Public vs private & international schools in France! Our Experience

Discover the differences and pros and cons of public, private, and international schools in France based on my personal experience.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
Public vs. Private Schools in France: Our 12+ years of experiences
Public vs. Private Schools in France: Our 12+ years of experiences

Choosing between public, private and international schools in France can be confusing. I should know.

Since 2011, my husband and I, along with our three children, have called France home.

During this time, we’ve lived in three very different French cities, each with its unique characteristics, advantages, and challenges.

Our three kids, well, they’ve had their fair share of ups and downs in the French school system. Throughout their academic journey, they’ve attended various schools – including public, private, and even international schools – from preschool up to high school.

My youngest is still in high school, while my eldest completed his university degree in France. 

So, go ahead and grab a cup of tea, and join me as I share our public and private school experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly, starting from day one. And learn how the cities we lived in and the challenges of being foreigners in France have played pivotal roles in shaping our educational decisions and experiences.

*This article is broken into two parts.

  • Part 1 is our 12-year journey moving from city to city and different schools. It gives you context and an idea of some of the challenges you might face.
  • Part 2 I’ve summarized the key takeaways and considerations to help parents make informed decisions, including a detailed table which gives you a quick glance at the key differences between public and private schools. 

Note** Every family’s circumstances and experience will be different. My observations are based on my personal experiences.

PART 1: Understanding the French Education System is a must:

It’s important to understand the French education system and how it is structured. 

To help you with that, below are links to two articles. The first is simply about preschool and elementary school. The second article will give you an idea of how the French education levels are structured, what they’re called, and what to expect. 

Kindergarten and French preschool in France: What is it like?

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

Let’s jump right into the first day we landed in France and work our way to the present. 

Marseille the city and its Schools- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

First week in France, October 2011
Here they are, the first week in France back in October of 2011

Our family’s life in France began in Marseille on October 6th, 2011, for what we believed would be a one-year family sabbatical.

Marseille was not our first choice. I won’t get into the specifics of how we ended up living in Marseille; it’s a long story. But, if you’re interested, here is how we ended up living in France with Our 3 children.

We rented a (mostly) furnished Haussmann-style apartment, which we found on a site called Sabbatical Homes —without physically visiting it. This later resulted in some issues.

The two main issues with our apartment were:

1 Run-down apartment: What you see is not what you get

We were disappointed that the apartment we rented did not match the pictures we had seen on the Sabbatical Homes website. The landlords had clearly let the place go. It looked like they had moved out and left all their unwanted furniture behind.

Our first fully furnished apartment in Marseille France was a little worn down

Location:

The second issue with our apartment was that the location wasn’t an ideal place to live (for our family.) Although it was a convenient 2-minute walk from the Saint Charles Train station, the apartment was on Boulevard d’Athènes, one of the busiest roads leading to and from the station.

The constant noise from honking cars, heavy traffic, and many pedestrians walking up and down the street made it difficult to live there. Additionally, we had security concerns due to the high pedestrian flow.  

Although it would have been nice to have a house in a picturesque spot like the ones you see on Instagram, we didn’t have a car, so living in the city seemed like a good choice. Besides, our main goal was to have a memorable family experience. We knew we could handle whatever challenges we faced for a year.

Why we initially chose public French schools

The majority (85%) of children in France attend public schools. 

Our children have also mainly always attended public schools.  Our attitude was, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. 

Of course, we would have loved to have put our children in private schools; what parent wouldn’t?

But, we assumed the cost of private schools in France would be too expensive for us. This was our experience, having lived in Montreal and the San Francisco Bay Area, where private schools cost 10k minimum per year per child.

We later discovered this wasn’t necessarily the case in France. I’ll elaborate on this later when we get to the part where I enrol our daughter in a private school. 

These were the three grade levels of our children upon arrival in France. 

  1. Preschool (4 year old daughter):
  2. Middle School (13 year  old son):
  3. High school (15 year old son):

Enrolling the kids in French public school for the first time:

Before arriving in France, we tried to pre-enroll our children in the French public school system but could not.

In France and many countries, you have to show proof of residence before you are allowed to enrol your child in a public school. The area where you live is supposed to determine which school your child will attend. 

