The french educational system

French School Structure

The basic structure of school education in France is shown on the following table.

School Structure


Age Type of School
2-6 Nursery School (École Maternelle)
6-11 Primary School (École Primaire)
11-15 Lower Secondary School/middle school (Collège)
15-18 Upper Secondary School/high school (Lycée)

Class Structure of French Schools

The class structure of the system by age is shown on the following table.
One of the notable features is the descending numerical sequence of the secondary school years, whereas Spanish residents, in particular, will be familiar with an ascending scale.

Class Structure

School year


Equivalence in Spain

Ecole Maternelle

Petite Section


1st kindergarten

Ecole Maternelle

Moyeanne Section


2nd kindergarten

Ecole Maternelle

Grande Section


3rd kindergarten

Ecole Primaire

Préparatoire (CP)


1st primary

Ecole Primaire

Cours Elémentaire 1 (CE1)


2nd primary

Ecole Primaire

Cours Elémentaire 2 (CE2))


3rd primary

Ecole Primaire

Cours Moyen 1 (CM1)


4th primary

Ecole Primaire

Cours Moyen 2 (CM2)


5th primary


Sixième (6e)


6th primary


Cinquième (5e)


1st secondary


Quatrième (4e )


2nd secondary


Troisième (3e)


3rd secondary


Seconde (2nde)


4th secondary


Première (1ère)


1st high school


Terminale (T)


2nd high school


Key Stages of French School Education

One of the main purposes of the cycles de l’education. is to emphasise the continuity of education between years and between schools.
Thus, you can see from the table below how the cycles overlap between nursery and primary schools. In a similar manner, how the first year of collège emphasises the transition from primary school and how the final year of collège is meant to be preparation for lycée.

Cycles of Education

Class/Year Cycle
Petite Section Cycle des apprentissages premier
Moyenne section Cycle des apprentissages premier
Grande section Cycle des apprentissages fondamentaux
Cours préparatoire Cycle des apprentissages fondamentaux
Cours élémentaire 1 Cycle des apprentissages fondamentaux
Cours élémentaire 2 Cycle des approfondissements
Cours moyen 1 Cycle des approfondissements
Cours moyen 2 Cycle des approfondissements
Sixième (6e) Cycle d’adaptation
Cinquième (5e) Cycle Central
Quatrième (4e) Cycle Central
Troisième (3e) Cycle d’orientation
Seconde Cycle de détermination
Première Cycle terminale
Terminale Cycle terminale


School education is compulsory for children aged between six and sixteen; this obligation covers both elementary education (elementary school) and the first four years (collège) of secondary education.

  • école maternelle: Preschool education (3-6 years). Although it is not compulsory they can enter after 2 or 3 years, initially they are looking for students to learn the fast handling of the language and the basics of reading and writing, as well as mathematics. It is the strong and specific point of the French educational system and contributes to improving the effectiveness of primary education.


  • école primaire or primary school (children between 6 and 11 years old). Mixed education, they continue to develop their skills in formal education a little more structured. There are lessons on literacy, numeracy, geography/history and commonly a foreign language, often English.
    There are five levels:

    • Cours préparatoire (CP) or 11ème – age 6 to 7 years old
    • Cours élémentaire (CE1) or 10ème – age 7 to 8 years old
    • Cours élémentaire (CE2) or 9ème – age 8 to 9 years old
    • Cours moyen 1 (CM1) or 8ème – 9 to 10 years old
    • Cours moyen 2 (CM2) or 7ème – 10 to 11 years old


  • collège or middle school. Between the ages of 11 and 15. All pupils are accepted; there is no entrance exam or requirements for state schools.
    There are four levels:

    • 6ème – 11 to 12 years old
    • 5ème – 12 to 13 years old
    • 4ème – 13 to 14 years old
    • 3ème – 14 to 15 years old

