The concept of school is pretty much the same worldwide. The year begins in Fall and finishes in Spring. And the school day itself begins in the morning and finishes mid-afternoon. They offer courses for language acquisition, math, science, history, and more. But each country has its own peculiarities. School is mandatory for all children from age 6 until age 16. There is a current law proposal in discussion at the Senate after having already passed the Parliament that would change the mandatory starting age to 3 years old. Here is a simple outline of the French school system.
French School Year
As in the US, the actual school year begins in the Fall. Usually the first week of September.
However, while most schools in the US are finishing up between mid-May and early June, France is still going strong. Until the first week of July to be exact. There are multiple reasons for this but a big one is that there are many more vacation periods throughout the school year.
French School Vacations
In order that the children have enough time in the classroom to warrant the completion of a level, the year has to be a certain length. Because of the lack of vacation time during the school year, American children are able to have long summer vacations lasting around three months.
In France, however, small 2 week vacations are taken every 6-8 weeks during the year. Which forces the school year itself to lengthen and allows only 2 months break in summer. These vacation dates, except for summer, vary depending on the zone (as delineated by the Éducation Nationale) but fall around the same period.
Toussaint is the holiday known as All Saints’ Day in English and always falls on the first of November. Because of this (and the fact that this holiday falls within 6-8 weeks of the start of school, the first 2-week vacation falls here.
The next vacation is also chosen because of a regular holiday, Christmas. Again, it works well because this holiday falls within 6-8 weeks of the last.
Then comes the Winter vacation which falls sometime between mid-February and early March.
And the last vacation, known as the Spring vacation, takes place between beginning April and mid-May. This leaves around 8-10 weeks until the end of the school year.
With these frequent breaks for children, it is necessary to lengthen the school year to allow for time to learn new concepts.
French School Week
On average, the American school day begins at 8:30 am and finishes around 3:30 pm. Lunchtime is no longer than an hour so, though the day seems to end early, children have been learning for six hours. The schedule is the same Monday through Friday and from primary schools up through high schools. Individual schools may move the time forward or back by up to a half hour, but this is the average schedule.
In France, the day seems much longer. And the days and times vary. Depending not just on the individual schools but also grade level.
In general, preschools and elementary schools run four days a week, usually Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. They generally start around 8:30 am and finish at 4:30 pm with a lunch break from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm. Activities are available every day after school, all day Wednesday, and all day Saturday.
Middle schools and high schools, on the other hand, run 4 1/2 days per week. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, school starts at 8:00 am and finishes at 5:00 sometimes 6:00 pm. Wednesdays are only from 8:00 am until noon.
French Grade Levels
Most children in France will begin school around the age of 2 or 3. The reason is often financial. The government gives families monetary aid for childcare from the age of birth until around 3 years old. Because preschools are free and run the same hours as an average workday, parents can be assured of childcare with minimal cost.
Elementary schools begin around the age of 6 years old and last for five years. Students are required by law to begin school in the calendar year they turn 6 years old. So if a child turns 6 on December 31, he or she would still be required to start school in September. This affects homeschoolers as well. To find out more how to legally homeschool in France, please read my post How to Homeschool in France.
Middle schools are always separate from both elementary and high schools. They begin around the age of 11 years old and last for four years, unlike in the US where the middle school is on for three years.
Lastly, high schools begin at 15 years old and last for three or more years. There are three different types of high school: general, technological, and professional. Children are allowed to “drop out” at the age of 16. The law proposal that would begin mandatory schooling at age 3, also has a provision for students after 16. It would require all students to either be enrolled in a governmentally accredited school from 16 years of age until 18 years of age, be enrolled in vocational training, or hold a job. I write a little more about this in my article, Homeschooling Once Again Attacked in New French Law.
Preschool, Pre-K, and Kindergarten are often public schools open to everyone from as young as 2 years old until the age of 5 or 6. The programs are full-day with naptime taking place at the school in the afternoons. There is no official requirement to be potty-trained before starting school. However, since most schools are understaffed, they try to make it a policy to ensure children are not sitting in dirty diapers for long periods of time. With the possible change of law, there is no indication of how this would be addressed.
