The French Education System


The French educational system is reputed to be one of the most thorough in the world. Public education is free at the primary and secondary levels and is compulsory from age six to sixteen. Universities are public and tuition is nominal. The majority of schools (85%) are State run (L'ÉCOLE PUBLIQUE). Private schools (L'ÉCOLE PRIVÉE), often Catholic, are partially subsidized and fully regulated by the State.

We have found that these private schools have been helpful in assisting the English speaking pupils/students into integrating into the French school system. There is more flexibility in dispensing the student of required French courses to allow more time for 'French as a foreign language' tutoring. Some of these schools even allow the tutor (paid for by the parents) onto their premises; something unheard of in the public school system. There also seems to be a general consensus that these schools look more at the 'individual needs' of the student. This is perhaps why many French parents send their children to private schools when the public school experience has not had good results. These Private/Catholic schools are open to the general public and count among their population a good number of non-Catholics and /or secular students. Catechism is waived upon request.

Another aspect of Private schools is that they, for the most part, have Saturday morning off; whereas many Public schools work on Saturday morning. Also, most public schools have up to a 2 hour lunch break, with school ending at 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., whereas Private schools tend to insist on EVERYONE lunching at school, thus having a shorter break, which ends the day at 4:00 to 4:30 p.m. Another surprising factor is that these Private schools are NOT overpriced, with lunch being the greatest expense. There are certainly exceptions to this, especially private non-parochial schools.

French education is centralized with a nationwide curriculum imposed by the Ministry of Education that ensures national uniformity. This curriculum is dense and demanding. The approach to education is aimed towards the examination process at both the secondary and university levels.


There are 3 trimesters (3 month grading periods) per school year. At the end of each trimester a "CONSEIL DE CLASSE" is held. This meeting includes the teacher(s), two student delegates (not in primary school), parent delegates, and an administrative representative (principal or vice-principal). The teacher briefly gives a profile of the class. In some Public schools this description includes a general level grouping. For example: group 1 is strongest, group 1-2 is second, group 2 is third, and group 2-3 is fourth (students experiencing difficulty) group 3 is last (students who might repeat the year if they don't improve). Most of the meeting is taken up discussing the pupils/students having difficulty. Remarks made at this meeting may show up on the report card. The report card is sent out approximately one week after the "CONSEIL DE CLASSE."

This meeting is also a forum whereby, delegate students, and delegate parents (voted in at the beginning of the year) may express concerns. If a "CONSEIL" expresses 'concern' over a student's progress, the parents' should take immediate action by seeing the teacher and taking steps to turn the situation around. For, a warning not heeded in December and confirmed at the 2nd "CONSEIL" (before Easter) may slot that child for being left back in June. Private school may have more frequent report cards.

Being left back in France is not considered the extreme measure it is in the U.S. Generally, Public schools consider it more worthwhile for a weak student to consolidate his foundations by repeating the year than to move on to a higher grade on a shaky substructure. Also, French course curriculum is dense and, Math and Science are more heavily emphasized. This is perhaps why French students and parents are more or less in accordance with this practice. Thirty percent of French students repeat at least one year during their scholastic years.


We have found that 3 trimesters (1 school year) is too short a period to expect ALL immigrant English speaking students to adapt to the system/language. We find that 5 trimesters is enough to have the student become fully functional in the system. Upon arrival at a French school, some administrators would recommend having the English speaking child go into a grade 1-YEAR YOUNGER. This may or may not be judicious, for, no matter which grade the student goes into, the problem remains whole; HE DOES NOT MASTER THE LANGUAGE.

If, upon his arrival, the student goes into his normal grade, he has a fair chance of passing the year. If he arrives part way through the school year, the school would most likely take for granted his repeating the year. At the end of the first school year, parents may find that their child would have made a world of progress, and yet be asked to repeat the year. We recommend that parents negotiate with the school to have their child move onto the NEXT GRADE and repeat that grade if necessary. In fact we believe that an English speaking student needs 5 trimesters to fully adapt to the language/rhythm/system.

In primary school, parents have the final word on whether their child moves on to the next grade. Not all Primary school principals are forthcoming on this rule.

If parents and COLLÈGE (grades 6,7,8,9) administrators are at odds on this subject, the case may go to a "COMMISSION" (administrative type jury) for judgement. If the ruling doesn't go your way, you may find a sympathetic ear in an 'ÉCOLE PRIVÉ'. There are some grades that CANNOT be passed through negotiations. CM 2, for example is a key year. If the teacher recommends repeating the year, it may be difficult for the parents to go against that decision. Remember, Junior High School classes last only 50 minutes and the students don't have the same constancy that Primary school provides. The teacher may have assessed the pupil as not being 'ready' for this change. Poor grades would reinforce that assessment. Grade 9 has a national test in June called 'LE BREVET'. A student cannot be accepted into LYCÉE (grade 10) without having passed that test. Also, be aware of tracking in this grade. Weaker students may be encouraged to go to 'LYCÉE TECHNIQUE', (an improved version of a vocational high school.)