How to show proof of residence so you can enroll your children in public schools in France.

There are several ways to show proof of residence in France, but the two main ones are a utility bill and a Bank Statement. 

We couldn’t set these things up before arriving in France, or at least,  you couldn’t back in 2011. These days, you can open a virtual currency account using virtual banks like Wise

So, I spent about a week trying to navigate this process of establishing our presence in Marseille so we could prove to the schools that we lived where we said we lived.

Which was a lot tougher than I had anticipated. 

Here’s how to enrol your kids in French schools In France: 3-18 years old.

Bureaucracy: Getting setup in a new country is harder than you think

Settling down in a new country and dealing with the bureaucracy is often more difficult than people anticipate.

Tasks like opening a bank account, setting up utilities, finding a family doctor, and getting your children settled and enrolled in new schools can be frustrating, even in your home country, where you’re already familiar with the ins and outs. 

However, as a newcomer in a foreign country without an established identity or history, where the rules are foreign, and even the terminology differs, it can feel like you’re trying to solve a big puzzle with missing pieces.  

Even something as simple as filling out a check in France can become unexpectedly complicated due to subtle variations in the process. 

You’re essentially a ghost trying to set up a new life from scratch and a paper trail. 

It took me about three weeks of hustling and rushing around between phone calls, internet searches, utility companies, banks, schools, and town halls to get everything sorted out.

And if you don’t speak French, you’ll have additional challenges.

I speak French since my father’s side is French Canadian. But if you don’t already have some knowledge of the language, it may take you considerably longer to take care of basic things in France on the fly. 

The biggest challenge I faced was the chicken-and-egg situation.

To open a utility account at “EDF,” the local electric company, I needed to have a French bank account and provide my French bank RIB, which is an important document to have in order to set up automatic electronic payments. You can learn more about the French RIB here.

However, to open a bank account, I needed something like a utility bill with my address to prove I lived where I said I did. 

How do you proceed? No one could tell me either way how to go about doing one without the other. Eventually, our landlord, who was British, filled out a formal letter called an “Attestation d’Hebergement,” stating that we were living with them at their address. We were not actually living with them; we were renting his apartment, but we didn’t have an official lease or rental agreement, so this is what we used. 

Our thoughts on Marseille: MEH! Not the France you see in travel brochures.

photo of the old port with a view of Marseille Basilique Notre dame de la Garde
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille France.

I’m just going to come right out and say it.

“I was disappointed with the middle and high school my two older children attended in Marseille, France.” But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Let me give you a little context about the city of Marseille, France’s second-largest city after Paris. 

First, there is no denying that Marseille is a beautiful city, rich in history, culture, and Mediterranean charm. 

It’s near beaches and a stunning coastline dotted with a series of natural rocky inlets and cliffs called “Les Calanques.”

The locals (Les Marseillais) love their city to a fault. And there are plenty of tourists and expats who love Marseille.

But Marseille is a big city, and like all big cities, we knew that Marseille would be rough around the edges. Even Paris is rough around the edges. 

What we didn’t know at the time was that Marseille has a reputation in France for being gritty and dangerous. It’s a city notorious for organized crime, bloody drug wars, and poverty. 

This was and is reflected in many of the public schools and the quality of the public education we experienced in Marseille. 

In the clip below, Anthony Bourdin visits Marseille with a French chef who says he has never been to Marseille because of its bad reputation. I laughed so hard when I heard him say that. So typical.

I am in no way trying to bash Marseille because I’m not. I actually have friends in Marseille who love it.

But they also live in privileged areas, have lovely homes, and send their kids to private schools, or live in an area with good reputations. 

Note* Every family’s experience will be different and some parents may have positive experiences in Marseille schools. My observations are based on my personal experiences.

Middle School in Marseille: Our experience

The middle school our son was assigned to reflected all the gritty, edgy, and sometimes dangerous characteristics that Marseille is known for. 

Although he rarely complained, it was clear that there was a lot of delinquent and rude behaviour, violence, and rule-breaking at a level we had never experienced before. All of which negatively impacted his education and overall experience in the French school.

