Education in France
If you're living in France, here's a guide to education in France and how to enrol your child into the French education system.
An overview of the French education and the system behind school in France, and an introduction to the French educational philosophy and the documentation required.
France offers state-run and private schools at all levels, and the educational standards are generally high despite constant fretting that they are on the decline. The rigorous curriculum is dictated by the Ministry of Education and is virtually the same across the country and in French overseas territories.
Teachers are considered civil servants and the teacher's unions are quite powerful; teacher strikes are frequent and often cited as a primary reason why French families opt for private schools, which are overwhelmingly Catholic.
Schooling is free and mandatory from ages 6 to 16, although nearly all French children begin school by age four. Another two years of study are required if a student is to sit the baccalauréat, 'le bac', exam, which they must pass to advance to university.
Your child's grade is determined by the calendar year of birth; that is, all children born in 1999 or another given year are assigned to the same grade
Private schools are either sous contrat, meaning under contract with the state whereby the government pays the teachers' salaries and the school follows the national curriculum and schedule, or hors contrat whereby they are totally privately funded.
Private schools sous contrat demand a relatively modest tuition; tuitions at schools hors contrat are significantly higher and vary widely, although most fall in the EUR 1,500 to EUR 4,000 range.
There are public schools with bilingual programmes (See 'International sections'), but in most cases, a bilingual education is only available in a private school. In Paris and some other large cities, there are private American and British schools where the curriculum is equivalent to the country of origin.
French school schedule
The system calls for 26 hours of class per week; students preparing the baccalauréat may have as many as 40 hours per week.
There are roughly 158 school days per year, less than in many anglophone countries, but the school days are longer. The school-day generally runs three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon with a two-hour lunch break; children can go home for lunch or stay at school for a fee-based lunch service, la cantine.
The traditional schedule calls for attendance Monday through Friday with no classes on Wednesdays and a half-day on Saturdays, but this schedule is one of the ongoing educational debates. Some of the 28 administrative district académies have eliminated Saturday classes and make up the time by extending the school year. In southern Burgundy there is no state school on Saturdays, and it is only the first year of Lycée that has Wednesdays off.
All public schools have four two-week breaks in October/November, December, February/March and April/May.
Virtually all schools will have a fee-based childcare system, service de puériculture, available before and after school and during vacations. These services, as well as la cantine, must be signed up for separately and fees are often means-tested.
Report cards are distributed three times a year, once per trimestre.
Ecole Maternelle (Petite, Moyenne, Grande Section)
Nursery school is optional, and children can begin classes at age two. While these schools are still state-funded, attendance is optional and placement is not guaranteed, especially for younger children; children as young as two can attend but must be potty-trained.
The three-year cycle is referred to as the cycle des apprentissages premiers. The main aim is to teach the child some degree of autonomy and how to live in a social situation. In grande section, activities are geared toward preparing the child for primary school including pre-reading, writing and elementary math skills.
Virtually all French children are scolarisé before starting primary school.
Ecole Primaire (CP-CM2)
This starts at age six and corresponds to American grades 1 through 5 and to British Infant 2 through to Junior 4 classes. The administrator, usually a member of the teaching staff, is known as the directeur or directrice; teachers are referred to as maître or maîtresse.
The first two years are CP (cours préparatoire) and CE1 (first year of cours élémentaire) and constitute the second two-year cycle, the cycle des apprentissages fondamentaux.
Children are taught to read in CP. During school year 2005 the Minister of Education mandated that CP teachers use a phonetic methodology. This decision has been resisted by some teacher who prefer the méthode globale, which teaches children to recognise whole words as opposed to sounding them out. Reading skills are tested in the first half of CE1. Many schools have retained some hybrid methodology and the debate is likely to continue for some time.
The next three years, constituting the cycle des approfondissements, are CE2 (second year of cours élémentaire), CM1 and CM2 (first and second year of cours moyen).
It is has been proposed that foreign languages, usually English, be introduced as early as CM1; many primary schools already have introduced English classes but this is not always available. Regional schools may also teach regional languages such as Breton or Corsican.
If a child needs to repeat a year, redoubler, it is most often suggested at the end of a cycle. This decision is determined by a group of school directors and teachers, conseil de cycle, although parents may appeal their decisions.
School assignment is normally determined simply by your address, but parents can request a dérogation, or transfer, to another school.
The first year of secondary school, called the 6ème, is called the cycle d'adaptation; the 5ème and 4ème are the cycle central; the 3ème is the cycle d'orientation.