The classes are known as Toute Petite Section (TPS), Petite Section (PS), Moyenne Section (MS), and Grande Section (GS). While the younger classes have naptimes lasting up to two hours, the oldest class has merely a resting period of about thirty minutes after lunch before beginning lessons. The students in GS also begin learning to read and write and cursive in preparation for their first year in elementary school.
These grade levels are considered part of the first cycle of learning known as the cycle des apprentissages premiers or the cycle of beginning learning.
Mandatory education begins at this age in the current law. The different classes are Cours Préparatoire (CP), Cours Élémentaire Première Année (CE1), Cours Élémentaire Deuxième Année (CE2), Cours Moyen Première Année (CM1), and Cours Moyen Deuxième Année (CM2).
The second cycle of learning, cycle des apprentissages fondamentaux or the cycle of fundamental learning, begins in CP and goes until CE2. The third cycle of learning, cycle de consolidation or the cycle of consolidation, begins in CM1 and continues until the first year of middle school.
In middle school, collège, Wednesday mornings are added to the school week starting generally around 8 am and ending at noon. This schedule will be maintained until the end of high school.
Instead of students remaining in the same classroom with the same teacher as in grade school, they will have different teachers for different subjects and will move continuously throughout the day to each classroom. Courses like history, science, French, or English can be up to 2 hours long.
The school day lengthens from 8:30am-4:30pm to 8am-5pm. However, this does not mean the child is in class the entire time. Depending on his or her schedule, the child may finish early, or start later, or even have large breaks during the day.
However, unlike the US, where each child has their individual schedule, the collège schedules students together in a group. In any particular grade, there may be any number of groups of students. These groups follow the same educational path and will have the exact same schedule all four years. Often they will even continue on to the same high school.
To break this down a little, there are four grade levels in collège: Sixième (6e), Cinquème (5e), Quatrième (4e), and Troisième (3e). The average ages are 11 years old until 15 years old. At the end of collège is a national test known as the Brevet which the child does not need to pass in order to continue to high school.
The second year of middle school (5e) until the final year (3e) constitute the fourth learning cycle, cycle des approfondissements or the cycle of deeper learning.
With four grade levels in middle school, France makes another slight deviation from schools in the United States. High schools last only three years. The grade levels are Seconde (2nde), Première (1ère), and Terminale (T). At the end of their studies, students must pass a national test known as the baccalauréat. All students must pass this test regardless of whether or not they wish to go to university.
This is also the final cycle of learning, cycle de détermination or the cycle of determination. Basically, the learning years when students choose their vocation.
But another large difference exists in high school organization. In the US, everyone goes to the same high school. Within the high school itself, students may take different paths to prepare for their particular interests. So, for example, one student may focus on the liberal arts and graduate ready for the university while another child in the same school may take classes to prepare for a job in mechanics or another manual labor job.
However, in France, different high schools exist for different career paths. The 3 types of high schools are lycée général, lycée technique, and lycée professionnel. Depending on the school chosen, different subjects will be offered. However, all three continue teaching the basics of history, French, English, and Math.
The idea was to create environments where children could specialize earlier to prepare for the workforce in a job that interested them. Each school was to be available to every student regardless of socio-economic background or results of the Brevet. However, the reality is that smarter students from better economic backgrounds generally attend the lycée général while the students with the worse scores and poorer students end up in technique or professionnel.
Here’s a breakdown of studies in the three high schools.
As mentioned above, this is the high school where most students from middle to upper-class backgrounds attend. They offer classes and subjects that help prepare students for university and white-collar jobs.
Students will be able to focus on languages (sometimes choosing up to 3 different ones), math, science, or history. These are the students that will continue on to university to become lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, and most other white collar positions.
They study for 3 years before passing the baccalauréat to continue on to university. You are generally seen to be a good student if you attend a lycée général.
This high school is considered to be a step-down from the lycée général though it is still often attended by students from a middle-class background. This is because the technical high school prepares students for fields in sales, nursing, computers, etc.
Students will continue to study French, English, and History. However, they will be heavily focused on science, math, and other technical courses.
These students will also study for 3 years before passing the baccalauréat. Most of these students will have internships during their high school years to prepare them for working immediately upon graduation.
