The French education system has long been viewed as one of the strongest in the EU and, providing English speaking expat children can overcome the language barrier, you can expect your child to receive a very good standard of education in the country.
Although school in France does not become compulsory for children until the age of 6, when they start to attend primary school (known locally as either Ecole primaire or Ecole élémentaire), many parents choose to send their children to a type of pre-school/kindergarten known as Ecole Maternelle. Children aged between 2 and 5 can attend these pre-schools which are split into three groups depending on the age of a child: Les petits, les moyens and les grands. Ecole Maternelles are governed by a curriculum, so children who attend can expect to learn reading, writing, maths and, in some instances, a foreign language as they are prepared for entry to Ecole primaire or Ecole élémentaire. It is fairly common for a pre-school to be directly attached to a primary school. Primary education in France lasts between the ages of 6 to 11. After finishing primary school children move onto secondary school, which in France is split into two: Collège (middle school) for those aged between 11-15 and then lycée (high school) for those aged between 15 and 18.
In collège, children are given a broad education which tends to focus on key subject areas including French, science and maths. During this time they are working towards obtaining a Brevet des collèges (commonly known simply as ‘Brevet’), which is a diploma that acts as a solitary all-round qualification which is based on a student’s performance in all subjects rather than how they perform in each individual subject. This diploma is made up of a mixture of coursework and exams, with all marks obtained in the final year of collège going towards the qualification.
Upon finishing collège, children then move onto lycée where they will work towards obtaining a baccalauréat (often shortened simply to ‘bac’). The bac is the qualification that all those who are hoping to go on to higher education in France (definitely university) will need to obtain in order to do so. Like the Brevet, the bac is an all encompassing qualification. It measures a student’s performance over three main streams of study (called ‘séries’): The série scientifique (S) is concerned with sciences and mathematics; the série économique et sociale (ES) looks at economics and social sciences while the série littéraire (L) focuses on literacy and other arts-based subjects. Students do, though, have far more control in choosing which subjects to study in lycée than they did at college.
However, as it is possible for children in France to leave school at 16 – after the first year of lycée – not everyone goes on to receive their bac. In fact, recent statistics show that just under 80 per cent of recent school leavers stay on to complete lycée and therefore achieve their baccalauréat. There are a wide range of school options available in France, including public schools, faith-based schools and private schools. Obviously if your child does not speak French then this will be a concern when choosing a school for your offspring. Some public schools, especially in the larger towns and cities or areas which receive a large number of expats, do offer language initiation classes (CLN or CILN), which may help your young ones settle. Some Secondary schools in larger cities may even offer a Section Internationale (international section), which is a curriculum geared toward teaching French to non-Francophone students in an attempt to integrate them into the French system. Another option may be to consider sending them to an international language school (although, like private and faith-based schools these are almost certain to charge you). Ultimately much will depend on the age of your child – the younger they are the more likely they are to pick up the language quickly.
Should your child wish to stay on in the French education system once they have finished lycée and received their baccalauréat, then they will have numerous options available to them. The three most common are an apprenticeships (which may not all require you to have a bac), university or grande ecoles. Any student who obtains a baccalauréat has automatic entry to university (there are over 80 in France), although to attend a grand ecole – the most prestigious higher education institutions in the country – they will almost certainly have to pass an entry exam and attend a series of interviews. In 2012, Paris – home to 16 of France’s universities – was ranked as the world’s best city for students by the QS World University rankings. Lyon was also highly ranked in the same survey.