2.6 Comparative Education: Are you able to explore the structure of education in France?


2.6 Explore the structure of Education in France

Structure of education in France

Pre-primary education

Pre-primary education (nursery school) created in 1881 is for children aged 3 to 6. Although it is not compulsory, virtually all 3-year-old children attend nursery school, majority in the public school system. They are state funded, attendance is optional and placement is not guaranteed especially for younger children; children as young as two can attend but must be potty trained. With a dual educational and pedagogical objective, children learn how to live among others, shape their own personality and develop language skills. Nursery school is the strong point of the French education system and what sets it apart from other systems.  Many parents start sending their children earlier though, around age 3 as nursery classes (maternelle) are usually affiliated to a borough’s primary school. Some even start earlier at age 2 in pré-maternelle classes, which are essentially daycare centres. The last year of maternelle, grande section is an important step in the educational process as it is the year in which pupils are introduced to reading. They accept children from age of 2 to five years. It also makes primary education more effective. Nursery school teachers have the same training as primary school teachers and can teach in all primary education grades. The pre school education is well developed and teachers in the ‘ecoles maternelles hold the same qualifications as the primary school teachers.Virtually all French children are scolarise’ before starting primary schools.

Primary education

After nursery, the young children move on to primary school. Primary school is compulsory for all students, French and foreign alike, starting at age six. Primary education lasts for five years and caters for the 6-10 age group. It aims to teach children some degree of autonomy and the basics about citizenship. It is in the first year (cours préparatoire) that they learn how to write and develop their reading skills. Much akin to other educational systems, French primary school students usually have a single teacher (or perhaps two) who teaches the complete curriculum, such as French, mathematics, science and humanities. There is no structural difference between the private and government schools. School attendance is compulsory between the ages 6-16 years. Most of them are co-educational at all levels and classes are held in the morning and afternoon. The primary school attendance has dropped because of a drop in birth rates. Grade repetition is on the decrease, as it is believed that repeating would jeopardize the pupils’ future and that’s why Pre School and primary school are related. Grade repetition is common with pupils from underprivileged groups.

Secondary education

French secondary education is divided into two schools:

  • the collège for the first four years directly following primary school
  • the lycée for the next three years.

The completion of secondary studies leads to the baccalauréat.

First cycle: Junior High Schools

Children aged 11 to 15 attend college that are considered comprehensive because theoretically children study the same core curriculum. A diploma awarded upon the successful completion of an exam at the end of form 3 marks the conclusion of collège. Pupils spend four years in a college(  6th,  5’eme,  4’eme  and  3’eme)    that  correspond  to  the  final  year  of  compulsory education. Grade repetition rate remain the same overall. The average number of pupils per class is 24.3 and majority goes through the system from the 6th  ‘eme to 3rd  ‘eme, which is the final class. The Brevet des college is the first official diploma a pupil has to sit. It is not required in order to enter lycée. Until 2006 the school marks for the whole of the final year (3ème) were taken into account for half of the mark. The other half of the mark consisted of the final exam, the brevet. Pupils were only tested on French, mathematics and history/geography for the exam.The curriculum of study at this level included humanities, languages and science.The students study French language and literature, history and geography, aforeign language or French regional language, art and craft, music education and civics.In the sciences they study mathematics, biology and geology, technology, physics and chemistry.There are also optional courses such as technology, latin and ancient Greek.

Second cycle: Lyce’e

Adolescents aged 15 to 18 attend the lycée, taking them from form 2 (seconde) to their final year (terminale). Lycées offer a large range of education and training possibilities. There are two types of lycées. General and technical education lycées culminate in a“general series”  bacccalaréat.  Vocational  lycées  culminate  in  a  certificat  d’aptitude  professionnelle (CAP- which sanctions training in a specific vocational skill), a brevet d’études professionnelles (BEP – which sanctions the completion of adequate training within a range of technical skills in a particular trade, industrial, commercial or social field) or a “vocational” baccalauréat. Majority of the students continue to the second cycle due to social aspirations. The baccalauréat (also known as bac) is the end-of-lycée diploma students sit for in order to enter university, a classe préparatoire, or professional life. It is generally taken at 18 if the pupil has not repeated a class during secondary school. The term baccalauréat refers to the diploma and the examinations themselves.  There  is  also  the  baccalauréat  technologique  and  baccalauréat  professionnel. Created in 1808, the baccalauréat is a diploma in the French education system that has two special features. It marks the successful conclusion of secondary studies and opens access to higher education.

