French education system

History of the French education system
Jules Ferry
Late 19th Century
Early 20th Century
The Fifth Republic

French education in the 21st century
Private schools in France
Laïcité (Secularism) in French education
French school holidays

Structure of the French school system
Table showing structure of the French school system
French academic year
French school types

Diplomas and other French qualifications
For more information

History of the French education system

The French education system is considered to be one of the best in the world. It can trace inspiration for its founding principles back to the 1789 revolution and throughout the 19th century to the present day, grew and developed by way of legislative texts to become what it is today. The French constitution states that it is ‘the duty of the state to provide free, compulsory, secular education at all levels’, an edict established in the late 19th century by one of France’s most important education ministers – Jules Ferry.

Jules Ferry

Jules Ferry, father of the French education system

A lawyer by profession, a French statesman and republican, Jules Ferry held the office of Ministre de l’Instruction publique et des Beaux-arts (Minister for Education) 3 times from 4th February 1879 to 20th November 1883. He was an advocate of laicism and colonial expansion. Many of his contempories saw him as antireligious but a more accurate label would be anticlerical. Many significant new education laws were passed during his tenure that transformed the old dual system of both state and church schools, predominantly controlled by religious officials, to a single state school system run and taught by lay teachers. The first of Jules Ferry laws were passed on 16th June 1881 making primary school a public service and free for both boys and girls. To help fund the growing numbers of school children the government decreed that local communes and departments should subsidize the new system.

1882 marks one of the most important dates in the French education system – Jules Ferry Education Act of 28 March 1882. This made school attendance compulsory for all children from the ages of 6 to 13 and deemed all public education secular. This fell in line with Ferry’s philosophy that it was the absolute duty of the state to provide primary education for every child in France making primary education a principal right for all French citizens. Secondary education was however treated different and was only available to those who were deemed capable and who would harness their education to the betterment of French society. Among the many Articles bound to the Act, Article 1 stated that primary education should include not only reading and writing but also (French) geography and history. Other subjects bound in Article 1 were basic understanding of law and economy, mathematics, natural sciences, agriculture, industry and manual labour, elements of drawing, music and gymnastics. For the boys military training, for the girls needlework. Religion was covered by Article 2 which gave one free day a week, apart from Sunday, to allow parents to give religious instruction to their children, should they wish, outside of the school system.

Late 19th Century

In the late 1880s, two more education laws completed the reforms initiated by Jules Ferry. The first came in October 1886 from René Goblet, a successor of Jules Ferry, clearly distinguishing the differences between public and private education. Laymen were now the only teachers in public schools and were required to have achieved a state brevet as a condition of teaching, systematically removing male clergymen and religious females from the role. The law of 19th July 1889 finally cemented the role of school teacher as a secular occupation by officially turning all school teachers (public and private) into civil servants.

Late 19th century primary education reform could be considered the example by which many other reforms were modeled. Primary education became a vital means of support for the developing state system, tutoring and guiding the young French in the national republican ideology. The educational structure laid down by the politicians of the late 19th century remained virtually unchanged until just after the Second World War.

Early 20th Century

The beginning of the Fifth Republic marked the first major revision to the curriculum. Popular French education up to this point in time had not intended to lead to further study, its purpose was to prepare pupils with the basic life skills needed to help them through the rest of their lives. It had been rigid in its doctrine, showing no evolution to the changing conditions of society. However, the impact of the second World War and Nazi occupation fostered a renewed hope in France of a new, fairer, modern society with democracy as its main focus and thus a new national education system that could reflect and encourage this new thought. Charles de Gaulle’s Algiers government started the process in 1944 which resulted in the Langevin-Wallon proposal of 1947. It proposed that school French education was to prepare France’s youth for work, personal cultivation, active citizenship and, how each was to be made democratic. Secondary education was to be made free and universal so talent could be drawn from all corners of society. Thus new secondary technical and professional schools were created as well as universities and other post graduate establishments. However the Forth Republic refused to pass the proposed reforms and little progress was made until 1958.

