French school system & grade levels in France explained: 3 to18 year olds

From preschool to high school, here’s a look at the French school system and the confusing names of the French education system grade levels.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
French education system grade level names vs USA & UK
French education system grade level names vs USA & UK

The French school system and grade levels for preschool through secondary school in France can be a little confusing to newcomers.

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

I didn’t have a good grasp of the French education 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 then.

Some grade levels were names, some were abbreviations of long descriptive names with additional numbers, and others were just numbers that descended in order. There were also a lot of new terminologies, such as the livret de famille, an important family booklet you need to have for enrolling a child in schools in France. 

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

Keep reading if you want to make sense of the French education system and French grade levels – I have lots of experience, and I’m here to help.

*NOTE: I won’t be covering higher education university grade levels, but I will go over the various types of high school diplomas offered and needed to enroll in French universities. 

School is mandatory by age 3  (punishable by law)

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

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 mandatory after age 16.

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

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

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 initially, 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 and 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: 

*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)

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

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

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

Ages 11 to 15

After primary school, children usually change schools and move on to middle school (Collège /KO-Lezjh/). Collège is the first stage of secondary education.

Collège grade levels: 

In the French school system, middle school lasts four years, and the grade levels are now referred to by descending numbers: 6th, 5th, 4th, and 3rd.

You’ll need to know how to countdown in French to say these grade levels so that people will understand you. 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 goes from 2nd to 1st, with the final year being called “terminale.”

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 take a nationally administered exam during their third and final year of high school to earn their diploma, called BAC, short for baccalauréat. (see next section.) This is a very important test in a student’s education. 

BACCALAUREAT= Highschool Diploma

BAC: Baccalauréat diploma

Students who graduate from a high school in France receive a diploma called a “Baccalauréat” (bachelor or baccalaureate). Most people just call this degree “Le BAC” /Luh-Bok/ for short.

Students don’t automatically receive their BAC, no matter how good their grades are.

To successfully graduate from high school in France, children must take the “baccalauréat” 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.

You could compare the BAC to A levels in the UK and the SAT in the US. However, unlike the SAT, the BAC is part of the school curriculum, and students must get a passing grade of at least 10 out of 20 across a range of core disciplines.

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

What if you fail the High School BAC?

Students who fail the high school BAC exam have two options to pass it another time. 

  1. Repeat their final year, “Redoubler,” and retake the BAC the following year.
  2. Take the BAC exam the following year as an independent candidate “candidat libre” without re-doing the year.

How to notate your education in France

French university degree equivalent

Once you receive your BAC, it follows you throughout your life. For instance, if you were to show your educational level on a French CV / Resume, you would write BAC to show you have a high school diploma. 

If you go to university and earn 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, depending on the number of years the master’s program takes to complete.

Three different types of Lycée Diplomas

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

In the French education system, students have a choice in the area of study they want to focus on based on their interests and career goals, which leads to several different types of high school diplomas. 

These specialties can vary depending on the school and the education system in your region. For instance, a high school that focuses on hospitality may only focus on hospitality. While another school may offer several different types of high school degrees. 

Here are some of the more well-known types of high school diplomas in France.

    1. Baccalauréat Général: The most common type of lycée diploma. 
    2. Baccalauréat Technoloqique: For students who follow a more technical curriculum.
    3. Baccalauréat Professional (Bac Pro): For students who want to pursue vocational training.
    4. Baccalauréat Technologique de la Série STMG: A technology high school diploma focused on business and management.
    5. International Baccalaureate (IB): For students who graduate from international schools in France or schools that offer international programs taught in another language (usually English.)
    6. Baccalauréat Technologique Hôtellerie: For students pursuing careers in the hospitality industry.

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

High schools in France that offer a classic or traditional education are called “general and technology high schools.” Students must choose to work towards either a general BAC diploma or a technology BAC diploma.

Here’s how it works: 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. 

The second year of lycée, called “Première” (pronounced: pre-mi-air), which is equivalent to the 11th grade in the US educational system, students choose the path of study they want to pursue: a) Bac géneral or b) Bac technologique.

a) Bac général:

If a student chooses to follow a general education, they are given the option to select 3 subjects or specialties based on their interests. 

The most popular choices are the following:

  • Mathematics
  • SES (Economics and Social Sciences)
  • Physics-chemistry
  • HGGSP (history-geography, geopolitics, and political science)
  • SVT (Life and Earth Sciences)
  • LLCER (languages, literature, and foreign and regional cultures)

In 2021, there was an education reform in France. Students no longer 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.

b) Bac technologique:

If a student chooses the technology route, they must 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 field, which also involves internships in commercial enterprises and vocational qualifications leading directly to a particular career. 

There are roughly 800 BAC PRO high schools in France and over 100 pathways to pursue, including leather crafts, building technicians, aircraft mechanics, 3D modellers, maintenance of industrial equipment, cooking, road freight transport driver, butcher, baker, etc.

Boarding schools:

 Not all vocational degree choices are available at one single school, and students often have to move to attend the school with 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 workforce 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.  

Useful miscellaneous details about schools in France

Now that we’ve covered the nuts and bolts of the French education system, including the different school grade levels in France, let’s dive into some small but important aspects of the French education system that the French Ministry of Education handles. 

1) School Year Dates:

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

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 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 anywhere from 5k to 25k or more per year.

RelatedPublic vs. private and international schools in France! Our Experience

3) The Public education system in France secular:

French law: religous symbols are banned in public schools in France

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 in France whether they’re under contract with the government or not. It’s up to these private schools to set their dress code. 

Related21 Strange and Funny French Laws in France that Need to Change

4) 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. 

5) 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 are homeschooling.

6) 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.

Wrapping the French education system and levels

I hope you gained a better understanding of how the French education system works.

It can be complex, not just for foreigners living in France but also for French people who grew up in the French school system.

Do your research, and stay strong.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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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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