If you are moving to France permanently with your children of school age, one of the first things you need to research is the education system and where your family fits in.

The French education system is one of the best in the world, with an emphasis on academia and discipline. A young child is likely to become bilingual in a very short time and is likely to have advanced skills for their age. It can sometimes be useful to employ a tutor to start with, although children are usually fearless language learners and should integrate fairly quickly.

General Schooling system

Full time schooling is compulsory in France for all children aged 6-16, and the current system of state education has been in place since the 1970s. More recent developments have ensured that all children aged 3-5 attend nursery school.

Full time schooling is compulsory in France for all children aged 6-16.

Standards are high and there is a high degree of consistency in state schools across the country, although the curriculum is reformed regularly. Students of the same age will generally be studying the same subjects with the same textbooks across France. All pupils are taught for twenty four hours a week, spread over four and a half days in nine half-day sessions; this will generally be on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and a half day on either Wednesday morning or Saturday afternoon. The French education system is split into:

  • Nursery School (Ecole Maternelle)
  • Primary Schools (Ecole Primaire)
  • Collége
  • High School (Lycée), or vocational options

Ecole Maternelle and Ecole Primaire

This is divided into three cycles, with flexibility built in to the curriculum so that a child can take more or less time to work through the cycle if necessary. The first years of nursery school (Maternelle) for those aged three to five is known as Cycles des Apprentissages Premiers; this is then followed by Cycles des Apprentissages Fondamentaux until they are eight, the final year at Nursery School; and the first two years of Primary School. The last three years of Primary School (until the age of 11) is then known as Cycles des Appronfondissements.

Living - Classroom

The French education is renowned as one of the best in the world.


Students begin Collége at the age of 11, and this lasts until they are 15, where the next step is decided by examination, with the top students going on to attend a Lycée to study for the Baccalaureate, and those without the necessary grades following more vocational educational options. Around 80% of students continuing their schooling beyond the age of 16, with approximately 300,000 students per year undergoing apprenticeships.


At age 18, students sit the “Baccalauréat” – the university entrance exam. If your child passes, he will have a free place at any of France’s universities. If at an international school, they will sit the International Baccalauréat; this was created in 1968 and involves a pre-university course of study, leading to exams. The study is quite rigorous, but once a student receives his or her diploma, they will have access to the world’s leading universities. International schools teach in both English and French, and are therefore popular with expats. Pupils can often learn other European languages, too. They cover all age ranges and may also offer international GCSEs or follow the English National Curriculum. They are situated all over France, mostly in areas with a large expat population, such as Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and Toulouse.


In 2005, the seven skills that underlie teaching across primary and secondary school were introduced by the French government. All students are expected to have command of these skills at the end of their education, and in theory they should be able to use them in practice in their potential professional life. These skills are:

  • Command of the French language
  • Proficiency in a modern foreign language
  • Key elements of mathematics, scientific culture and technology
  • Mastery of ordinary information and communication skills
  • Humanist culture
  • Social and civic skills
  • Autonomy and initiative

These competencies are overseen and assessed at regular intervals throughout the child’s education, until the end of secondary school. It is generally believed that this emphasis on exams and results will ensure that almost every child will end up with the opportunity to study for a trade, diploma or degree. Each school has a specialised group of career guidance instructors to help pupils, parents and teachers to solve problems and assess future goals.

There are seven skills that underlie teaching across primary and secondary schools in France and all students are expect to have command of these skills.

Extra-curricular activities for French students

Despite the stricter learning environment, many schools offer a class de découverte (discovery class), where the school class moves to an outside venue (such as the ski slopes or seaside). There is not, however, the same level of extra-curricular activities that children from the UK and other European countries might expect – particularly in the case of Arts, Drama, Music and Sports. There are many clubs and associations outside school, however, so it is generally up to the parents to assess which of these their child should chose to spend their time and money on. The local Syndicat D’Initiative (or Tourism Office) will have details of all local classes, groups and associations. In some areas, sports facilities are subsidised.

Different schooling types

There are a number of different types of school across the country, including private and international schools. State schools are, as you would expect, state funded, usually Catholic and account for about 15-20% of the population in education.

Living - Education

Private schools in France are more affordable than their UK counterparts and are very popular with expats.

Private schools do exist and while they must also adhere to the national curriculum, they do have a more flexible approach to teaching. They are more affordable than those in the UK, and very popular with expats. They also have a better teacher to pupil ratio than state schools. Here the school day is shorter than in state schools – and another advantage may be that the schoolteachers do not strike as much as in the state system! There is a system of grading in most schools and repeating a year is common.

Learning the language

Any child joining the French school system will have to deal with the challenge of learning a new language for everyday use. There are a number of additional learning support classes for non-French speaking students and you will be able to meet other expats in your area who have been through the same challenges. Starting a child early in primary school in France will reap its rewards quickly. You can expect them to become fairly fluent within six months. You may well be the one asking for guidance from your child! Children under the age of ten will learn French without a British accent. Over this age, there may be a slightly detectable accent but there shouldn’t be much difficulty in happily integrating. Click here further information about learning French.

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