Schools in France: state, private, bilingual and international schools
To enrol your child into French education there is an array of schools in France to consider: state schools, private schools, or international and bilingual schools.
If you're moving to France, this guide to schools in France will help you choose the right school for your child: a local state school, a state-contracted private school, a fully independent private school – which includes international and bilingual schools – or even home schooling.
The French education system
It is compulsory for all children resident in France to attend school between the ages of six and 16, with French education being divided into primary level (école), elementary or middle school (collège) and high school (lycée). To read about how the French education system is structured and what to expect at each stage, see Expatica's guide to the school system in France.
You can choose whether to go to a French state school, a state-contracted private school or a fully independent school in France, which includes most international and foreign schools. It is also legal to home school in France under the guidance of the schools inspectorate.
Local French school or international school in France?
Pros and cons of a local French school
The big advantage of enroling your children into a local French school is that they will become fluent in French and become integrated into French society much faster than they would at an international school filled with expats. The younger the child, the easier it tends to be.
However, older children may find it harder as French state schools generally teach only in French and test regularly, and your child will be expected to keep up with lessons and maintain at least a 50 percent mark average in a language they are not familiar with. Language support within the school is not always provided. Many expat students have to repeat a year, although there is no stigma attached to this in France.
If you are planning a long stay in France, becoming fluent in the local language and accustomed to French culture will be beneficial when your child graduates. The French schooling system is also considered quite rigourous, particularly final exams. State education is also free, and generally considered of a high standard. Class sizes, however, can be large, with one teacher for 30 students or more.
Pros and cons of international schools in France
In an international school, students may find it easier to continue (and suceed academically) within an education system they are familiar with, taught in a language they understand. If you are also planning to return home or move abroad again in a few years, it may be beneficial to continue in the school program offered in your home country or an internationally recognised program.
However, it may mean that your child takes longer to learn French and become integrated into French society. The student population at international schools can be transient as families often move on, which can be hard on friendships. However, taking part in extracurricular activities in your local area can help with the language, as well help make friends with French kids.
Class sizes tend to be smaller than state schools. Additionally, more extracurricular activities may be on offer at an international school, as French schools tend not to cover creative activities and sports, although such activities are also provided by community associations. French education tends to value academic and rote learning over creativity and self-development, and some parents may feel the French education philosophy doesn't allow for self expression or puts pressure on the child.
Fees can be high, although some expat relocation packages cover this.
State schools in France
The majority of schools in France are state schools. The Ministry of Education is responsible for France’s state schools. The country is divided into 28 regions (academies) that set the curriculum and examinations to a national standard. The focus in French education is on academic work and subjects like arts, crafts and sports mostly take place outside of school.
Primary and middle schools have catchment areas and you’ll be assigned to a school based on where you live. If you want your child to go to a school outside of your area, you’ll need to have a good reason and get permission from your local mairie (town hall) and the rectorat (schools inspectorate). In Paris, non-French-speaking children may be sent to a school that has language integration support, if available.
You can find out about state schools though the schools’ information service (service des écoles) at your local mairie or you can write to the Inspecteur d’Académie of the département where you will be living.
Applying to a French state school
You need to register by June of the year you want your child to start primary school (or earlier if you want to go to a school out of the local area), and by the end of the spring term for collège. Contact the service des écoles at your local mairie 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.
First, you will need to get a certificate d’inscription from the local mairie (or rectorat service for secondary schools). To obtain this, you will have to show:
- 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 immunisation – a carnet de santé (an official booklet with health records from all visits to a French doctor) or other official health certificate to show that the child is immunised against diphtheria, tetanus, and polio (DTP).
- proof of residence – usually a copy of a utility bill or rental agreement showing your home address.
Foreign documents may need to translated by an official translator, traducteur assermenté. Parents may also be asked to show proof of identity, which can include copies of passports, cartes de séjour, or cartes d'identité, and possibly proof of insurance. While insurance is not required to attend class, some schools may ask that you carry an insurance policy, assurance scolaire, for your child to participate in any activities outside the classroom.
You then take the certificate d’inscription to the school, along with vaccination and health certificates and insurance certificate.
