French school system & grade levels in France explained: 3-18-Year-old

From preschool through secondary school and high school, here’s a look at the French schooling system and the confusing names of the different grade level names by age.

French education system grade level names vs USA & UK
French education system grade level names vs USA & UK

The French school system grade levels for preschool through secondary school in France can be a little confusing. Some grade levels are names. Some are abbreviations of long descriptive names with numbers. And others are descending numbers. If you want to make sense of the French school system and grade levels – keep reading. I have lots of experience, and I’m here to help.

11 years, 13 schools, 3 kids, and 3 French cities.

I arrived in France with three school-aged children in 2011 and had to learn how to manoeuvre the French school system pretty quickly. 

Within two weeks of arriving, I had successfully enrolled one child in preschool, another child in middle school and my eldest in his first year of high school.

I still can’t believe I was able to do it so quickly, considering how much red tape and paperwork was required for not one but three children.

I didn’t have a good grasp of the French school system yet, so I kept a notebook with me at all times to keep track of all these strange-sounding grade-level names and new terminology that made no sense to me at the time: livret de famille, CP, CM1. etc.

Somehow, I made sense of it all.

Now, after over a decade of dealing with 13 different public and private French schools in France, in 3 different French cities, I know the French school system like the back of my hand. 

And thanks to my eldest son, I now know the French University system in France too. 

all three of our children
My three children pictured on a school bench at the end of our first year in France.

Useful Miscellaneous French School Details

Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of the French school grade levels, let’s go over some small but important details about the French education system in France, which is handled by the Ministry of Education. 

I won’t be covering any higher education university grade levels, only preschool through high school, but I will go over the diplomas offered and needed to enroll in French universities. 

1) School Year Dates:

The school year begins the first week of September and ends in late June or early July. 

The beginning of the school year which is called back to school in English, is called “La rentrée” (literally re-entry).

French school desk chalkboard with the words Back to school= La Rentrée

2) School is mandatory by age 3  (punishable by law)

Education in France is mandatory for French children and foreigners living in France between 3 and 16 years old. 

Technically, students can stop attending school at 16, but if they do, they must get some formal training until they turn 18, such as an apprenticeship, professional integration or civic service. This training is handled through Les missions locales (French gov source)

The French education system consists of primary and secondary education, which can be broken down into four cycles (subgroups) that I detail below. 

Any parent who fails to enroll their child in the French education system or an education establishment can receive a fine of €1,500 to € 7,500 with possible imprisonment of up to 6 months. 

  • Before 2019, education was mandatory from age 6, not age 3. (regulation source)
  • Before 2020, education or training was not compulsory after the age of 16.

3) School Cost:

Public education is free from the age of 3.

Private schools in France can cost anywhere from a few hundred euros per year to 16k a year, which is considered very expensive.

The vast majority of private schools are catholic schools, which can cost around 1K to 3K per year and are the most affordable private school options. 

International schools in France are usually more expensive, costing around 5k or more per year.

4) Public education is secular:

All public schools are secular in France, and as of 2004, all religious symbols are banned: crosses, hijabs, yamukas, etc.

This law doesn’t apply to private schools whether they’re under contract with the government or not.

5) Cell phones are banned:

As of 2018, cell phones are banned on all school campuses for students and must be turned off and put away. 

6) Homeschooling in France (IEF- Instruction en famille)

Homeschooling was never easy in France and was highly regulated. But as of 23 July 2021, a new law was passed that makes it nearly impossible. Homeschooling in France is now only authorized for health, disability, artistic or sports practice, homelessness, or remoteness. There’s a transition period planned until the 2024-2025 school year for families who have been homeschooled. 

7) Redoubler (flunking)

Getting held back a year is called “Le redoublement scolaire”

France has a reputation for holding children back in school. Some studies estimate that 22% of children (about 1 in 5 kids)  have been held back at least once by the time they turn 15.

That’s an improvement, considering 30 years ago, the numbers were closer to 50%.  As of 2018, a new law restricted the number of times a child can be held back in primary school to one time and secondary school one time. Additionally, parents must agree to the school’s decision to hold their children back a year. 

Photo of my daughter waiting for the Tram to go to school
my daughter taking the tram to school in Montpellier (c) Annie Andre

The 4 cycles of the French school system: and grade levels by age +(diplomas)

The French school grade-level names are a little confusing if you didn’t grow up with them.

Rather than numbers that increase sequentially as they do in some countries, each French grade level has a name that is often abbreviated and combined with numbers that go up and then down.

It drove me crazy at first, but you get used to it after going through the system with your children. 

Students from 3 to 11 years old attend primary school (L’ecole Primaire), which encompasses two cycles: preschool and elementary school. 

After primary school, students between the ages of 11 to 18 move on to secondary school, which is also divided into two cycles, collège and lycée ( middle school and high school).  

