French school system

The French spend more money on their education system that many other Western countries and as a result it is often revered for having very high academic standards. Education in France is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16, and state schools are entirely free from nursery school through to university, but you have the right to educate your children at home.

The state-funded school system is supported by a comprehensive network of private schools, including many distinguished international schools. Around 15 per cent of French children attend private schools, most of which are co-educational day schools, but a private education has little snob value – and it’s considerably cheaper than in the UK, for example. Higher education standards are only average, however, with the notable exception of the elite grandes écoles, which are rated among the world’s best educational establishments.

The French are proud of their schools and resent government interference, although there are almost continual ‘reforms’ of the educational system. They have a respect, even a love of learning, and reforms are argued at great length and with surprising passion.

French teachers generally have high expectations of pupils and the system is hard on slow learners and the not so bright; although most schools have special classes for children with learning difficulties, these are beginning to disappear as education budgets are cut. France has a highly competitive and selective examination system that separates the brighter students from the less academically gifted at around the age of 14. From primary school level, children are subjected to constant testing.


Children must attend a state school within a certain distance of their home, so if you have a preference for a particular school, it’s important to buy or rent a home within that school’s catchment area (which may change periodically in accordance with demographic changes).

You may make a request (dérogation) for your child to attend a different school from the one assigned by your town hall, but you must usually have good reasons for such a request, e.g. another of your children already attends your preferred school, the preferred school is close to your home or place of work, or it teaches a unique course that you wish your child to follow, such as certain foreign languages. The transfer must be approved by the directeurs of both schools.

Information about schools in a particular area can be obtained from the schools information service (service des écoles) at your local town hall. If you wish to arrange your child’s education before arriving in France, you should write to the Inspecteur d’Académie of the département where you’re going to live, with details of the child’s age, previous schooling and knowledge of French.

To enrol your child in a French school you must compile an ‘enrolment file’ (dossier d’inscription) at your town hall (for primary schools) or at the rectorat school service (for secondary schools) and must supply the documents listed below. You will then be given a registration form to take to the school.

Your child’s birth certificate or passport, with an official French translation (if necessary). If your child was born in France, you must take along your family record book (livret de famille) or birth certificate (extrait de l’acte de naissance).

Proof of immunisation. In France, immunisations are recorded in a child’s health book (carnet de santé), which is issued to parents when a child is born. When you arrive in France, you’re issued with a carnet de santé by your mairie for all school-age children.

Proof of residence in the form of an electricity or telephone bill in your name. If you don’t have any bills (lucky you!), a rent receipt, lease or proof of property ownership (attestation d’acquisition) is acceptable.

If your child is coming from a different French school, a certificat de radiation issued by his previous school.

Evidence of insurance.

Most schools in France operate on a four-day week basis, Monday to Friday with Wednesdays off. School hours vary. Nursery school hours are from 08.30 or 09.00 to 11.30 or 12.00 and from 13.30 or 14.00 to around 16.30. There’s a 15-minute break in the mornings and afternoons. Primary school consists of 26 hours per week, usually from 08.30 to 11.30 and 13.30 to 16.30. Secondary schools have the longest hours.


The French university system is often regarded as the weakest link in the country’s education system. Anyone who passes the French baccalauréat examination is guaranteed entry to a university. Schools of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy are attached to certain universities, and, at the end of the first year, there is a selection where only the best 10 per cent are accepted in the second year. Other restricted entry institutions include schools of economics and law. However, one of the most difficult to gain acceptance to is a veterinary school, a popular and lucrative profession in France (where there are over 10m dogs!). There are just four veterinary schools in France, all with a highly competitive entrance examination.

There’s no central clearing system and applicants must apply to each university separately. Most French students normally apply via their school, which submits their applications for them.

Fees and grants

University students don’t pay tuition fees, and costs for foreign students are minimal. Between €150 and €300, depending on the options chosen, is sufficient to cover registration fees, including obligatory fees for health insurance and social security. The maximum grant is now around €3,000 per year, although most are less than €1,000. Some 12,000 grants of around €400 per month are available to students wishing to study abroad.

To apply for a grant, students must prepare a dossier social étudiant by the end of April and submit it to the Centre National des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires (CNOUS).