For secondary schools you may also need:
- an application form
- end of term reports from the previous year
- exit certificate from the primary school
- certificate of admission to 6eme
- passport photos
Private schools in France
About 15 percent of French children attend private schools (écoles privées or écoles libres) throughout France. They have smaller class sizes, provide more individual attention and have better facilities than state schools. The school week runs from Monday to Friday, unlike the state sector where there can be lessons on Saturdays for older children (although Saturday classes are becoming less common), or half days on Wednesdays.
There are two types of private school in France: contracted (sous contrat) or non-contracted (hors contrat) to the French government.
State-contracted private schools in France
Most private schools are controlled and funded by the government. These schools are called sous contrat d’association schools. State-contracted private schools have to follow the French national curriculum and adhere to the same rules and regulations as state schools. The lessons, tests and exams are in French, and students work towards the French qualification, the baccalauréat.
However, these schools often offer intensive tuition for non-French speaking students. Unlike private schools in the UK and the US, tuition fees are nominal and can be as low as EUR 300 EUR per year. There may be other charges on top, such as registration fees and lunches. Enrolment is often first come-first served. To apply, contact the school for enrolment requirements and procedures.
Non-contracted private schools in France
Some private schools are fully independently funded and are not under government control, although they do have to be registered with the Ministry of Education. These private schools are free to set their own curriculum and they often offer a wider choice of academic subjects, as well as classes in art, culture and sport (which state schools do not). They are often Catholic and – unlike state schools – can teach religious studies. Most international and bilingual schools come into this category and fees can be expensive. To apply, contact the school for enrolment requirements and procedures.
Bilingual, international and foreign schools in France
There is a wide range of options for foreign students.
There are bilingual schools with section bilingue or classes bilingues. These schools mostly cater for pupils who are primarily French speakers, although some teach in both French and English. International schools also offer different national sections with lessons taught in the language, literature and history of the particular country while teaching other lessons in French – as well as intensive French lessons for non-French speakers. There are also other schools that teach solely in English.
However, if you are not planning on living in France long-term, or you have children who have already started their secondary education back home, it may be better to choose an international school for continuity and language issues, instead of a bilingual school.
International schools are set up for the international community, although French pupils can also attend. The standard of education is usually high, the class sizes small and the facilities are excellent. Some international schools offer boarding (useful if your job takes you abroad) but most are day schools.
International schools can cover age ranges from nursery up to the last year of high school. They usually teach in English and French but may also teach in German or Spanish depending on demand. Some follow British or American curriculums and offer English or American educational qualifications such as GCSEs and the American High School Diploma, although students at international schools may sit the International Baccalauréat. Some offer summer language immersion classes.
International schools are found all over France, usually in large cities and areas where there is a sizable expat population. The Council of International Schools has a list of CIS member and accredited international schools in France. You can also contact ELSA, the Paris-based English Language School Association for international and bilingual schools in France.
Admission and enrolment procedures for international schools
These vary according to the school but apply as far in advance as possible. Often students are required to have reached a specific standard of education and you will need to provide past school reports and exam results.
Fees vary depending on the school but as an example, 2015/16 basic annual tuition fees for pupils taking A Levels at an international school in Bordeaux are EUR 15,400. Check the ‘withdrawal’ conditions too – you usually have to give a term’s notice if your child leaves the school before the end of the year.
Home schooling in France
It is legal to home educate your child in France. The advantage is that you can continue to teach your child in your own language and work at your child’s own pace, and there are support organisations, such as Les enfants d’abord to help you. However, bear in mind that your child will take much longer to become fluent in French, make French friends and integrate into French society.
For information on home schooling in France, see Expatica's guide to the school system in France.
Choosing a French school checklist
If you can, visit the school and meet the director (head). In addition to the criteria you would normally apply to choosing your child’s school in your home country, you might want to find out:
- If lessons will be taught in French, what language and other support will be available?
- What languages are taught as obligatory or optional?
- What does the curriculum include? Ask to look at a typical timetable to see the academic/non-academic ratio.
- What examinations are set? Are they internationally recognised?
- What nationality are other students?
- If it’s a private school, what do the fees include or not include?
- What are the withdrawal conditions?
- Council of International Schools
- ELSA: English Language Schools Association.
- FABERT: for a list of all French private schools.
- Ministry of Education
- Les enfants d’abord: information about home education.
- Service-Public: information about special needs education in France.
- SESSAD: special needs education
- School system in France
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