Here’s a summary of the French school grade levels we’ll cover

  1. Preschool – (école maternelle) 3-6 years old: 
  2. Elementary school – (école primaire) 6-11 years old: 
  3. Middle school / Junior High – (collège) 11-15 years old: 
  4. High school – (lycée) 15-18 years old: 

School grade levels in France compared to US, Canada, and the UK

*ÉCOLE PRIMAIRE (Preschool & elementary school) 

École primaire covers preschool (maternelle) and elementary school (primaire aka élementaire). 

Primary school classroom in France

1) ÉCOLE MATERNELLE: (Preschool + Kindergarten) 

Ages 3 to 6

All children in France must attend “école maternelle” beginning at three years old for a total of three years; however, some schools offer an optional preschool class for 2-year-olds as long as the child is ready and potty trained. (Students need to have turned three by 31 December to enroll in the following school year.)

Grade Level Names for Maternelle:

Rather than numbers, preschool sections are called “little section,” “middle section” and “big section.” The optional 2-year-old program is called “very small section.” See the table below for actual names in French. When speaking to other English-speaking parents, you shouldn’t translate them to English but should use the French names: Petite section, Moyenne section, and Grande section. 

2-3 Toute Petite Section   Preschool Nursery
3-4 Petite Section (PS) Preschool Nursery
4-5 Moyenne Section (MS) Pre-K Reception
5-6 Grande Section (GS) Kindergarten Grade 1

Sometimes “maternelle” grade levels are abbreviated in documents, but rarely, if ever, when speaking, they are TPS, PS, MS, and GS. 

Maternells is a blend of childcare and education and prepares children for entry into primary school. Preschoolers typically learn to read, write, numeracy, learn creative and artistic activities and a foreign language at a very basic level.  Here’s a more in-depth article about  French preschool / maternelle

2) ÉCOLE PRIMAIRE aka ÉLEMENTAIRE: (Elemetry School)

Ages 6 to 11 

After “maternelle,” children aged 6 to 11 years old attend “école primaire” for five years. 

Grade Levels for école primaire:

The first year of primary school is a transition year called cours prépatoire, but nobody uses this term in everyday conversation. Instead, it’s called CP /Say-Pay/, which is the abbreviation of cours prépatoire. 

The following two years are called Cour élémentaire 1 and 2, but again, nobody uses this long name. They are referred to by their abbreviations CE1 /Say-Uh-Unh/ and CE2 /Say-Uh-Dewh/.

The final two years are called Cour Moyen 1 and 2 and are referred to as CM1 /Say-Em-Unh/and CM2 /Say-Em-Dewh/

6-7  CP (Cours Préparatoire)    Grade 1  Grade 2
7-8  CE1 (Cours élémentaire 1)  Grade 2  Grade 3
8-9  CE2 (Cours élémentaire 2)   Grade 3  Grade 4
9-10  CM1 (Cour Moyen 1)  Grade 4  Grade 5
10-11  CM2 (Cour Moyen 2) Grade 5  Grade 6

In primaire, children learn to write, develop their reading skills and are introduced to science. There is a greater emphasis on core subjects such as French and math and less time given to the arts and creative subjects. Children spend a lot of time memorizing poems and texts.

** ÉCOLE SECONDAIRE (middle school and high school)

École secondaire covers middle school (collège) and highschool (lycée). 

3) COLLÈGE: (Middle school, aka Junior high)

Ages 11 to 15

After primary school, children change schools and move on to middle school (unless they were held back.), which is called Collège /KO-Lezjh/. Collège is the first stage of secondary education.

Collège grade levels: 

Going forward, grade levels are referred to by descending numbers: 6th, 5th, 4th, and 3rd.

In order to say these grade levels so that people will understand you, you’ll need to know how to countdown in French. See the table below. 

11-12 Sixième (6e)  /Siz-ee-Em/  Grade 1  Grade 2
12-13 Cinquième(5e) /sank-ee-Em/  Grade 2  Grade 3
13-14 Quatrième(4e) /Cat-tree-Em/  Grade 3  Grade 4
14-15 Troisième (3e) /Trwah-zee-Em/  Grade 4  Grade 5

Middle School Diploma: BREVET:

During the last year of collège (3e: troisième), all students sit for a nationally administered exam to earn their middle school diploma called Le Brevet, short for Diplôme National du Brevet (DNB). 

Students need to score 400 or more on the test to receive the Brevet diploma. However, failing the test doesn’t mean students won’t graduate and move on to high school. The Brevet is more of a rite of passage that prepares students for future tests during their school years and gives a snapshot of the child’s abilities at this age.

Brevet: Collège diploma (middle school)

4) LYCÉE: (High School/Secondary school)

Ages 15 to 18

After Middle school, students usually change schools a second time to attend three years of upper secondary school called Lycée /Lee-say/.

