A Guide To The French School & University System

If you are not French, the school and higher education system here in France can be confusing… beyond confusing! Here’s a guide to the French school & university system:
We’re here to break it down, so that you can keep up when your French friends are discussing their schooldays, or when you are writing your CV in French and need a good translation for ‘highschool’ or ‘degree’. 

A guide to the French school & university system 

A guide to the French school & university system 

The school system in four steps: 


Ecole primaire




Maternelle” refers to kindergarten or reception in France. It’s the first stage of the French education system and is attended by children typically between the ages of 3 and 6. Maternelle (kindergarten) is a component of the French educational system that precedes primary school (école primaire). Maternelle focuses on early childhood education, emphasising socialisation, basic academic skills, and developmental milestones. It’s an important step in preparing children for formal schooling and laying the foundation for their future education. Maternelle is considered an integral part of the French education system and is attended by nearly all children in France.

Ecole Primaire 

École primaire refers to primary school in France. It’s the first formal stage of compulsory education and is attended by children typically between the ages of 6 and 11. École primaire encompasses five levels, known as “cycles”:

1. Cycle 1 (CP – Cours préparatoire): The preparatory course, usually for children aged 6 to 7.

2. Cycle 2 (CE1 – Cours élémentaire 1 and CE2 – Cours élémentaire 2): Elementary courses 1 and 2, for children aged 7 to 9.

3. Cycle 3 (CM1 – Cours moyen 1 and CM2 – Cours moyen 2): Middle courses 1 and 2, for children aged 9 to 11.

École primaire provides a broad education covering various subjects such as French, mathematics, science, history, geography, art, music, and physical education. It’s a crucial period for building fundamental academic skills, fostering social development, and preparing students for further education. At the end of école primaire, students typically move on to collège, which is the next stage of their education.


“Collège” refers to middle school in France. It’s the second stage of compulsory education following école primaire (primary school) and is attended by students typically between the ages of 11 and 15. Collège encompasses four levels, each lasting one academic year:

1. Sixième (6ème): Equivalent to 6th grade, for students aged 11 to 12.

2. Cinquième (5ème): Equivalent to 7th grade, for students aged 12 to 13.

3. Quatrième (4ème): Equivalent to 8th grade, for students aged 13 to 14.

4. Troisième (3ème): Equivalent to 9th grade, for students aged 14 to 15.

At collège, students receive a more specialised and structured education, with a focus on core subjects such as French, mathematics, science, history, geography, and foreign languages (typically English). They also start to explore additional subjects like technology, art, and music. Collège aims to provide students with a solid academic foundation and prepares them for further education or vocational training. At the end of collège, students take the Diplôme National du Brevet (DNB), a national diploma examination.


“Lycée” refers to high school in France. It’s the third and final stage of secondary education and is attended by students typically between the ages of 15 and 18. Lycée encompasses three main levels:

1. Seconde (2nde): Equivalent to 10th grade, for students aged 15 to 16.

2. Première (1ère): Equivalent to 11th grade, for students aged 16 to 17.

3. Terminale (Terminale): Equivalent to 12th grade, for students aged 17 to 18.

At lycée, students follow a more specialised and diverse curriculum, with a focus on preparing for the Baccalauréat (commonly referred to as the Bac), which is the national secondary school diploma examination. The curriculum includes a range of subjects, both compulsory and elective, covering disciplines such as literature, science, economics, social sciences, and technology. Lycée provides students with the opportunity to deepen their knowledge in specific areas of interest and to prepare for higher education or vocational pathways after graduation.

A Guide To The French School & University System

What Is The Bac? 

The Baccalauréat, commonly referred to as the “Bac,” is the national secondary school diploma examination in France. It is taken by students at the end of their secondary education, typically during their final year of lycée (high school), which is called “Terminale” (12th grade).

The Baccalauréat exam assesses students’ knowledge and skills across various subjects, depending on the chosen stream or specialisation. There are several different types of Baccalauréat exams:

1. **Baccalauréat Général (General Baccalauréat)**: This track offers three main streams:

   – Littéraire (Literary), focused on humanities and literature.

   – Scientifique (Scientific), focused on mathematics and sciences.

   – Économique et Social (Economic and Social), focused on economics and social sciences.

2. **Baccalauréat Technologique (Technological Baccalauréat)**: This track offers specialised streams in fields such as sciences and technologies, management, hospitality, health, social sciences, and more.

3. **Baccalauréat Professionnel (Professional Baccalauréat)**: This track is geared towards vocational education and provides students with practical skills and training in various professions.

The Baccalauréat exam is rigorous and covers written and oral examinations in multiple subjects. Success in the Baccalauréat is a significant milestone for French students, as it is a prerequisite for admission to higher education institutions in France and serves as a qualification for entry into the workforce.

