France Country Profile - Education System

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System structure 

France is considered to have a high standard of public education, which focusses on a traditional school experience of academic study and strict discipline. School is for learning, not play, in France and pupils are rigorously tested from an early age. All children receive a free education and school is compulsory between the ages of six and 16. Children attend primary school (ages 6 to 11), junior/middle school (ages 11 to 15) and are then separated by aptitude into specialist secondary schools (ages 15 to 18). On completion of a school career, most students sit the Baccalauréat (le bac) examination, which is necessary to gain admission to higher education.

Academic year

The academic year runs from the beginning of September to the end of June and is divided into two semesters (in universities).

French schools have long holidays, with two months in the summer, two to three weeks at both Christmas and Easter and week-long half term breaks. The school day starts at around 8.30am and finishes at 4.30pm with a long lunch break, when many children return home to eat with their families.  

Higher education

France has a complex system of higher education, divided into 83 public universities and around 250 mixed public or private Grandes Écoles. These are smaller, elite institutions (similar to Ivy League schools in the States), which sit outside the main university framework. The highest-ranking universities are the École Normale Supérieure and École Polytechnique ParisTech (both Grandes Écoles). Students gain admission to public universities on successful completion of the Baccalauréat exam at age 18. Admission to Grandes Écoles is by a highly selective entrance exam following two years of private preparatory study, from ages 18 to 21.

Like most other things in France, higher education is highly centralised and overall management is the responsibility of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, which wields considerable influence over budgets and policy.  


French public universities are state-funded and students (both EU and non-EU) pay a small annual tuition fee of around €181 (£163). The low fees make France a very popular destination for international students, who account for around 13% of the student body. Students will pay more at the elite schools (Grandes Écoles), some of which are permitted to set their own fees.


Overall, French higher education offers around 36,000 courses with some partially taught in English, although French remains the dominant language in both teaching and research. It would be virtually impossible to study at a French university if your French is less than proficient. In universities, courses comprise three-year undergraduate degrees followed by two-year ‘research’ or ‘professional’ Masters programs. PhDs take around three to four years to complete and many are paid positions.

The system differs in Grandes Écoles, where students undertake two years of preparatory study known as ‘classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles’ (CPGE) prior to commencing their studies. The overall degree programme, including preparatory study, is the equivalent of a combined undergraduate and postgraduate degree.


A combination of top-level funding, an international approach and the establishment of elite subject-specific institutions has led to France being one of the most respected and competitive research nations in the world. Research is carried out in universities, Grandes Écoles and public institutes such as the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the largest science agency in Europe, and other public research institutes such as INRA and INSERM. State funding for research is allocated by the French National Research Agency.

Primary and secondary education

All schools in France are governed by the Ministère de l'Éducation Nationale and most teachers are classed as civil servants (fonctionnaires). State-funded schools adhere to a strict national curriculum and high educational standards. French schools are divided into:

  • Primary school (École primaire): From ages 6-11.
  • Junior/Middle school (collège): From ages 11-15. At junior school, children follow a general curriculum and are frequently tested (sometimes each week) to determine their path to the different secondary schools.
  • Secondary school (lycée): From ages 15-18. Lycée are divided by specialism into general, technical (sciences, engineering, health) or professional (for students destined for manual/clerical or vocational employment). At the end of lycée, students take the Baccalauréat exam tailored to their lycée specialism.


France has excellent preschool care provision which enables both parents to work without having the extra burden of finding private childcare. State preschools (école maternelles) are available to children from age two or three (depending on municipality) to age six and are free of charge. Registration at public preschools can be completed by contacting the local town hall (mairie). Should you not wish to enrol your child in free state preschool, there are numerous private nurseries and kindergartens to choose from.

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