This school was set up to help prepare any student for a job in things like hospitality, hairdressing, construction, and agriculture. However, it is most often attended by children from the poorest backgrounds or with the worst results on their Brevet.
These are the students that have been told their entire academic career that they were no good. They come from broken homes, often times even living in group homes. Many have parents in jail or who are addicts. This high school has become the dumping ground for all the children the system doesn’t know what to do with until they no longer are required to care for them.
This is why many professional high schools are considered just one step away from being juvenile detention centers. Teachers in these schools deal with the police on a regular basis. And see a higher drop out rate than any of the other high schools.
Despite this, these schools are some of the most important because they prepare students for the jobs the most prevalent (and most necessary) in our society. It is in these schools that you may see students 22 years old and older. Sometimes, adults will even attend since many of the continuing education programs are attached to these schools.
Learning in Lycèe Professionnel
These schools (like the technical high school) can be likened to our technical colleges to some degree. Though they continue to learn French, English, History, and Math, most of their courses are known as ateliers. These workshops are where they learn the tools of their trade, from woodworking to cutting hair.
Many of these professional high schools will be either all male or all female. Not because the other gender is banned but simply out of the interest of students. High schools that focus on bricklaying and other construction jobs will generally attract only male students. While many of the high schools offering hairdressing and cleaning will attract the female students. Others will attract both, like hospitality (those working in hotels and restaurants).
Unlike the general high schools, these students must often pass another national exam known as the CAP. This is considered less important than the baccalauréat but is often required for a student to enter a particular profession. If they have chosen only one path, they will pass this test after 2 years of study. They may then continue their final year and take the baccalauréat.
However, some students decide to pass a couple of these tests in order to be fully prepared for higher positions in their chosen profession. For example, in construction, a student may decide to pass the CAP for woodworking, bricklaying, metalwork, or more.
After passing each CAP, they are required to restart school in the second year (1ère). Only when they are finished taking CAP tests can they move to the last year (T). At which point they take the baccalauréat. If they fail the bac, they either stay in school until passed or they decide to quit. This is why some students in the last year of these high schools can be 22 or 23 years old.
In the US, we are quite used to our children attending the same school where they have their activities. It is completely normal for kids (especially in middle and high school) to stay after school for a few hours to practice for their various sports or work on their various projects. Someone interested in football will often play with the same kids he goes to school with. A student interested in photography can work on the yearbook.
This does not mean that all activities are attached to schools. It simply means the chances of a student finding an activity for their particular interests is much higher. Which is helpful to parents who need not worry about carting their children around all over the place.
Private or Public
However, in France, with the exception of a few schools, no activities are attached to the school itself. A child interested in photography must find an outside organization to attend. A child interested in football must join a club. Students who want to learn music, go to the conservatory.
This is also one reason why there is no school on Wednesdays (or only mornings for upper grades). If you remember, school is only finished after 4:30 or 5:00 pm. This does not allow a lot of time for after-school activities. Especially considering the travel times. But by freeing up a day in the week, children are able to “do it all.”
Now, this system is awesome for homeschoolers. It is not necessary to seek permission from a particular school if a certain activity is only available there. Everyone from the area attends the same places for the same activities. There is no school alliance so homeschool kids do not feel like outsiders. And in some cases, like at the conservatory, classes can be scheduled during the school day.
My daughter, V, has her viola classes on Tuesday afternoons while other kids are still in school. It is helpful that we do not need to schedule everything in after-school hours. And we can schedule other activities on Wednesdays thus freeing up some evenings during the week.
Schools all over the world have similarities. But they have just as many differences. Education has been important to France ever since the rule of Charlemagne from 800-814. He admired learning so much that history often credits him with starting the first ever school system. He made monasteries places of learning and required his own children to be well-educated. And he is even credited with creating a library in Jerusalem.
The system may have changed often since then (as everywhere). However, the current French government still considers this extremely important. So much so, that it is in constant reform. One such reform would require mandatory schooling to begin at age 3. And mandatory education or work from 16 to 18 years of age. You can read more about this law proposal in an article I wrote for the HSLDA, Homeschooling Once Again Attacked in New French Law.
This system has its pluses and minuses (again like every system). And it is partly because of this system that I have chosen to homeschool. More about that later.