Lower secondary education comprises Grades 6 to 9 (typically ages 11 to 15). In 2014, the number of students enrolled in public and private lower secondary schools in France was 3.2 million.7 Upon completion of the ninth grade, students attend a general and technological or a vocational upper secondary school that prepares them for the corresponding Baccalauréat (known as le Bac), an examination usually taken at age 18.

There are two types of upper secondary schools:

  • General and technological schools—These schools lead to either the General and Technological Baccalauréat or the Certificate of Technician. The general track includes literature, economics, social studies, and science. The technological track includes tertiary science and technology, industrial science and technology, and laboratory science and technology.
  • Vocational schools—These schools lead to the Vocational Aptitude Certificate, the Vocational Studies Certificate, or the Vocational Baccalauréat.

The proportion of students enrolled in public state education in France is 85.9 percent at the primary level and 78.9 percent at the secondary level.8 Private schools are primarily religious, mostly Roman Catholic, and are subject to monitoring by the state.

Languages of Instruction

French Republic constitutional law states that “French is the language of the Republic.” French also is the language of instruction in France, and the most widely spoken language in the country.

An amendment to the constitution (Article 75-1) in May 2008 states that “regional languages belong to the heritage of France.” The Ministry of Culture and Communication reported that in 2013–2014, the number of students instructed in regional languages and cultures was 298,000 in public and private primary schools (4.4 percent); and 68,000 in lower secondary schools (2 percent) and 39,000 in upper secondary schools (1.8 percent). The highest number of students instructed in regional languages was instructed in the regional language of Alsace, followed by Occitan-Langue d’Oc, Breton, Corsican, Creole, Catalan, and Basque.9

Recent immigration primarily to urban areas is associated with various additional languages being spoken in France. In efforts to integrate foreign language lessons into the curriculum, France has signed international agreements (Enseignement de langue et de culture d’origine, or Instruction in Native Language and Culture) with several foreign countries, including Algeria, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, Croatia, and Serbia. In the 1970s, the first objective of these agreements was to allow foreign students to better fit into the French education system while maintaining links with their heritage and the possibility of return to their home countries. Today, however, the primary objectives are to preserve foreign students’ native culture and language while improving their language skills and their success at school. The number of students receiving additional language instruction ranges from 75,000 to 100,000 per year.