What had happened was my son had been assigned to a middle school located 30 minutes away in an area for immigrants and low-income students who were socially and economically disadvantaged and surrounded by poverty and violence.

Getting there and back involved taking a metro and then a bus in a dodgy area.

There were middle schools closer to our home, but he was assigned to this one because it had a special immersion program for kids who didn’t speak French.

The immersion program involved taking intensive French lessons for part of the day while taking some regular classes in French. 

It should be noted that not all schools serving underprivileged populations are necessarily “bad,” but there are common challenges that some of these schools face, leading to lower educational outcomes.

High School in Marseille:

Our oldest son, Kieran, attended  Lycée Victor Hugo, located next to Marseille’s Saint Charles train station. So it took him just 5 minutes to walk to school. There were no special immersion programs for his grade level, so he was mainstreamed in the school, where he took additional beginner French lessons.

On the day I enrolled Kieran at the school, I got dressed up and met with someone in an office to hand over all the necessary enrolment documents. I’m not sure if it was my outfit or the look on my face, but he looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to enrol your son here? There are a lot of delinquents.” 

I was literally shocked. 

Overall, the school wasn’t bad, but it did have that edgy vibe to it.  

Preschool in Marseille:

photo of Catherine with her preschool teachers in Marseille France, 2011
Catherine, at her preschool in Marseille in 2011, flanked by two of her teachers.

Our experience with preschool in Marseille was actually very positive. Kids are still cute and relatively well-behaved at this age.

Catherine had just turned four years old when we moved to France, so she was placed in the grade level called Moyenne Section (MS) at a school called “École Maternelle Hôtel des Postes.” 

School is mandatory for children starting at age three in France. 

We were pleased with the overall atmosphere and quality of our daughter’s education.

She came home with snail drawings, learned new songs, and practiced a lot of writing. Penmanship seems to be emphasized from an early age in France.

Preschool notebook for handwriting and practic
Paper French students use in preschool for handwriting practice. “lignage maternelle” or “double ligne.”

Catherine had two lovely teachers whom she liked very much. And our interactions with other parents and children were also great. 

There were no language issues because I’ve always spoken to Catherine in French, so she was fluent. But some French Canadian expressions are very different from French in France, so she had that to adjust to.

We left Marseille to find a better city and better schools

Photo of our three kids standing at the top of the Marseille train station facing the Notre Dame church.
Our three kids at the Marseille Saint Charles train station facing Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde (c)Annie Andre

Hundreds of thousands of people and countless families choose to live in Marseille, which is why it’s the second-largest city in France.

For us, Marseille was not a good fit. On the other hand, Anthony Bourdin loved it, but then again, he wasn’t raising his family there either. 

We wanted to experience a different side of France, especially since our children were still young, so we decided to extend our stay in France for at least one more year and move to another French city or town. 

Blake and I revisiting Marseille in 2023, standing at the head of the stairs of the St Charles train station
Blake and I revisiting Marseille in 2023, standing at the head of the stairs of the St Charles train station

We still visit Marseille on occasion, and I love it. I take the train there, go shopping, eat at the old port, go to a museum, and then take the train home.

But I’ll never live in Marseille again, at least not with young children near the city centre.

You might be interested in Cost of Living In France for1 year: Our actual detailed Cost Breakdown

Here are my recommendations when choosing a school in Marseille.

I have a few recommendations if you plan on living in Marseille with school-aged children. These will actually apply to most big cities in France. 

  • Enroll your children in a private school if you live anywhere near the city center.
  • If you send your children to a public school, find a home to rent (or buy) with better schools. You can usually find this information online at sites like this Classement des écoles a Marseille.
  • Get involved in the school as much as possible.

La Garde: Schools in a smaller French town in the Côte d’Azur- A Positive Change

photo of a small street in La Garde France on the Rocher
After Marseille, we moved to the end of this street to the right in a town called La Garde for four years. (c) Annie Andre

In August 2012, after spending nearly 11 months in Marseille, we moved to “La Garde.” And it was the best decision we could have made.

La Garde is a charming, small French town on the French Riviera ( Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) near Saint Tropez and Cannes.

