French Education System


When it comes to education in France, the French education system is considered to be in the top-tier league in terms of education quality and (especially) spending on education per capita. However, many critics point out that France occupies a fairly average place in the ranking of the quality of education among OECD countries, despite such huge expenses in this industry. This article will give you an insight about the structure of the French education system, its advantages and drawbacks, and main principles.

General Overview of the French Education System

Within the French education system, the government finances public schools by providing generous allocations from the budget. Education from the age of 6 up to the age of 16 is compulsory and free for everyone. As for the present time, more than 85% of the French students attend public schools. Private and international schools are present in France as well, yet the share of students who attend them is lower than 15%. Even though they are less costly than private schools in the UK, parents who seriously consider sending their children to private schools are in a complete minority.

While the French education is considered relatively good and had been frequently referred to as “one of the best education systems” in the last decades, the situation does not seem to be as bright now. In the last couple of years, France has been gradually slipping in the majority of education rankings. At the present time, France is ranked 25 out of 65 OECD countries, making it a solid mid-tier country. Over 40% of students experience problems with math, while the equality gap of the school students keeps widening. Besides, higher education in France appears to be of not that high standard, except of several prestigious universities.

Such a diminishing quality of education in France caused a necessity to reform the French education system. One of the most notable attempts to reform the education system occurred in 2015. Then, the government tried to make education in France less elitist and available to everyone, sparking protests of the right parties and unions of teachers. However, there is a common half-joke among the French that their “education system is involved in the constant process of reformation.”

Despite such seemingly progressive attempts to alter the way the French education system functions, the education system of this country appears to be among the most conservative ones in Europe. Namely, the French education system is based on the following principles:

  • Undeniable authority of the teacher;
  • High academic expectations in regards to all students;
  • Instead of creative tasks and multi-subject cases (which have become especially popular recently), the French education system forces the students to stick to rote learning;
  • The absolute grading system that prompts competition among students (there are no in-betweens);
  • Focus on analytical thinking.

Structure of the French Education System

The French education system consists of “voluntary” and compulsory learning. Attending nursery or kindergarten is completely optional, while studying at school (except of the high school) is compulsory. However, the statistics shows that the majority of children attend kindergartens before getting enrolled in the primary school. Also, an absolute majority of students proceed to the high school and proceed further to receive higher education after finishing the middle school (collége).

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All in all, the structure of the French education system is the following:

  • Nursery and kindergarten (optional);
  • École (primary school, compulsory);
  • Collége (middle school, compulsory);
  • Lycée (high school, partly optional);
  • Higher education.

Each of the stages of schooling is divided into substages (“levels”). Students that fail to meet the requirements and pass the exams/tests might be asked to study one year more in the same class. Those students who excel (especially in the école) might be promoted and “jump over” one class for their achievements.

Higher Education Within the French Education System

Students in France are able to enroll in the university at the age 18. In order to do so, they need to achieve Baccalauréat upon the completion of the high school. Baccalauréat is actually a sort of a qualification for enrolling in the university. There are three series of Le Bac, depending on what sciences and major one wants to study: S series (sciences, which is the toughest one among others), ES series (studies in economy and social sciences), and L series (literally studies).

Once a student has achieved Baccalauréat or its foreign equivalent, he/she gets a right to get enrolled in a university (including publicly funded ones). Yet, distinguished students may opt to take private classes (so-called preparational studies) during a year or two and attempt to pass concours, an exam required for getting enrolled in one of les grandes écoles. Les grandes écoles are several prestigious French universities, and lots of students strive to enroll there and study (mostly) administrative studies, politics, business, and engineering.

Typically, the academic year at the French universities starts in the mid September and comes to an end in the beginning of July. In order to receive a qualification in a higher institution in France, you need to study a number of subjects worth a sufficient amount of credits, namely:

  • Licence (which is an equivalent to the internationally recognized Bachelor’s Degree): 180 ECTS and three years.
  • Master’s Degree (divided into a degree for professionals and into a degree for those who will pursue PhD): 120 ECTS, two years.
  • PhD (or National Doctoral Degree): 180 ECTS, three years.

During the process of applying for a French university, you might be asked to pass an oral or written exam in order to prove your knowledge of French. Typically, it is considered that students must have at least the B2 level of French, since all courses are taught in this language. More information on this matter can be found here.

The tuition fees for studying in French public universities are fairly low and equal to both French and international students. The annual fees are the following ones (though, keep in mind that they may be changed by the government):

  • EUR 189.10 for Bachelor’s courses;
  • EUR 261.10 for Master’s courses;
  • EUR 396.10 for PhD courses.

Useful Sources

Here are a couple of useful sources you might need:

Enrollment in French universities for foreigners

Programs Taught in English in France

Eiffel Scholarships

Here you can get to know more about the French school system.


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