Guide to the French Educational System

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Navigating France's school system from a US or UK background can be a bit overwhelming at first, but don't worry - this guide will talk you through every aspect of French education and their expat equivalents. If you're planning a long-term move to the country with school-age children or little ones on the way, there's absolutely no need to fret over the level of education offered in France, as its among the highest ranked in the Western world.

First off, let's look at the 5 broad categories of education the French system provides:

  • Pre-school ;
  • Primary ;
  • College (high-school or secondary education) ;
  • Lycée (equivalent to the UK's sixth-form colleges) ;
  • University.

Your children are entitled to a free public education if residing anywhere in France. Alternatively, you may also choose to enroll them in any number of highly-regarded private schools for a fee. There's a nationally-recognized curriculum that's strictly adhered to throughout the country, and taught by traditional learning methods.

Let's talk a bit about the structure of France's education system.


Though attending pre-school in France is not compulsory, kindergartens and creches offer the little ones an excellent first introduction to the French school system, not to mention an invaluable opportunity for them to learn and practice their French language skills. Kindergartens take children from the ages of two to six, combining the fun and freedom of playschools with some basic structure and teaching of literacy and numeracy. The French pre-school system can be broken down into three categories by age: la petite section, la moyenne section, and la grande section.

Primary schools

Known as Ecole primaire or élémentaire, attending primary (or elementary) school is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and eleven in France. The education provided is similar to that in other European countries, and covers the core subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic, along with history, geography, the arts, and a second language (typically English). Primary education in France can be broken down into five grades or classes: CP (cours préparatoire) ; CE1 and CE2 (cours élémentaire) ; and CM1 and CM2 (cours moyen).


"College" within the French educational system is equivalent to British secondary school or American high school. Providing all students with a broad secondary education, pupils also have the option (depending on abilities) to follow a highly academic path or a more technical program. The former group will go on to higher qualifications, while the latter may leave the education system after college to take a vocational training course. College in France can be broken down into four grades or classes: sixième, cinquième, quatrième, and troisième (equivalent to sixth through ninth grade in the US).


The lycée is a three-year program aimed at preparing academic students for their baccalauréat exam. This exam is equivalent to A-levels in the UK, and provides an entry point to university. Over their three years at lycée, students begin to narrow down the scope of their education to prepare for more specialized higher education fields. Lycées accept applications from a wide net, and often provide boarding options for their pupils.

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