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School Years in France - Understanding the French education system

Updated: Nov 7

As an expat parenting coach, I often support families in adapting to the French education system. One of the first questions I'm asked is how to figure out which class my child will go into.

And the answer is, it's not easy to figure it out! Because in France, you are placed in a school year depending on your year of birth. So the cut off date is 1 January, instead of 1 September.

We'll come back to that confusing bit of information later, but first, here's a table to make it easy for you to compare systems.


Comparison Table of French, UK and US School Years

Age of child

France

UK

US

3-4

PS (Petite Section)

Nursery

4-5

MS (Moyenne Section)

Reception

Pre-K

5-6

GS (Grande Section)

Year 1

Kindergarten

6-7

CP (Cours Préparatoire)

Year 2

1st Grade

7-8

CE1 (cours élémentaire 1re année)

Year 3

2nd Grade

8-9

CE2 (cours élémentaire 2e année)

Year 4

3rd Grade

9-10

CM1 (cours moyen 1re année)

Year 5

4th Grade

10-11

CM2 (cours moyen 2e année)

Year 6

5th Grade

11-12

Sixième (6e)

Year 7

6th Grade

12-13

Cinquième (5e)

Year 8

7th Grade

13-14

Quatrième (4e)

Year 9

8th Grade

14-15

Troisième (3e)

Year 10

9th Grade

15-16

Seconde (2e)

Year 11

10th Grade

16-17

Première (1ère)

Year 12

11th Grade

17-18

Terminale

Year 13

12th Grade

Back to that cut off date. Maybe it's easier to give you an example.


For the school year 2022/23


  • A child born on 1 January 2010 would be in 5eme in France, 7th Grade in the US, and Year 8 in the UK.

  • However, if the same child was born on 1 September 2010, they would still be in 5e in France, but in 6th Grade in the US, and Year 7 in the UK.


If you'd like to work out the grades for your own child, this calculator might be helpful - double checking this took me some time!!


Okay, that's the basics, now let's move on to the schools themselves.


The French education system is divided into cycles, and the schools are divided by age groups, but they're not always equivalent, so let's take a look at both.


'Cycles' in the French education system


coloured pencils

Cycle 1 - this is for children in PS, MS, and GS. They all attend 'maternelle'. It's a structured environment, not a play-based nursery. By the end of GS, children are expected, for example, to know all the letters of the alphabet, be able to recognise their name and be able to write it, know the numbers 1-30, know some songs by heart, and be able to explain the main life stages of a plant/animal.


Cycle 2 - children in CP, CE1 and CE2. They all attend 'primaire' - primary school. CP is the year where children learn to read. By the end of CE2, they are expected to be able to read fluently, to write a half-page story, and understand/use some basic grammar.


Cycle 3 - children in CM1, CM2 and 6ème. The last two years of primary school, and the first year of 'collège' - the equivalent of middle school /secondary school. By the end of 6ème, children are expected to be able to use a computer (I'm sure that won't be too difficult for most!), write 2-3 pages of text, and have understood the rules of French grammar.



2 students talking in a school corridor

Cycle 4 is 5ième, 4ième and 3ième. These years are in collège, and at the end of 3ème pupils take the 'Brevet' It now includes both continuous assessment throughout the students' time in collège and a final examination. The final examination, commonly referred to as the Brevet exam, consists of a written portion and sometimes an oral component. The written portion typically includes exams in subjects such as French, mathematics, history-geography, and science. The purpose is to assess the students' academic achievements and determine their readiness to move on to the next level of education, which is the lycée (high school), although it is not actually mandatory to have your Brevet to go to lycée.


Now for a change. There is no Cycle 5, although there are 3 more years of schooling. The French lycée, or high school, represents the final stage of secondary education, following collège. Lycées offer various tracks, with the most common being the "Bac Général" and "Bac Technologique." The "Bac Général" (General Baccalaureate) is a three-year program with terminale (12th grade) as its final year. Students choose from three main streams: literary (L), scientific (S), and economic and social sciences (ES). Each stream has specific subjects, allowing students to specialize based on their interests and future academic pursuits. The "Bac Technologique" (Technological Baccalaureate) is also a three-year program but is more focused on applied sciences and technologies. It includes various specializations such as STMG (Management and Economics Sciences), STI2D (Innovation and Technological Design Sciences), and STL (Laboratory Sciences and Technologies). Both the "Bac Général" and "Bac Technologique" culminate in the baccalaureate exams, which are crucial for university admissions and further education or employment opportunities.


Types of school

There are 3 types of schools: public schools, sous contrat (contracted) schools, and hors contrat (non-contracted or independent) schools.

Public schools, funded by the government, form the majority and are accessible to all students. They follow the national curriculum and are subject to government regulations.

Sous contrat schools are private schools that receive government funding in exchange for complying with certain educational standards, including the national curriculum and teacher qualifications. This funding allows them to offer lower tuition fees than hors contrat schools. When you see a state school that has a 'section internationale', then the non-French teaching fits into the 'sous contrat' model. The Lycée Internationale at Saint Germain, Balzac and Sevres are examples of Section Internationale.

Hors contrat schools, on the other hand, operate independently of government funding and have more freedom in designing their curriculum. To open, they must obtain authorisation from the educational authorities. These authorities will check the conformity of the education taught in the school to the values of the French Republic. International schools may follow the curriculum of your home country, or alternatively offer the IB. They may well be fully bilingual - with either 2 teachers in each classroom, or spending half of each day in French, and half in another language.


In need of further support?

Looking for more information about education in France? The AAWE has done some of the preparation work for you by gathering information both about specific schools, and also more details on the French education system. You can purchase a copy of their guide here.


If you are moving to Paris and would like support in the transition, do reach out to me. I provide life coaching for expat families to help them make a smooth transition to France, and am also happy to put you in contact with relocation specialists. Want to read more about living in Paris? Sign up to my weekly newsletter. Please leave a rating or comment if you found this blogpost helpful.



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