In France, like in most of Westernized countries, education is a primary concern as well as a sacred and strong institution since the French Revolution. Jules Ferry’s laws in 1881 and 1882 make education public, free, secular (non religiously affiliated) and mandatory for children from 6 to 13 years old. This law will be amended in 1959 to put the end of mandatory education to 16 years old.
French schools (from infants school to university level) start during the first week of September until late October when there are national holidays for 10 days commonly called “Les vacances de la Toussaint” (All Saints Day’s holidays). Then there is a two weeks Christmas break, a two weeks winter break, a two weeks spring break and school finishes at the end of June with two months summer holidays.
Even though education is mandatory only from 6 years old, 99,5% of children (INSEE statistics) begins to go to “la maternelle” (infant school) at 3 or even 2 years old. “La maternelle” shouldn’t be mixed up with kindergarten, it lays the essential basis to elementary school such as reading, writing and arithmetic as well as other objectives such as socialization and the development of language. French government is actually thinking about changing the mandatory age to begin school from 6 to 3 years old as they noticed a strong discrepancy between children who have attended the infant school and other who didn’t regarding basic knowledge and their abilities to develop their cognitive functions.
After spending 3 years at “la maternelle”, the children enter the elementary school at 6 years old. The elementary school is divided in 5 years and levels:
- the CP (Cours Préparatoire: Preparatory Course),
- the CE1 (Cours Elementaire 1ère année: 1st year Elementary Course),
- the CE2 (Cours Elementaire 2ème année: 2d year Elementary Course),
- the CM1 (Cours Moyen 1èere année: 1st year Medium Course) and
- the CM2 (Cours Moyen 2ème année: 2d year Medium Course)
Each class has its own teacher who teaches all subjects from French language, mathematics, history, geography, music… Elementary school starts around 8.30am with a break from 10am to 10.30am and class from 10.30am to noon. The lunch break lasts one hour and thirty minutes with most of children going to the school cafeteria. The afternoon classes start from 1.30pm to 3pm with a 30 minutes break and class again from 3pm to 4.30pm. Most schools have a 4 days attendance on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is considered “kids’ day” and is devoted to leisure activities such as sports, arts and others. The elementary school year has 36 weeks teaching a year and 24 hours teaching a week.
After the elementary school, children, who are around 10 or 11 years old, enter “collège” or middle school for 4 years:
Collège is often a great change for children who just got out from elementary school and it is not easy for them to adjust. If they only had a teacher, now they have a teacher for every subject and they don’t have the same classroom and often have to run from a building to another. Collège also starts earlier at 8am with a shorter break around 10am, the lunch break is often 1 hour long and classes finish at 5pm. Days are longer and pupils often have to take a bus to and from school which lengthen considerably their already busy day: the average pupil wakes up around 6.30 and don’t make it home before 6pm. Furthermore middle school pupils also have classes on Wednesday morning. Pupils finish collège around 15 years old and can enter High school according to their transcripts or a vocational high school.
“Le lycée” lasts only three years:
The rhythm is quite similar to middle school except that classes often finish at 6pm making school days even longer. High school is very important because from “Première” on, students have to make a choice between several programs to take their Baccalauréat exams. The three general programs are Sciences, Literature and Languages and Economic and Social Sciences. There are infinite other programs more specialized as well. At the end of “Première” students take a part of their Baccalauréat exams and the rest at the end of “Terminale”. There are 12 different mandatory exams and each exam lasts at least two hours. This diploma is the key to enter university and any other training schools. With a “Baccalauréat Général” you can get in any school you wish: Arts school, Med school, Sciences University, Law School… Contrary to the USA, you can choose from the very beginning of your academic career to integrate a specialized university and you don’t need to get a Bachelor’s before going to Med school or Law School for example.
University are public, secular and, most important, almost FREE, the tuitions fees are incredibly low (less than 1000$ a year) and enable a majority of students to go to university. There is also tuitions remission for low-income family students. Finally, the organization of classes in very different as well. Before entering university you already have to have a sharp idea of your subject of study, if you decide to do a Bachelor’s in English Language and Literature, there is a preset program of classes all of them focused around English topics. You cannot choose from a variety of classes but for an option but the choice is also limited. In the US you can choose your Major and your Minor after entering university, in France it is the contrary you have to know before hand. The Bachelor’s, what we call “la Licence” is a three years diploma. You can then continue and do a Master’s (2 years) and a Doctorate (3 years).
French education is considered one of the best of the world and even though it is often criticized, especially because of its busy schedules and its rigidity, French scholars and students are often praised by the quality of their skills. The grading system is also different from 0 (lowest) to 20 (highest) and it is – almost – impossible to get a grade superior to 14 at a university level which would correspond to a C in the USA. Teachers are very strict and consider that a text analysis or essay can never be perfect – and I totally agree – and thus never give you more than 15/20.
This description of the educational French system is far from being complete as there are an infinite variety of branches and schools, I thus decided to focus on the public and most common education, the one I know the best and that I am able to describe.