We used the Sabbatical Homes website to find a furnished apartment to rent—again.

This time, we found a 500-year-old furnished four-story stone Maison de Ville. It was situated on a small hill in the medieval part of the town. The locals called it “la Vieille Garde Sur Le Rocher” (the old guard on the rock). 

Photo of La Garde France in the Var
We lived in one of the homes in the cluster of houses in this photo. Photo courtesy of lagarde83130 on Instagram

Compared to Marseille, living in La Garde was like living in a fantasy. 

Official website of the town of La Garde.

There was nothing fancy about La Garde; it was a quiet, blue-collar town with a family-friendly environment to live and raise kids. 

In terms of amenities near us, there was a French farmers market 3 times a week in the main square, a bakery, a tiny movie theatre, a handful of restaurants, an ice rink, and a big reddish brown medieval-looking church which you can see on the right in the picture above.

photo of Catherine in La Garde France
Catherine in La Garde France. (c) AnnieAndre

The schools our children eventually attended were also within walking distance of our new home.

We had to buy a used Renault Scenic. It was a necessity in a town like this. 

It was easier to make friends in La Garde:

Photo of some of our friends
In front of our 500-year-old Maison de Ville in La Garde, France, before moving to Montpellier (c) Annie Andre

When you have children and live in a small town, making friends is easier. We would see many of the same people daily walking the streets, shopping at the marché, who eventually became friends. 

We also made friends through our children by participating in school outings or invitations to birthday parties.

Public Schools in La Garde: A Breath of Fresh Air

photo of my 3 kids in 2012 in le Pradet France

The first thing I did when we arrived in La Garde was enroll our three children in three different public schools at three different grade levels. 

The process was almost identical to Marseille, except this was a small town with a more closely-knit community. People seemed less stressed and more helpful, and although there was just as much paperwork, things seemed to go more smoothly.

The fact that I had already been through the process in Marseille also made the process much easier. Still annoying, but I knew what to do this time. 

There was one small hiccup with the high school. At first, I was told they could not accept our eldest son because the school was full, but I insisted, and he was eventually accepted.

No means maybe, and maybe can be turned into a yes in France. It’s just the way it is. 

How were the schools in a smaller town like La Garde:

photo of our family in La Garde France
Family photo (selfie) in La Garde, France, where our kids went to school before moving to Montpellier (c) Annie Andre

Catherine was 5 when we moved to La Garde and went straight to the Grande Section (GS), equivalent to kindergarten.

The move represented a fresh start for my two sons, aged 15 and 16 at the time. They were mainstreamed into regular French classrooms — no more special French classes, but I could tell they were still struggling with the language.

And the fact that they were enrolled in local schools rather than being bussed off to a faraway school meant that their peers lived in our area. Peers living near us = friends, friends = happy kids. 

Overall, all three schools my three children attended were great. Not perfect, but what school is?

I found the middle and high school experience a bit rough, but looking back, I think I was just an overly protective mom. It’s pretty normal for teenagers to want to express themselves and be a bit rowdy, but nothing too crazy.

Both of my sons were fairly fluent in French by the end of their second year of living in La Garde. A lot of that had to do with the fact that they had friends to hang out with and talk to who would come over to our house quite often. 

Our daughter had no problems besides regular 5-year-old issues, boys pulling her hair, or someone looking at her funny—cute kid stuff. 

By now, Catherine had lost her French-Canadian accent. So sad!

Eldest son: Time for University

photo of Kieran in Montpellier while visiting the University
On one of our exploratory visits to Montpellier (c), Annie Andre

In 2015, we were still living in La Garde. Our eldest son applied to several universities and chose to attend the University of Montpellier, one of the oldest universities in Europe.

Kieran and I decided to go to Montpellier to explore the city and were immediately drawn to the young, vibrant and somewhat cosmopolitan atmosphere.

In many ways, it reminded me of Montreal. 

Blake and I discussed the idea of moving to Montpellier. We both liked the idea of living in a larger city with more cultural activities and amenities. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still crime and graffiti in Montpellier. What big city doesn’t have all those things? Paris is no exception. 