General lycees

The lycees prepare pupils for three years (2nd ‘eme,1st ‘eme and terminal) for the baccalaureate, which seven out of ten pupils sit. . Most students sit for the baccalauréat général, which is divided into three streams of study, called séries. The série scientifique (S) is concerned with the natural sciences, physics or mathematics (many streams exist, one of which is called série scientifique sciences de l’ingénieur (SSI), a série scientifique baccalauréat with two more specialisations, génie électrique and génie mécanique. There is also the Bac STI, Sciences & industrial technologies. There also exists the option génie mécanique and the options electrotechnique), the série économique et sociale (ES) with social sciences, and the série littéraire (L) focuses on French and foreign languages, art and philosophy. The third serie involves economique et sociale (ES) that includes the study of economics, social sciences and mathematics.However, these séries are not exactly specializations and every bac-possessor has the right to integrate any public university in the catchments area if this applies to the subject they wish to apply for. Students having followed the L series does not have enough scientific knowledge from their secondary education alone to succeed in science university courses, therefore some combinations of baccalauréats and university courses are very rare.The introduction of specialization into preferred careers among students in the secondary schools before entering universities is exemplified in the series. Enrolment comprises of 40 % of the age cohort and grade repetition is high at this level with 10% for the first year (2nd ‘eme) and 12% of the second year (1st  ‘eme). Private schools enroll a fifth of this cohort group. Three quarter of those sitting for the baccalaureate pass the exam and one third of the cases are technical baccalaureate. Pupils from less privileged groups benefits from passing the baccalaureate compared to those from good backgrounds. Those from wealthy backgrounds favour the sciences while those from poor favour technical sections.

Technical/Vocational high schools (Lyc’ees professionale)

This is the other stream of the second cycle of secondary education. There is high drop out rate of about 40 % despite the increase of those attending them. After lower secondary education (lasting four years), pupils may opt either for general/technological or professional education in lycées preparing for the Baccalauréat, the Baccalauréat technologique or the Baccalauréat professionnel in three years; or for technical/vocational education in lycées professionnels preparing first for the Certificat d’Aptitude professionnelle (CAP) or the Brevet d’Etudes professionnelles (BEP) in two years and then, for those who want to continue, for the Baccalauréat professionnel in two more years. Initial vocational training or the vocational track offers concrete studies in relation with enterprises and their trades so that students can gain knowledge and expertise in an Occupational field. After completing form 3, students can study in a vocational lycée to obtain a CAP or a BEP in two years. Students enrolled in initial vocational training courses can obtain a degree quickly to help them integrate into working life. This cycle is divided into two streams that of general lyc’ee and technical high schools. A quarter of the pupils attend private schools. Pupils can go direct to work or go to general technical high school or stay on in vocational high schools to prepare for one of the vocational baccalaureate (bac’s pros) created in 1987.Majority of  the  students  are  female  in  second  cycle  of  secondary  education.  Those  who  reach baccalaureate are from southwest and West France rather than in Northeast. Majority passes the baccalaureate leading to great demand for higher education.

Higher education

Higher education entails all studies after the baccalauréat. France has very old   universities dating back between 1208 and 1210 A.D.They remain traditional offering general rather than professional education. Universities (including Instituts nationaux polytechniques) are open to a large number of students, whose programmes are generally geared towards research and its applications.  Higher education is funded by the state and fees are very low. Students from low-income families can also apply for scholarships. Academic councils called académies are responsible for supervising all aspects of University education in a given region.

Two systems exist side by side:

An open system in the universities. Most students’ study under this system and women are the majority. All baccalauréat holders have the right to enter this system without any prior selection procedure. Universities offer an extremely wide range of studies. They can specialize in humanities, social science, law, economics and medicine. There is high drop out rates at this level. Professional training courses within the university system have been created since 1970s catering for all levels. Entrance to the courses is selective and technical training courses are organized in the top classes of high schools. In this country there is no open university.