The Fifth Republic

Introduced on the 4th October 1958, the Fifth and current republican constitution of France replaced the collapsed Forth Republic with a semi-presidential system and Charles de Gaulle at the centre. The following 20 years saw a dramatic change in the French education system. Pupil numbers rose and so did expenditure.  Enrollment rose in some areas by almost 4 times. By the late 1970s France was one of the highest spending per capita countries, along with the United States, Canada, Sweden and Denmark. Secondary education could now be started at the age of 16. The curriculum and student choice, for secondary and higher education, shifted from traditional humanist subjects (Greek, Latin, philosophy, early history and literature) to social and natural sciences and technology. Although more students from the middle classes were passing the baccalaureate, the working class were still trailing behind. Their numbers had grown with the expansion of French education system but few were continuing their education past the age of 16. De Gaulle’s mandate for the Fifth Republic was to marry the twentieth century, to not let France to be its victim. He wanted equality with an emphasis on nationalism, France had to remain France. This was reflected in France’s education system. Modern technological society demanded advanced vocational and professional schooling for the working population. But France was also very guarded of its own culture and traditions and so promoted citizenship and culture as important educational models.

From the late 60s there have been much progress in the development of the French education system but it has often be thwarted by trouble, change and ill management, certainly in the early years. The mid-60s saw reform under the guidance of Christian Fouchet, Minister of Education from December 1962 to April 1967, the longest serving education minister in the 20th century. His achievement in Primary education was the creation of a common middle school, the Collège d’Enseignement Secondaire, which lasted till 1976. Another major innovation in higher education was the law of 1966 and the creation of Institut Universitaire de Technologie (IUT). Adding a third choice to post secondary education (Universities and Grandes Ecoles), IUTs offered 2 year post baccalaureate courses in industrial and commercial studies preparing middle level technicians for all sectors of the economy. It was hoped that IUTs would help stem the dreadful drop-out rate (in the first year) of the late 60s which reached 40% at its height.

The late 20th century Ministry of Educatoion has strived to improve education standards across all establishments, raised the standard of the teaching staff for both schools and universities, increased attendance and improved higher education drop-out rates. Since the 1980s government has been gradually devolving powers allowing local authorities to manage and control their own educational system.

As of 2012, responsibility for each of the facets of the education system can be seen in the chart below

Overview of competencies Nursery and Primary
(Maternelle and Primaire)
Lower Secondary
Upper Secondary
Investment (construction,
reconstruction), infrastructure,
running costs
Municipality Département Region
Pedagogical costs Municipality Conseil général Conseil général
Teaching staff (recruitment,
training, allocation, pay)
State State State
Curriculum State State State
Awarding diplomas n/a State (Brevet) State (Baccalauréat)


Free text books are supplied at both primary and collège level but school supplies are only provided for primary pupils. At Lycée level, parents are responsible for providing text books but in some cases the conseils régionaux may step in and provide them free of charge.

Diplomas are not awarded at primary level of schooling and start at lower secondary (Collège). At Collège level the Diploma is the Diplôme National du Brevet (Brevet) and at Lycée level the diploma is the Baccalauréat.

French education in the 21st century

Today school in France is compulsory for all French children, and foreign children resident in France, from the ages 6 to 16 and covers primary education (Primaire) and the first 4 years of secondary education (Collège), although home schooling is possible with the appropriate permissions. However, schooling can start from the age of 2 in Maternelle allowing for working parents (over 80% of women work in France) and, fostering good preparation for Primaire. Whereas Primaire and Collège are obligatory so enrollment is automatic once a school is chosen, Maternelle is optional, enrollment is the responsibility of the parents.

Private schools in France

Almost one fifth (17%) of school children in France are taught in private schools. Most private schools however have a contract with the state to coexist within the state system. Those schools that sign a contract are granted state support but have to adhere to strict regulation and must respect the national curriculum. Exams are set at the national level and the state alone awards diplomas. Where as teachers in the state system are considered public servants, teachers in the private sector are given the status of public contractors, although both are funded by the state and both are recruited in the same manner to the same strict national standards. In 2011 there were 138,645 teachers in the private sector compared to 720,655 in the state system.