We did lots of research about what it would look like for the entire family to move to Montpellier, and just like that, we decided to move the following year.

Leaving friends behind

About a year later, in August of 2016, we packed our bags, said au revoir to our French friends and the picturesque streets of La Garde, which we had called home for over 4 years, and moved to Montpellier. 

photo of some of our Friends
Photo of some friends we left behind—small-town living. We had lots of friends (c) Annie Andre.

Of course, we were sad to leave our lives and friends behind in La Garde, but we were ready for the change and a new experience. That’s why we came to France to experience France’s many cultures and regional customs. 

Montpellier: Public, private and international school experiences

photo of the Arc du triomphe du Peyrou in Montpellier
Catherine and Blake walking towards the Arc de Triomphe du Peyrou in Montpellier, France (c) Annie Andre

Montpellier is situated in the south of France, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, along the Mediterranean coast, west of the French Riviera.

Montpellier would be what you would call a French university town in France. It has several universities and higher education institutions, including the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier, founded in 1220—the first or second oldest Western world medical school still in operation. 

The move to Montpellier was pretty easy. We didn’t own many things, so there wasn’t much to move. We had 2 suitcases each, an electric Yamaha Piano, laptops, and some other personal effects, which all fit in a little rental truck. And because we always rented furnished apartments, we had no furniture to move.our moving van in Montpellier France

Blake and our two sons loaded the rental truck; 5 hours and a couple of stops later, we unpacked our suitcases in our new flat near Place de la Comédie, the epicentre of Montpellier and a popular area with outdoor cafes and restaurants. 

Photo of our stuff before we unpacked in Montpellier
Unboxing our stuff at our new flat in Montpellier. Photo (c) Annie Andre

The town hall assigned us a school:

Within days of arriving in Montpellier, we went to the prefecture to update our new address on our “Carte de Séjour,” which is kind of like a French green card. You should always update your carte de séjour when you move. 

We also went to the city hall (Mairie) to register our daughter in the local public elementary school. 

Our daughter was assigned to an elementary school, which was literally on the other side of the train tracks of the central train station (Gare Saint Roch). Not again!

photo of police lineup in front of Gare Saint Rock main train station in Montpellier France
Police barricade in reaction to another demonstration. (front of Saint Roch train station in Montpellier)  photo  (c)Annie André

I wasn’t excited about the prospect of walking past a busy train station to school every morning with my daughter, who was now 9 years old.

Looking back, I’m sure it would have been fine, but after our experience in Marseille, I didn’t want to take any chances. And after living in La Garde, I grew accustomed to our peaceful 5-minute walk to school. 

I told myself this is Montpellier, one of France’s top 10 largest cities, not a small quaint French town. This is what we signed up for. 

Accidental private Catholic school:

In front of daughter's private catholic school in France

A couple of days later, we were circling the neighbourhood in our car, trying (unsuccessfully) to find street parking.

I glanced out of the car window and saw a couple of signs hanging over two large purple doors that read: “ECOLE CATHOLIQUE,” Catholic school, and “ECOLE PRIMAIRE,” primary school. 

I had no idea that this Catholic school was even there.

The off-white two-story building was unimpressive, and it was situated steps from restaurants, a café and a day bar with plenty of foot traffic. The area didn’t feel grungy, just animated and busy in a good way—lots of students, children, and hubbub. 

The wheels in my head immediately started turning. It felt like a bit of luck that we happened upon this school by accident, less than a minute’s walk from our new place.

“Wouldn’t it be so convenient if our daughter could leave home and be at school in less than 60 seconds instead of walking 15 minutes past that busy train station?”

My husband agreed. 

We had never considered private schools, let alone a private catholic school, so we knew nothing about how private French schools worked. 

Enrolling your kids in private school: The protocol

public and private schools in France

The following day, with nothing to lose, Blake and I walked to the Catholic school at the end of a narrow one-way street to speak to the school’s headmistress (la directrice.)

You don’t have to be Catholic to attend a Catholic school in France. But a French catholic education in France includes some faith-based religious curriculum.