Lycée grade levels:

The grade levels in Lycée are a continuation of middle school, and the countdown from 2nd to 1st and the final year of high school is called “terminal.”

15-16   Seconde (2nde)    Grade 1    Grade 2 
16-17  Première (1re)  Grade 2   Grade 3
17-18  Terminale (T)  Grade 3   Grade 4

Like middle school, students in lycée have to sit for a nationally administered exam during their third and final year of high school to earn their diploma, which is called BAC, short for baccalauréat. 

Three types of Lycée Diplomas

In the French education system, students have to choose which type of lycée diploma they want to pursue, which are all very different. 

    1. Baccalauréat Général
    2. Baccalauréat Technoloqique
    3. Baccalauréat Professional. (Bac Pro)

French school system grade level names: Empty Lycée classroom in France

1) General and Technological Lycée (lycée général et technologique) 

Sometimes referred to as a classic or traditional education, students work towards earning a general diploma or technology diploma. 

In a general and technological high school, all students follow the same curriculum their first year: French,  Maths, Modern Lang, History/Geography, Physics/Chem, Economics/Sociology, Life/Earth Science, Civics, Physical Recreation etc., plus electives. 

In the second year, students specialize and choose the focus of studies they want to pursue: a) Bac géneral or b) Bac technologique.

a) Bac général:

As of 2021, because of the education reform, students no longer have to choose to specialize between Literature (L), Economics & Social Sciences (ES) and Science (S). The system now more closely resembles the US High school general education, where students can choose electives.  

b) Bac technologique:

If a student chooses the technology route, they have to choose between 8 different paths from various sectors of activity.

    1. Bac S2TMD (science and technology of theatre, music and dance)
    2. Bac ST2S (Science and Technology of Health and Social Care)
    3. Bac STAV (Science and Technology of agronomy and living sciences)
    4. Bac STD2A (Science and Technology of Design and Applied Arts)
    5. Bac STHR (Science and Technology of Hotel and Restaurants)
    6. Bac STI2D (Industrial Science and Technology of Sustainable Development)
    7. Bac STL (Science and laboratory technology series)
    8. Bac STMG (série sciences et technologies du management et de la gestion)

If you’re interested in learning more about a “Bac general et technologique,” this site has some good information (in French). 

2) Professional / Vocational  Lycée  (lycée professionnel)

Separate from General and Technological Lycée is a type of vocational high school called lycée professional.

Students generally work toward earning a Bac Pro, short for Baccalauréat professional. 

Bac Pro: 

In a lycée professional, students gain vocational training and general knowledge specific to a given field. The vocational training also involves internships in commercial enterprises and vocational qualifications leading directly to a particular career. 

There are roughly 100 specialties, such as leather crafts, building technicians, aircraft mechanics, 3D modellers, maintenance of industrial equipment, cooking, road freight transport driver, butcher, baker, etc.

 Not all vocational degree choices are available at one single school, and students often have to move to attend the school that has the training they are interested in pursuing. In this case, it’s common for children to live in student housing during the week and return home on the weekends. 

Once a student passes and earns their Bac Pro, they can choose to enter the work field or continue to higher education degrees within their field of training. 

There’s another diploma that students can earn in a Lycée professional which requires only 2 years of school. It’s called the CAP (Certificat d’aptitude professionnelle). There are over 200 CAP programs to choose from such as, security gard, sign makers, cosmetology, barber, etc. Students cannot continue on to higher education with this diploma and usually enter the workforce.  

Students Must Take An Exam To Earn Their HighSchool Diploma

BACCALAUREAT= Highschool Diploma

No matter how good a student’s grades are, students don’t receive their Bac (diploma) automatically. All students must sit for the Baccalauréa exam, which is a comprehensive, nationally administered exam given nationwide at the end of the third and last year of lycée in “Terminale.” Napoleon introduced it in 1808.

A student’s entire education is geared towards passing this critical exam, and students who pass “Le Bac can continue to higher education. To pass the BAC, students need to attain an average of at least 10 out of 20 across a range of core disciplines or 50%.

BAC: Baccalauréat diploma

You could compare the BAC to A levels in the UK and the SAT in the US. 

Once you receive your BAC, it follows you throughout your life. 

For instance, if you earned a traditional 3-year university degree in France (called a license), your education level would be BAC +3. If you received your master’s degree, you would have an education level of BAC + 5 or BAC + 6.   This is exactly how you would write your education level on a French CV / Resume

French university degree equivalent

What if you fail the High School BAC?

Students who fail the BAC can repeat their final year, “Redoubler,” and retake the BAC the following year.

Or, students can take the BAC the following year as an independent candidate “candidat libre” without re-doing the year. 

And finally, anyone can take the BAC early as long as they are 16 years or older. 

That’s the French education level in a nutshell. 

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

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