As previously mentioned, all teachers are paid for by the state. Those that teach in the state system are classed as public servants whereas the teachers working in private schools are considered as public contractors. Both are of equal status and demand the same strict qualification level. To become a teacher up to Lycée standard you must have achieved a masters degree in education (bac+5) and sit the competitive exam – as the name suggests, candidates are ranked according to their grades in the exam so only those with the highest marks are accepted. Whilst preparing for their competitive exam, students undertake work placement in a school where the trainee observes and teaches under the guidance of a mentor teacher. The successful candidate becomes a trainee teacher and is assign to a school for a year of probationary work. On completion, they must fulfill a positive assessment before becoming a fully qualified teacher.

An important requirement for school life is neutrality. The curriculum and teaching have to respect the principle of neutrality as both teachers and pupil must show philosophical and political neutrality.

Laïcité (Secularism) in French education

Since the Jules Ferry law of 28th March 1882, the French education system was made compulsory for children, free and secular. Laïcité has played an important role since and influences many aspects of the state but none more than the education system. In 1905, a law of separation removed all religion from government institutions stating, ‘the Republic does not recognise, pay, or subsidise any religion’ (Article 2). Even with the banning of proselytism, the purpose is not to quash religion but to give religious freedom to all, respect for the beliefs of pupils and their parents. The one day off a week was thus introduced so religious teaching could be taught outside of school, should the parents wish.

French school holidays

The dates for French school holidays are fixed nationally every 3 years by the Ministry of Education. However, so as to alleviate overcrowding in holiday resorts and road congestion, the country is divided into 3 zones. For two of the holidays each year, winter half term and spring end of term, the dates are staggered by one week limiting the number of school children on holiday at any one time. The dates for all other holidays, including bank holidays, remain constant throughout France. Click on the map image below to see the zones and example dates in more detail.

calendrier scolaire carte repartition zones 300

Structure of the French school system

Although compulsory schooling starts at the age of 6, most parents enrol their children in nursery school from the age of 3 and, subject to availability of places, children can start at the age of 2. The school structure is made up of two main sections, primary and secondary. Both elements are then divided into two and can be seen in the chart below. As compulsory school is only to the age of 16, attendance at upper secondary level is not mandatory. Although schools are reluctant to implement it, it is not unusual for a pupil to retake a year if their end of year results are poor.

École Primaire
Ages: 3 – 11 years
École Maternelle
(Nursery School)
Ages: 3 – 6 years
Petite Section
Moyenne Section
Grande Section
École Élémentaire
(Elementary School)
Ages: 6 – 11 years
Cours Préparatoire (CP)
Cours Élémentaire 1ère année (CE1)
Cours Élémentaire 2e année (CE2)
Cours Moyen 1ère année (CM1)
Cours Moyen 2e année (CM2)
Ages: 11 – 18 years
(Lower Secondary)
Ages: 11 – 15 years
3e Diplôme National du Brevet
(Upper Secondary)
Ages: 15 – 18 years
General and
Technological route
Vocational route
Seconde Seconde
Première Première
Terminale Terminale
Baccalauréat général
Baccalauréat technologique
Baccalauréat professionnel

From the 2008 – 2009 academic year, pupil are taught for 24 hours a week, spread over 8 or 9 days, Monday to Friday with half a day on Wednesday. Pupils at all levels of education are expected to achieve a set national level. At each stage, teachers assess and measure the attainment of all pupils and are thus able to identify any pupils that experience learning difficulties for whom bespoke support can be given for 2 hours a week. Each year the curriculum is improved in almost all disciplines.

The French school year is made up of 36 weeks divided into 5 work periods. In each school year the number of teaching hours is calculated by 36 weeks x 24 hours = 864 hours, and is strictly adhered to. If a school week has fewer hour than 24, the missing hours will be recovered by reducing the number of days off, usually by attending a full day on a Wednesday.

To learn more about the French education system, its schools and qualifications, click on the appropriate links below.

History and structure of the French education system

École Maternelle

École Élémentaire

Collège and the Diplôme National du Brevet

Lycée and the Baccalauréat