She looked like one of those stereotypical French teachers you see in the movies. She looked very jolly with her short blond hair and bangs swept to the side. And her pointy wing-tipped librarian glass gave her a librarian-esque appearance.

I had a really good feeling about this school until she said there were no openings for new students. 

Private schools in France are often on a first-come, first-serve basis and or have waiting lists. 

But that wasn’t the end of the story because the directrice gave us hope. She said a student in the CM1 class, the same grade level that Catherine would be entering, might leave before school starts. And if that happened, there would be an opening for our daughter.

Every few days after that, I popped back over to the school to see if there was any news about the opening until, one day, a spot opened up.

It was perfect timing because school started back up in less than two weeks. 

Private Catholic schools are very affordable in France.

The directrice invited us to sit in her office and discuss the next steps.

When she told us that the annual tuition fees were 800 Euros per year, my jaw literally dropped. I couldn’t believe how affordable a private education in a catholic school in France was. I just assumed that it would be over 5k per year, like many of the international and bilingual schools in the area.

The enrolment process went smoothly. We didn’t have to go through the town hall to enroll Catherine. Instead, enrolment through private schools is usually handled in-house, which is much easier.

We were so pleased with the level of education at the Catholic elementary school that when it came time to move on to middle school, we decided to send her to the private catholic middle school where many of her class were also going. 

Private Catholic Middle School in Montpellier:

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

Middle school in France is called “college.” 

The Catholic middle school was located about a 25-minute walk from our house. Luckily, we lived near a tram stop. Every morning, Catherine walked 5 minutes to the tram stop, and 10 minutes later, she was at school with her friends and classmates, chattering away about life and complaining about school lunches.

Overall, her education at the Catholic middle school was rigid but good. 

COVID: From Catholic to Private International School

During covid, many schools shut down so students had to their classwork from home

During Covid, things changed a lot.

Children were confined to their homes most of the time, and students had to adapt to a new way of learning.

On the days and sometimes weeks when children had to quarantine at home, students were expected to log on to a site called “pronote” to download assignments and upload homework. 

“Pronote” is a digital platform in France that facilitates communication and organization between schools, teachers, students, and parents. Most schools in France use this online platform or something equivalent, but now it is the only way to communicate with teachers and get assignments because of the mandatory quarantine. 

Schools in France were already using Pronote or something similar before COVID-19. However, it was never meant to be the main way of communicating homework assignments and class information.

It wasn’t a seamless transition for everyone. Some teachers struggled to regularly post assignments on the platform, leading to a lack of clear direction. 

It’s not the school’s fault; it was established in 1917 and was not equipped for remote learning. However, I was still annoyed that there seemed to be no clear direction for the students. 

One day, while talking to a friend, she told me her son, who was attending an international school, made a seamless transition to Zoom classes. On the days when children were required to quarantine at home, her son was attending virtual classes along with his classmates on Zoom. 

I didn’t know how long COVID would last, and I was concerned about our daughter potentially losing an entire year of school. 

So, I enrolled Catherine in that private international school, where some classes were taught in English and others in French. 

This was exciting not only because it meant that Catherine would be occupied with school all day, even on the days she had to quarantine at home, but also because Catherine had never been formally educated or taught in English. Her English was primarily oral, not written. 

The tuition for middle schoolers at this international school was 5K Euros per year. Gulp!

Education at the international school in Montpellier

Every international and private school is unique, with some offering specialized curriculums or learning styles while others follow more traditional approaches.

The methodology and curriculum at Antonia International School followed an approach called “La pédagogie du sens,” or “The Pedagogy of Meaning.”

This approach strongly emphasizes making learning meaningful and relevant to students by connecting new information and concepts to their existing knowledge and experiences. By doing so, students can better understand and retain what they learn.

Other things that were different were that the class sizes were much smaller than at the public and private Catholic schools that Catherine attended. There were roughly 13 to 18 students per class. Student desks were often put in a circle so children could face one another and collaborate.

In addition to regular sports, they also had yoga classes. The facilities were very modern, and the staff, although mainly French, did have some international staff from England, Spain, and the US. 