University level studies:

University level first stage:

Premier Cycle (2 years in the pre-Bologna system; 3 years in the post-Bologna system):

The first cycle of university courses passed from 2 to 3 years after the implementation of the Bologna Degree structure. It leads, three years after the Baccalauréat, to the Licence corresponding to 180 ECTS. The Diplôme d’Etudes universitaires générales (DEUG) used to be the diploma awarded in the old system after two years of studies; it has been maintained in the new system as an intermediate diploma corresponding to 120 ECTS. In Medicine, the first cycle is called PCEM. Two years in Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Ecoles (CPGE) are required to enter a Grande Ecole.




University level second stage: Deuxième Cycle (2 years in the post-Bologna system):

The second cycle in the post-Bologna system leads to the Master Recherche (formerly Diplôme d’études approfondies – DEA) or to the Master Professionnel (formerly Diplôme d’études supérieures spécialisées – DESS) corresponding to 120 ECTS after the Licence. In the pre- Bologna system it used to lead to the Licence, one year after the DEUG, and to the Maîtrise one more year after the Licence. The Maîtrise has been maintained as an intermediate diploma and can be awarded one year after the License upon request of the student. The “Grade de Master” has been awarded since 1999 to holders of DEA, DESS, of some Engineering degrees (Titres d’ingénieur) and of some écoles de commerce degrees (diplômes visés). In professional fields, the  following  Maîtrises  can  still  be  awarded:  Maîtrise  des  Sciences  et  Techniques  (MST), Maîtrise des Sciences de Gestion (MSG), Maîtrise des Méthodes informatiques appliquées à la gestion (MIAGE). The Magistère was awarded three years directly after the DEUG (or the DUT). It is not a national diploma, but rather a “diplôme d’université” (DU) accredited in the past by the ministry of education. It associates fundamental and scientific knowledge, professional applications  and  introduction  to  research.  It  is  possible  to  distinguish  between  general magistères, prepared together with a DEA or master recherche, leading to a doctorate, and the professionally   oriented   magistères,   usually   prepared   together   with   a   DESS   or   master professional.  Not  being  a  national  diploma,  the  magistère  has  no  legal  protection  and accreditation procedures stopped in 1988 – 1989. With the implementation of the Bologna system in 2004, some magistères disappeared. Maîtrise holders of Instituts universitaires professionnalisés  and  engineering  students  in  their  last  year  of  engineering  school  can  be admitted to a Diplôme de Recherche technologique (DRT) (Technological Research Diploma), a third cycle diploma issued after completion of a course centering on innovation through technological research in the industrial sector and service industries. The DRT marks the successful completion of a programme of 18 months to two years that is carried out in an industrial or service-oriented scientific environment. In Medicine this cycle (DCEM) consists of four years of study and hospital internship. In Dentistry and Pharmacy, it leads to the Diplôme d’Etat de Docteur en Chirurgie Dentaire and to the Diplôme d’Etat de Docteur en Pharmacie after six years. In the Grandes Ecoles, a Diploma is awarded in Engineering or Commerce, generally three years after two years at university or at CPGE. The Titre d’Ingénieur is conferred upon successful completion of five years of study beyond the Baccalauréat. Some école d’ingénieur accept students on the basis of a competitive examination generally taken two years after the Baccalauréat (in this case, studies last three years at most) or according to the Baccalauréat results, followed by aptitude tests and an interview (in this case, studies last four or five years). The établissements d’Enseignement supérieur catholique, besides preparing to State diplomas at this level (in agreement with a public university), offer four-year and six-year ecclesiastic canonical qualifications.