In high school (LYCÉE - grades 10, 11, 12), the hours are longer, the number of subjects increased, and the course content denser. A student usually recognizes when he is too far behind in a given subject(s) and a consensus of parents, student, and school authority is normally reached. Once again, if this is not the case, the student can always apply to an 'ÉCOLE PRIVÉ' at the next grade level. In 12th grade (TERMINALE), the final high school diploma 'LE BACCALAURÉAT' is contingent on the student passing the series of final exams known by the same name. Even if the student has passing grades all year long, he will repeat the year if he fails the series of finals. If he is failing all year long in one or more subjects and passes the exam(s), he gets his diploma.


Your child will take his cues from you. If you remain positive, finding solutions to your problems one by one, he will do the same.

If you accept different attitudes, methods of doing, types of relationships, so will he. Remember his experiences, challenges and accomplishments are greater than his classmates, but not necessarily recognized or rewarded as such.

Encourage your child to develop a friendship with a classmate. He most likely will need to take the first step and invite the classmate home. A friend in the class becomes a resource person if information is not understood. Speaking on the phone with the child's parents will give you greater access to information concerning the class, class work, teacher, expectations, and other concerns.

Also, getting a tutor immediately upon arrival is of the utmost importance.


The best way to help your child adapt to the school system is to get him TUTORING. Three types of tutoring are necessary:

First, French as a second language - No matter what grade your child is in, the French taught in class is beyond his level.

Even in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade, French children return home to parents that correctly pronounce and use the language. Spelling and verb conjugation are more complex to a foreigner.

The tutor should start at the beginning, and cover every aspect of language learning.

Secondly, the tutor should be in contact with the teacher to assure the student does as much homework as possible, as soon as possible and by the same token, let the teacher know of the student's added effort.

The tutor must be guided by the teacher's curriculum, pace and advice. The teacher must be made to feel that the tutor is there to assist her, NOT replace her. The more homework the student does, the easier the teacher can assess progress.

By the same token, test taking must be worked on from the first. Math is a good place to start. The content of the lesson can be taught in English (if you are able) and test taking can be almost immediate.

Science and history may also be worked on with the tutor because there is usually a textbook to work with.

Of course French and literature come last (although you can always get the book in English. Amazon.com for on-line book buying). Remember Math is a privileged subject in France. If a student is strong in Math, all sorts of allowances may be made in other subjects.

Lastly, but by no means of less importance, the tutor should play an important role in building self confidence in your child.

The foreign student has lost most of his reference points in the new system. He may have been a good or very good student back home and now he is ranked at the bottom of the class. This can be hard to adjust to.

The severe grading policy enforces this feeling of failure.

In Primary school, where they grade out of ten, five passes and eight is an excellent grade.

In Jr. High and High School they grade out of twenty where ten is passing, 12 a good grade, 13 to 16 excellent, above 16 you are on Mount Olympus, 20 is nonexistent except in Math.

The tutor should be made to do evaluations on his own with positive reinforcement in mind. Stroke the student. Point out the thousand and one improvements that have NOT been recognized in class.

Build his self-esteem. It's quite important for the student to feel he has progressed if he is to keep up the sustained effort.

By the 5th or 6th trimester, he'll be fully integrated into the class, have friends and his accomplishments would be plain for everyone to see.

One thing is sure, no matter what type of student your child was back home, he would have become hardworking and industrious with EXCELLENT study habits that will serve him not only for the remainder of your stay in France, but for the rest of his scholastic career.

Upon return to the USA, he will be placed in advanced Math, Science, and French classes (High School) or at the very least be placed in honor classes.

One school year before returning to the U.S., we recommend working on his English language skills, perhaps by getting the grade level English curriculum from his High School back home.


A school day in France is longer than in the USA. The 1½ to 2-hour lunch break has the day ending at 4:30PM, 5:00PM, or sometimes 6:00PM in LYCÉE.

Public primary schools tend to have Wednesdays off and Saturday mornings on. Private primary schools tend to have Wednesday mornings on and Saturday mornings off. In Public COLLÈGES and LYCÉES, Wednesday afternoons are off but most LYCÉE students have class on Saturday morning.

To counteract the negative effects of the heavy scheduled week, the French Ministry of Education has established an (approximate) rhythm of school breaks throughout the year.

The rhythm is based on 7 weeks of school and one or two weeks off. There are 4 of these breaks per school year. France is divided into 3-school vacation zones.

ZONE A: Caen, Clermont, Ferand, Grenoble, Lyon, Montpillier, Nancy, Metz, Nantes, Rennes, Toulouse

ZONE B: Aix en Provence, Marseilles, Amiens, Besançon, Dijon, Lille, Limoges, Nice, Orléans, Tours, Poitier, Reims, Rouen, Strasbourg

ZONE C: Bordeaux, Créteil, Paris, Versailles

Up until and including Christmas break, all 3 zones have school breaks at the same time:

The week of November 1st

2 weeks at Christmas usually starting around the 18th to the 20th of December 2 weeks for winter break 2 weeks for spring break As for the winter break, the 3 zones rotate their vacation order on a yearly basis. Check on an annual basis.


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