What is the education system like in... France?
This marks the second of a semi-regular set of columns looking at education systems in different parts of the world. The first looked at England, hence France seems a natural second step. My belief is that this is useful, not merely to learn, but it can help a writer whose fictional characters originate from another country (or world?). Usual geographic caveats apply here, in that when I say “French” I’m discussing France and not, for instance, the province of Quebec in Canada. Which would be somewhat different.
In France, education is free (and compulsory) for children aged 5 through 16. This starts with an “école maternelle” (possibly as early as age 3). Primary school (école primaire) then lasts for 5 years (ages 6-10), middle school (collège, also known as secondary school) lasts for 4 years (ages 11-14), and high school (lycée) lasts for up to 3 years (from age 15 to past the compulsory age). Of note, the French grade numbering system goes backwards compared to North America - the first year of collège is the largest number, year 6 (6ème). It is followed by year 5. The first year of lycée is year 2, then year 1 (première), and then the final year: terminale. The individual years are also grouped into various cycles.
There are 158 days in a typical school year, separated into three reporting terms. Instruction occurs on Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri, and another half day (traditionally Sat, but in most regions this is now on Wed) to make 26 hours of instruction in a week. The school year begins in early September and runs until early July, during which there are four breaks lasting for two weeks. These holidays begin in: October, December, February and April (where actual dates for the latter two vary based on region - Zones A, B & C). Unlike England, there are no school uniforms - the closest thing they had was already being phased out in 1968.
There is no formal testing done at the national level until the end of the 3ème, before lycée. It is at this point that a national exam allows one to obtain the “brevet des collèges” – though one can still attend a lycée without it, as long as their grades are high enough. This exam is one tool used to help determine a path (and lycée) for the last three years of schooling – regular or vocational. Notably, two foreign languages are already needed by this time (selected at the 6ème, and the 4ème).
For the first year of lycée (year 2), courses involve both core subjects and electives, leading to a choice in year 1 of “baccalauréat general” (for one of: Literature/Language, Science/Math, Social Science), or “baccalauréat technologique”. Exams are written at the end of the première, for not only French language and literature, but also for a “minor” area of study, chosen at the start of that year. Then, before graduating, there is another set of exams at terminale. These cover philosophy, and other subjects studied. The final score is a weighted average across all areas, meaning it is impossible to fail a single course - you either pass, achieving at least 10/20, or you must retake the whole year. If you are close (at least 8/10) you may be given the opportunity of an oral exam to make up the difference; an oral is also compulsory for the Literature/Language stream.
Beyond lycée, there is a public university system, but the top schools - “les grandes écoles”, which specialize in engineering, business, etc. - require entrance exams. Napoleon brought this system to Italy, which gives a sense of its history. The intention here is to put emphasis on one’s merit and ability, and not on one’s social or financial status. The exams are given in both written and oral form, where a certain mark must be obtained on the former in order to be considered for the latter. There is no mark threshold here for acceptance - there are limited spaces, and as such you are competing against everyone else who is taking the exam that year. Hence students will typically do an additional two to three years of study (in either a public or private institution) before writing these higher education exams, which can only be repeated once. Once a student is accepted into a post-secondary program, a Bachelor’s Degree takes three years (at either a University or a Grande Ecole). To become a teacher in France, a European candidate needs a three year diploma to be eligible to sit for a competitive examination. Once on the job, they are evaluated by national inspectors.
Outside of the public school board, there are independent private schools, many of them Catholic; there are also five Catholic universities. Religious instruction can be included at these schools, though as long as they also follow the same (national) curriculum as state schools, teachers are still paid by the state. (Of note, they are not paid at the same rate, and their qualifying test, while written to the same standard, is different.) This means that private school fees can be quite low, and compared to the US, a greater percentage of French students attend private schools (though this number is less than 20%). With respect to current events, there aren’t any current reforms in the French system (as compared to the US or England). Time magazine did criticize them in 2010 (in particular for their philosophy requirement), and some feel change is needed to the “grande école” mindset. Do you have any thoughts about the Education System in France? Feel free to comment below!
With thanks to José Piquard, for fact checking. Any remaining errors are my own; please advise, so that I can correct them.
For further viewing:
1. A Typical Day of a French Student (video by students)
2. Education in France
3. France Guide: The French school system
Got an idea or a question for a future TANDQ column? Let me know in the comments, or through email!