The French educational system is based on the principles of the 1789 revolution. According to the French constitution, it is a duty of the state to provide free, compulsory, secular education at all levels.
The structure of the French educational system can be traced back to Napoleon’s First Empire (1804-1815). He initiated a division of the Imperial University into academies managed by rectors which still exists today. Napoleon also centralised the administration: the state authorised the opening of schools, appointed teachers, and defined the school curricula. The school system was organised into two orders: primary education (l’école du people) and secondary education (l’école de l’élite sociale), which was attended by the bourgeoisie. Napoleon first developed secondary education to train administrative and technical executives, organising it into state lycées and municipal collèges. Both of these institutions also offered elementary-level classes. The final exam in secondary schools was the baccalauréat. Primary education was developed during the July Monarchy (1830-1848) as municipalities were ordered to build primary and upper primary schools. The influence of the Catholic Church was strong on both primary and secondary schools.
During the Third Republic (1870-1940), the Ferry reform established free primary education (1881), made attendance compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 13, and mandated that public education would be secular through the abolition of religion classes (1882). Compulsory school attendance was extended to children up to age 14 in 1936 (Zay Reform).
The dual system of primary and secondary education was eliminated during the Fifth Republic. First, the Berthoin reform (1959) extended compulsory school attendance to children up to age 16. Second, the Fouchet reform (1963) made secondary education in colleges accessible to all children starting at age of 11. Elementary schools therefore no longer awarded final certificates. Third, the Haby law (1975), created the collège unique for all children graduating from elementary school.
During the 1980s, priority education zones were established to provide greater support to the schools with the most problems. Vocational programmes were developed through in-company educational activities. The 1989 framework law set up a comprehensive project to further the democratic response to education. Starting in the 1990s, efforts were made to redefine timetables and reduce children’s workload.
In 2003, all of the education-related legislation that was currently in force (laws, decrees of the President of the Republic or of the Prime Minister, ministerial orders, and circulars) became part of the Education Code. A new framework law passed in 2005 states that education is a national priority, and that the system should guarantee that all students will acquire a common set of knowledge and skills that will give them equal opportunities in professional life. These principles were reaffirmed by the most recent reform (law no. 2013-595 of 8 July 2013 and related decrees).
Organisation of the educational system
The French educational system is organised into the following levels:
Pre-primary (ISCED 0). This level of education is provided in kindergartens for children ages 2/3-6. Today almost all children attend kindergarten from the age of three onwards.
Primary (ISCED 1). This level of education is provided in elementary schools for children ages 6-11. There is no examination for students who have completed elementary school; instead, children move automatically to secondary education.
Lower secondary (ISCED 2). This level of education is provided in four-year collèges for pupils ages 11-15. Since the passage of the Haby Law in 1975, students in colleges have been taught the same subjects. A brevet diploma is awarded upon completion of college. Admission to upper secondary education does not depend on performing well on the brevet. However, at the end of college the families of students are advised as to whether their son or daughter should pursue general and technological studies or vocational training. Thus, French students are asked to specialise at the end of college.
Upper secondary (ISCED 3). This level of education is provided over a three-year period to pupils ages 15-18. The general and technological lycées prepare pupils for long-term higher education, while professional lycées mainly prepare students for a career (although they have the option to continue their studies). The diploma awarded upon completion of the lycée, the baccalauréat, is a prerequisite for admission to university. In professional lycées, students can earn the Certificat d’aptitude professionnelle (CAP) after two years and the baccalauréat after two additional years.
Higher education (ISCED 5 and 6). This level of education consists of two systems: universities which do not have selective admission; and non-university institutions, such as Grandes Ecoles which are highly selective and open only to students who have earned a baccalauréat after two years of attendance at classes préparatoires.
The French education system is centralised. The state finances public education, defines the curricula, appoints inspectors to control the quality of the structures and the teaching, and organises teacher recruitment and training. The 2013 reform raised the minimum level of education prospective teachers had to attain to a five-year university degree. In addition, candidates for teaching jobs now have to participate in a national competition. Primary education teachers have become professeurs des écoles. Secondary education teachers must earn a certificat d'aptitude au professorat du deuxième degree to teach a particular subject (mathematics, sciences, etc.). Specific certificates exist for teachers of sports and technical and vocational skills. Other types of teachers can become aggregated teachers.
Despite the state’s central role, the decentralisation of competences, which started in the 1980s, has led to local authorities becoming responsible for ensuring the operation of the system (school buildings, transport, etc.).
Currently about 20% of students are enrolled in private schools. Some of these schools have a special contract with the state under which they receive public subsidies, provided they follow the state curricula and the teachers have the same training and diplomas as those recruited in public schools.
Education is compulsory between the ages of six and 16 years. The compulsory period encompasses primary and lower secondary education, as well as one year of upper secondary education.
The Berthoin reform of 1959 structured compulsory education into three cycles: 1) a five-year elementary cycle aimed at providing a general basic education to all children ages 6-11; 2) a two-year observation cycle for children ages 11-13, during which (at the end of the first trimester) families are advised as to which courses students should take; and 3) a final cycle for children ages 13-16, in which students either pursue a general education or prepare for working life. The final cycle can last beyond the compulsory period.
The Haby reform of 1975 extended the length of the education period for all children by introducing a unique four-year college structured into two cycles: 1) an observation cycle during the first two years; and 2) an orientation cycle during the last two years, in which students pursue the same type of education as in the first cycle, but also attend complementary courses (including vocational courses) of their choice.
The 2013 reform restructured schooling from kindergarten to the end of college into the following four cycles:
The initial learning cycle consists of three levels of kindergarten: namely, small section, middle section, and large section.
The basic learning cycle consists of the first three years of primary school: namely, preparatory class, elementary class first year, and elementary class second year.
The consolidation cycle corresponds to the last two years of elementary school and to the first year of college, and consists of intermediate class first year, intermediate class second year, and sixth-year class.
The deep learning cycle corresponds to the last three years of college, and consists of fifth-year class, fourth-year class, and third-year class.
At the end of these cycles, the children should have acquired a common set of knowledge and skills in the following areas: the French language, a modern foreign language, mathematics, science and technology, information and communication techniques, humanist culture, social and civic skills, and autonomy and initiative.
Since 1989, education at all levels is provided for 36 weeks a year, a period which is subdivided into five working periods of equal duration, and four vacation periods. The school calendar varies by region.
School councils determine the start and end of each school day. However, the weekly number of hours is established centrally. The 2013 reform abolished the weekly day off, which had characterised French pre-primary and primary education since the 19th century. The school week consists of 24 hours spread over nine half-days. In exceptional circumstances, the lessons may be provided on Saturday mornings instead of on Wednesday mornings. Since 2004 the school week at college has ranged from 25 hours (in the first year) to 28.5 hours plus three (or six) hours for an optional class (in the last year).
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