The syllabus aims to give all pupils a general education and consists of French, mathematics, history/geography, civics, biology, physics, technology, art, music, and physical education. Over the four years in the collège, the more academic students tend to choose to take more general classes while the less academic tend to take more vocational classes.
In collège, marks (notes) become an important aspect in a child’s schooling, with tests (contrôles) becoming commonplace. During the year students are tested every week and at the end of the year have to pass with an average of 12 marks out of 20. Scoring under 10 may mean repeating the year (redoubler), although no stigma is attached to this.
At the end of the four years, at the age of 15, all students must sit the brevet, the Diplôme National du Brevet (or Brevet des Collèges). Students are tested on French, mathematics and history/geography (choosing which one they want to answer on the day) but they must also have passed their B2i (computer/internet skills) during the year and have reached a level A2 in a foreign language.
The brevet is also marked on continuous assessment (including general attitude and behaviour) during the last year of college (3ème) – so some students may have already passed the brevet before they even sit the exam. Students have to get 10 marks out of 20 to pass; 12 for a Mention Assez Bien, 14 for a Mention Bien and 16+ for a Mention Très Bien.
After the brevet, students may leave the education system altogether if they are 16 (though most do not), or continue their education in a lycée. Academic pupils will move onto a lycée général or lycée technique, while less academic may go to a lycée professionnel.

  • Lycée or high school. The last three years of secondary education – from 15 to 18 years old – are spent at a lycée general, a lycée technique or a lycée professionnel. Students take the same core curriculum of some eight or nine subjects but are offered three electives and an artistic workshop. At the end of 3ème year (college), the key decision is made as to which baccalaureat the student will pursue.
    The levels are:

    • Seconde (CAP, BEP) – 15 to 16 years old
    • Première (CAP, BEP) – 16 to 17 years old
    • Terminale (BAC) – 17 to 18 years old


Lycée general and lycée technique
Students start to specialise with the aim of sitting the Baccalauréat (le bac), which is the qualification to enter university at 18 years old. Students choose different series. The general bac consists of the L series (literary studies), ES series (economic and social studies) or S series (sciences). The S bac is considered the toughest.
There are also some seven baccalauréat technologique, diplomas based on specific technical skills. The technology bac series include Science and Industrial (STI), Science and Laboratory (STL), Health and Social Sciences (STSS), Science and Management (STG), Music and Dance (TMD), Agronomy (STAV) and Hotel Management. If the lycée has an International or European section there may be tests taken in English that count towards the marks.
Students have to pass all subjects in the series (getting 10/20 in the exam) to pass; those getting 8/20 or under have to retake the year and sit again. Those who pass can get a place at one of France’s universities.

Lycée professionnel
At a lycee professionnel (lycées pro), students work towards qualifications to help them get a manual or clerical job or pursue further vocational studies. These qualifications are the baccalauréat professionnel (bac pro), CAP (certificat d’aptitude professionnel) and BEP (Brevet d’enseignement professionnel), which focus on one of four fields: social/health, driving/transport, catering/hotels, and optics. Lycées du bâtiment and lycées agricoles specialise in building trades and agriculture. The professional baccalaureate requires three years of study and certifies the student to work in a qualified professional activity.

International and European sections

Certain French schools also offer an International Section leading to an international baccalauréat (Option Internationale du Baccalauréat – OIB). There are British and American sections as well as a number of others, where additional subjects are taught and examined in the relevant language to a level comparable to the equivalent exam in the home country (for example, A levels in the UK, or AP in the USA).
They are intended to integrate foreign students and make it easier for them to eventually return to schools in their home country, but some French students also attend to take advantage of the advanced language training.
The curriculum is offered on top of the normal French-language baccalauréat course load, and offers instruction in language, literature, geography and history at higher levels than the normal French curriculum.

  • Higher education. A baccalauréat or foreign equivalent guarantees access to a publicly funded university, although the very best students take another one or two years of private studies, Classe Préparatoire, or prépas (located in some High Schools), so they can sit for an entrance exam (concours) into the handful of prestigious schools known collectively as les grandes écoles for engineering, business, and politics or administrative studies
    Entrance procedures to higher education vary depending on the educational institution and the chosen training course. One of the most important facts to know to understand the country is that France has a dual university system: the Universités and the Grandes Écoles. For the Classes préparatoires for entrance to the Grandes écoles, IUTs (polytechnics) and Instituts universitaires professionalisés – IUP (professional university institutes) students are to enrol directly with the institution concerned. For Premier cycle enrolment at a university, students are required to file an entrance application before the start of the academic year. The chosen institution alone will be authorized to validate a student’s previous education.

The Grandes Écoles are not part of the rest of the University system : they are smaller, they have much more money (they get 30% of the national university budget with only 4% of the students), they are kept apart from the rest of the educational system, they are based on fierce competition of the students among themselves and the schools between themselves.

Grandes Ecoles offer either four or five-year courses directly after the Baccalauréat or three-year courses after two years of classe préparatoire (preparatory class).