University level third stage: Troisième Cycle:

In  the  pre  Bologna  system,  the  third  cycle  was  devoted  to  specialization  and  training  for research. It offered two paths: a professional one, leading in one year to the Diplôme d’Etudes Supérieures Spécialisées (DESS), and a doctoral one leading in one year to the Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies (DEA) and then to the Doctorat. The latter was obtained three or four years after the DEA and after extensive research, either individual or as part of a group supervised by a Directeur de Thèses (thesis director) and the writing and successful defence of a thesis. In the post Bologna system the third cycle corresponds to doctoral studies; a doctorate is usually obtained after at least three years of extensive research, under the supervision of a thesis director, and the writing and successful defence of a thesis. Several schools of Engineering, Business and Management offer a Mastère spécialisé to students who are recipients of Engineering degrees or the DEA. The Mastère spécialisé is a specialized 12-month programme (including four months’ training). It is not recognized by the State. It is a label that is controlled by the “Conférence des Grandes Ecoles”, given to a specific programme organized by a school that is a member of the “Conférence des Grandes Ecoles”, and after an accreditation procedure. In general Medicine, the third cycle culminates in the Diplôme d’Etat de Docteur en Médecine after two years’ further study following DCEM. In specialized Medicine, it leads to the Diplôme d’Etudes spécialisées (DES) after four to five years’ further study.

University level fourth stage: Post-doctorate:

The Doctorate may be followed by a post-doctoral degree, the Habilitation à Diriger les Recherches, which  constitutes the highest  national  award and  is offered to  academics  who display the ability to carry out high level scientific research and to supervise thesis.

A selective system with a limited number of places. They make up the second largest sector of higher education. They mostly involve engineering schools, business school  and school of administration. Mostly they are private institutions and are attended by limited number of students. Admission is by competitive examination, entrance examination or applications, sometimes accompanied by an interview. This is the system in use in post-secondary establishments such as the instituts d’études politiques (political science institutes), engineering and business schools, instituts universitaires de technologie (IUTs- university institutes of technology) and the instituts universitaires professionnalisées (IUPs – university institutes of vocational education) and “top tier” establishments such as the grandes écoles, (prestigious higher education institutions with competitive entrance exams) such as the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA – which trains top civil servants) the écoles normales supérieures (ENS – which prepare students specializing in fundamental or applied scientific research to teach at university level and preparatory programs for entrance examinations to the grandes écoles) and Polytechnique. The “Grandes Ecoles” offer a high standard of professional education in three or more years after two years of  “classes préparatoires” and the passing of a very selective competitive entrance examination. They offer scientific training, teacher training or advanced business studies. Five “Etablissements d’Enseignement supérieur catholique” prepare for either national or professional diplomas or for church diplomas. Universities confer national diplomas. These institutions mainly train public sector and private sector senior and middle leaders and managers. They are a direct route to leading posts in France society and student from the upper strata enroll in these courses rather than the university.

Lycées also offer non-university higher education courses leading to the Brevet de Technicien supérieur (BTS). Whereas most institutions come under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Research, some “Grandes Ecoles” come under the responsibility of other Ministries. Universities are made up of units offering curricula in academic fields and of various institutes and schools – such as the IUT – offering courses in Engineering and Technology and special programmes in Management, Political Science, Languages and Physical Education, the IUFM  (Instituts  Universitaires  de  Formation  des  Maîtres)  which  offer  training  courses  for primary and secondary schools teachers, the IUP (Instituts Universitaires Professionalisés) which offer technological courses and practical training with an introduction to research and foreign languages.

Non-university level post-secondary studies (technical/vocational type):

Short-study courses last for two years after the Baccalauréat and lead to a terminal diploma: Brevet de Technicien supérieur (BTS), a national diploma awarded in vocational and service areas. Courses are provided in Lycées; Diplôme universitaire de technologie (DUT) offered in Instituts  universitaires  de  Technologie  to  train  middle-level  managers  in  Industry  and Commerce; Diplôme d’Etudes universitaires scientifiques et techniques (DEUST) offered in various fields related to national or regional needs. DUT and DEUST diplomas are offered in Universities and are equivalent to a first cycle in a Université. A DUT graduate may, in some cases, pursue higher studies leading to the Licence and other degrees.

Special education

Some students have special educational needs because of their physical disabilities, language and health problems, but also if they have severe learning difficulties. There are structures that respond to these students’ needs, which work to integrate them into, mainstream schools. Special education takes place in state schools. Primary education may be in special classes within ordinary schools or in special institutions Children with special needs continue their secondary education in special secondary schools where they receive vocational training. . There is a policy of integration and early diagnoses of some problems.


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