Post-school Options – A Guide To The French School & University System 

Dut (diplôme Universitaire De Technologie) 

The Diplôme Universitaire de Technologie (DUT) is a two-year undergraduate degree offered in France, primarily by universities and specialised institutes called Instituts Universitaires de Technologie (IUTs). The DUT is part of the French higher education system and provides students with a practical and technical education in various fields.
The DUT is designed to prepare students for specific professions and industries by combining theoretical knowledge with practical training and internships. It typically involves coursework, laboratory work, projects, and internships, allowing students to develop both academic knowledge and professional skills relevant to their chosen field.

DUT programs are available in a wide range of disciplines, including but not limited to:

1. Business Administration

2. Information Technology

3. Engineering

4. Multimedia

5. Tourism

6. Biotechnology

7. Marketing

8. Finance

9. Logistics

10. Communication

Upon completion of the DUT program, students may choose to enter the workforce directly, pursue further studies at the university level (such as a Bachelor’s degree), or apply for specialised professional training programs. The DUT is recognized nationally and often highly regarded by employers for its emphasis on practical skills and real-world experience.

Bts (brevet De Technicien Supérieur) 

The Brevet de Technicien Supérieur (BTS) is a higher education diploma in France that is typically obtained after two years of specialised post-secondary education. The BTS program is offered in various fields and is designed to provide students with practical training and skills necessary for specific professions.

The BTS program usually lasts for two years, although there are some exceptions where it can be completed in one year through an accelerated program.

BTS programs are available in a wide range of fields, including business, management, engineering, technology, healthcare, hospitality, and more. Each BTS program is tailored to a specific profession or industry, providing students with specialised knowledge and skills relevant to their chosen field. The curriculum typically combines classroom instruction with practical training, internships, and hands-on projects. Students learn both theoretical concepts and practical applications, preparing them for entry-level positions in their chosen field upon graduation.

The BTS is a nationally recognized diploma in France and is highly regarded by employers. It serves as a valuable credential for students seeking employment in their field of study.

While many BTS graduates enter the workforce directly after completing their diploma, some may choose to pursue further education, such as a Bachelor’s degree (Licence) or a Brevet de Technicien Supérieur Spécialisé (BTSS), which is a specialised BTS diploma focusing on a particular area within a field.


The French university system, known as “université,” operates on a centralised model overseen by the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research, and Innovation. Admission to French universities is generally based on completion of the baccalauréat (high school diploma) or an equivalent qualification. However, some programs may have additional entrance exams or requirements. International students may also be required to take language proficiency exams such as the DELF or DALF for non-French speakers.

   – Licence (Bachelor’s Degree): The first cycle of university studies typically lasts for three years and leads to the Licence degree. Students can choose from a wide range of disciplines, including humanities, sciences, social sciences, engineering, and more.

   – Master’s Degree (Master’s): The second cycle of university studies typically lasts for two years and leads to the Master’s degree. Master’s programs offer specialised coursework and research opportunities in specific fields.

   – Doctorate (Ph.D.): The third cycle of university studies involves doctoral research leading to the Doctorate degree (Ph.D.). Doctoral programs usually last for three to five years and involve original research under the supervision of a faculty advisor.

French universities typically use a grading system based on a scale of 0 to 20, with 10 considered a passing grade. Grades are often supplemented by additional assessments such as exams, projects, presentations, and research papers.

French universities receive funding from the government, supplemented by tuition fees paid by students. Tuition fees for undergraduate programs are relatively low compared to some other countries, especially for EU citizens. However, tuition fees for international students and for certain Master’s programs may vary. Find a list here of French universities that international students can apply for. 

Grandes écoles 

Les Grandes Écoles are a prestigious group of higher education institutions in France known for their selective admissions process, rigorous academic programs, and strong emphasis on professional training. These institutions are separate from the traditional universities and offer specialised education in various fields.

Admission to Les Grandes Écoles is highly competitive and typically based on competitive entrance exams, academic performance, interviews, and other criteria. Candidates often undergo extensive preparation to succeed in these exams.

Les Grandes Écoles offer specialised education in specific fields such as engineering, business, management, public administration, political science, and more. Each Grand École is known for its expertise in a particular domain.

Les Grandes Écoles place a strong emphasis on practical training and professional development. Internships, industry projects, and hands-on experience are often integral parts of the curriculum.

A diploma from a Grand École is highly regarded and can open doors to prestigious career opportunities in France and internationally. Some well-known examples of Les Grandes Écoles include:

– École Polytechnique (engineering)

– HEC Paris (business and management)

– Sciences Po (political science and international relations)

– École Normale Supérieure (humanities and sciences)

– INSEAD (business)

A guide to the French school & university system