The school administrator here is known as the principal; secondary schools also have groups of counsellors, teachers and parents, a conseil de classe, that monitor students' progress and, ultimately, decide if they can progress to the next grade.
At the end of the 3ème, students sit for nationally administered exams to obtain a diploma called the brevet des collèges. Likewise, the conseil de classe makes important decisions about which 'track' a student should follow at the lycée, whether regular studies leading to the baccalauréat or vocational studies at a lycée professionelle.
Again, parents may appeal this decision; it can be extremely difficult to change course once a student has started down a certain path of study.
Foreign-language study, again usually English, is mandatory as of the 6ème; study of a second foreign language is required as of the 4ème.
The year of lycée, the seconde, is known as the cycle de détermination; students take the same core curriculum of some eight subjects but are offered three electives and an artistic workshop. At the end of this year, the key decision is made as to which baccalaureat the student will pursue.
There are three baccalauréat general: literature and language (L), science and math, (S) economics and social sciences (ES). The S bac is considered the toughest. There are also some eight baccalauréat technologique, or diplomas based on specific technical skills including laboratory work but also music and dance.
A baccalauréat guarantees entrance to a state university, although not necessarily the school or department of choice. Nor is success a given. Sitting for the test is a truly nail-biting experience and many students will add a series of practice tests to their regular studies during the final two years.
The tests begin at the end of the première, with two tests in French language and literature, the first written, the second oral.
For the second set of tests, at the end of the terminale, students are tested on various subjects depending on the curriculum they followed, and all subjects are weighted to match. All students must take the dreaded philosophy test, the questions for which are often printed in the newspaper the next day. If the student scores poorly, they can sit for two additional oral exams in any subject to try and make up their missing points.
International and European sections
There are some 30 French schools that also offer an International Section leading to an international baccalauréat (OIB). These sections offer language and literature studies at higher levels than the normal curriculum. There are British and American sections as well as a number of others.
They are intended to integrate foreign students and make it easier for them to eventually return to schools in their home country, but many French students attend as well to take advantage of the advanced language training. Foreign students, however, must represent at least 25 percent of the enrolled students.
The curriculum is offered on top of the normal French-language course load and includes instruction in language, literature, geography and history; native-language teachers are usually recruited from abroad. Some of these sections include a boarding-school option.
European sections also offer higher-level language instruction, at least two additional hours per week; but whereas the curriculum for international sections is agreed upon by administrators in France and the country of origin, the European section is intended to better integrate French students into a multi-lingual European environment. Students who pass the additional language tests for their baccalauréat earn a diploma with a mention section européenne.
Both of these programmes add significant additional work onto an already demanding curriculum; your child's overall scholastic aptitude rather than their bilingualism should determine whether or not they enrol.
Higher education in France
A baccalauréat guarantees access to a publicly funded university; but the public university system is not the most prestigious source of enseignement supérieur in France.
The very best students take another one or two years of private studies, prepatory classes, or prépas, so they can sit for an entrance exam (concours) into the handful of top schools known collectively as les grandes écoles for engineering, business, and politics or administrative studies.
Admission is based purely on the scores obtained on the concours, which include oral exams. Students in prépas classes routinely study 60-70 hours per week, many ultimately fail the tests or at least don't perform well enough to get into the school of their choice, and any given concours can only be repeated once.
On the other hand, graduation from a grande école is a ticket to success in France and it is rare to find a top-level French politician or administrator or business leader who is not a product of one of these schools. This is not to say that some state-run schools don't have excellent reputations.
How to register your child into a French school
If you want to send your child to a public school, contact the service des écoles at the mairie of your city or arrondissement. If your child is arriving from outside France and is entering collège or lycée, you will need to contact the educational district's administrative head, the rectorat. See the list of académies on the Ministry of Education's website.
All foreign documents will need to translated by an official translator, traducteur assermenté. You will be asked for the same documents for both public and private schools.
• proof of birth: a birth certificate, extrait de l'acte de naissance, or a livret de famille (an official French booklet of family records issued by the mairie).
• proof of parents' identity: this can include copies of passports, cartes de séjour, or cartes d'identité. Divorced parents may also be asked for proof of legal guardianship.
• proof of immunisations: a carnet de santé (an official booklet with health records from all visits to a French doctor) or other official health records to show that the child is immunised against tuberculosis (BCG); diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (DTP); and polio. Note that children entering from the US often require the BCG vaccination.
• proof of place of residence: usually a copy of a utility bill or rental agreement showing your home address.
• proof of insurance: while not absolutely required to attend class, most schools also ask that you carry an insurance policy, assurance scolaire, for your child to participate in any activities outside the classroom.
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