How does the French education system work? Until what age is schooling mandatory in France? How does higher education work in France?
Those with an interest in different cultures know that you can learn a lot by gaining an understanding of a country’s education system. The way in which schooling is organised reveals much about a nation’s political choices, and carries with it the full weight of historical and cultural heritage. What are the specific features of school in France? What different stages does the education system involve and what is the overall level of attainment?
In 1932, France’s “Ministry of Public Instruction”, which had been set up following the Revolution, became known as the “Ministry of National Education”. The “instruction” prior to 1932 had the merit of being public and secular, rather than knowledge passed on by religious authorities, but the concept of “education” introduced a more ambitious aim: providing teaching that addressed both intellectual and moral needs. Emancipating children, equipping them with good critical thinking skills and turning them into responsible citizens were now the goals to be achieved.
In France, education is compulsory from the age of six, in accordance with an act introduced by Jules Ferry in 1882. Since 1959, the school leaving age has been 16, and education must be both secular and free-of-charge. In addition, the preamble to the 1946 Constitution stipulates that “the nation guarantees equal access for children and adults to education, vocational training and culture.”
Secularism, which is a fundamental principle of the French school system, implies separation between Church and State, so proselytising or the visible wearing of religious symbols is not permitted. As for teachers, they must prove that they can be neutral with regard to their political, philosophical or religious views, although they do enjoy a certain degree of freedom in deciding how to teach. There is no religious education in state-run schools.
Between the ages of two months and three years, parents can leave their child in a crèche, playgroup or kindergarten. Strictly speaking, however, education begins at nursery school, which lasts for three years and is known as the “cycle des apprentissages premiers” (“early learning cycle”). Children start nursery school at the age of three, and this marks the beginning of their long school career! At this age, young pupils spend a lot of time on craft activities. They are exposed to language and artistic expression (drawing, singing, nursery rhymes, dancing, etc.) and introduced to civic life.
It is important not to confuse the concepts of kindergarten (jardin d’enfant) and nursery school (école maternelle). They are two very different types of establishment in France. Kindergartens fall somewhere between a crèche and a nursery school. They are for children aged between two and six years old, can be publicly or privately run, and charge fees. As for nursery school, its role is to provide a kind of preparation for Cours Préparatoire – the first year of elementary school in France.
After nursery school, pupils attend elementary school for five years. Local authorities (communes) are responsible for managing elementary schools. This level of schooling is divided into different stages: Cours Préparatoire (CP, preparatory class), Cours Elémentaire (CE1 and CE2, elementary classes) and Cours Moyen (CM1 and CM2, intermediate classes).
After primary school (which encompasses both nursery and elementary school), French children enter the secondary stage of their education, comprising collège (lower secondary) and lycée (upper secondary). Collège lasts for four years (known as sixième, cinquième, quatrième and troisième) and culminates in students’ first official examination: the national diploma or diplôme national du brevet. It is in their first year of secondary school that pupils start to learn their first foreign language. Collège is an important time: at the end of their final year (troisième), pupils can decide whether to pursue a vocational or more general path. The French talk about “collège unique” – “one collège”. This refers to the fact that all young people in the same age group must attend the same type of school. The aim is to make access to knowledge more democratic, ensuring that each child receives the same education.
Once pupils reach lycée, they have three years before they take the famous Baccalaureate (or “Bac”) examination, the cornerstone of the French school system. The vast majority of teenagers opt for a general lycée, which offers the opportunity to specialise in literary (L), scientific (S) or economic (ES) subjects. In essence, pupils can choose a general and technological route, or a vocational route. The Bac subjects and curricula are national: whether you live in Nice or Lille, you’ll be facing the same topics on exam day. The pass rate for the Bac in France averaged 88.3% in 2018. Not bad, right?
Holidays happen around once every six weeks, and always provide a well-deserved rest since French pupils face long days in class! Primary school children study for a minimum of 24 hours per week, with lessons in the mornings and afternoons. Summer holidays last around eight weeks, which is a good average – certainly nothing to complain about (though we’re well aware that our Italian and Russian friends enjoy three months off!).
Although education in France is quite centralised, the system includes local education authorities, known as Académies – there are 30 in total. The country is also split into geographical areas (A, B and C), which have different school holiday dates. Here in Antibes, for example, we’re part of the Académie de Nice, and we’re in zone B, alongside Strasbourg and Lille.
So, what about higher education? Once you’ve got your Bac, there are a number of options open to you. Students who have passed the exam can opt to continue their studies at a university offering a broad general education (in an arts or law faculty, for example), or choose a technical or vocational course at a university institute of technology. Alternatively, they might decide to enrol in a classe préparatoire. These are specialist programmes which prepare students to take the highly competitive entrance exams for France’s most prestigious higher education institutions, the grandes écoles, for example, the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, which educates the country’s top teachers, researchers and public servants, or the Ecole militaire de Saint-Cyr, a military academy. Courses are also available at specialist business and engineering schools. In common with other European countries, France has adopted the three-cycle bachelor/master/doctorate system to encourage student mobility. A bachelor’s degree (licence) is equivalent to three years’ post-Bac study (Bac+3), a master’s degree equates to Bac+5 and a doctorate to Bac+8. University fees are very low: it costs an average of 250 euros to enrol for a master’s degree at a university faculty, whereas fees for private institutions and business schools can range from 8,000 to 15,000 euros.
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