For lunch, a food truck pulled up daily to serve organic home-cooked meals that looked like they belonged on a restaurant menu. Kids could bring their lunch to school if they wanted, which is rare because most schools in France don’t allow outside lunches on campus. Don’t ask.

When it was time for our daughter to enrol in High School, we faced a difficult decision.

The tuition fees are often higher at the high school level, which was raised to 7,000 Euros per year.

Catherine expressed that she wanted to attend a bigger school where she could meet more people and get the high school experience. 

There were several good public high schools in Montpellier, but we found one with several international and European sections.

I’ll discuss these special bilingual sections in the next section. 

Public High School in Montpellier

In some public secondary schools (collèges and lycées) in France, students have the option to enrol in an international section or a European section.

Our daughter is currently enrolled in a public high school in Montpellier, in the European section. 

Both international sections and European sections are specialized programs that provide students with an internationally oriented education within the framework of the French public school system. 

 Here are some key characteristics of these two specialized sections within a public school in France. 

The European section within French public schools:

Focuses on European language and cultural education. Students take several courses such as math, history, or geography in a European foreign language throughout the year. Since the focus is on European languages, the choice is usually English, German, Spanish, or Italian. All the rest of the courses are given in French. 

Students in the European sections sometimes can pursue the European Baccalaureate diploma, an internationally recognized qualification for entry into European universities.

International Sections within French Public Schools:

Students must choose which international section they want to pursue. My daughter’s school offers three international sections: an Anglo-American section, a Chinese section, and an Arab section. Students must pass an oral and written exam with limited space to be accepted into the international section. Hundreds of students apply every year, but there are less than 100 spots, so only the students with the best scores are accepted. 

Additionally, children will have to write a letter of motivation and provide 2 years’ worth of grades. 

Once admitted, students take certain classes such as math, history, geography, or literature in a foreign language section in which they are enrolled. 

18 languages offered in various international sections across France: German, American, English, Arabic, Australian, Brazilian, Chinese, Korean, Danish, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish.

Some public schools with international sections offer an internationally recognized IB Diploma recognized by many universities worldwide. 

If you are interested in finding a public or private school in France with an international section, you can check the Official Educational Websites:

PART 2: Public, Private or International Schools in France: Which is right for you?

So now the question is, will you choose a public or private school? And if you choose a private school, do you send them to a Catholic school, international school or another? 

I would love to give a definitive answer, but I can’t because choosing between public and private education in France is a decision that depends on many different factors and circumstances unique to each family, such as budget, priorities, special needs, etc. 

Although I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all solution, I can give you some general advice and factors to consider regarding private schools. Some will apply to you, while others won’t.

Comparing private to public and international schools

The vast majority of private schools in France are Catholic, followed by secular private schools, then specialized private schools such as sports, science, or arts. And, of course, Private international schools which attract many international students.

There are also other types of private schools in France, such as bilingual schools, Waldorf (Steiner) schools, and Montessori schools. 

I will only be discussing private Catholic schools and international schools, which can be private or public because those are the ones I have experience with. 

  • Catholic Schools: Catholic private schools are affiliated with the Catholic Church and often provide religious education alongside the standard curriculum. You do not have to be Catholic to attend. 
  • International Schools: Offer various international curricula, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), American, British, or other national curricula. They often teach in multiple languages and have a diverse student body. Most are private; a select handful are public. 

Table Summarizing the key differences.

Here is a table with a quick overview comparing public, private and international schools in France. Below the table is more detailed information for the areas I thought needed more explanation. 

  Public Schools Private Schools International Schools
Tuition Fees Free €500 to €5,000 Private ones:
€7,000 to €20,000
Public ones:
Free
Diploma Le Bac Le Bac
Some have international
diplomas.
Le Bac:
Many have IB diplomas,
Class Size AVG: 24-30 Smaller class sizes Smaller class sizes
Language of
Instruction
French:
But ones with 
international sections
will have bilingual
classes or programs.
French:
Some offer bilingual
programs or classes
(varies)
Often English,
bilingual, or multilingual
Curriculum Standard French
curriculum
(Varied)
Montessori, Catholic,
International or
home-country
Cultural Diversity Mainly French students Some international
students
Diverse student body
Facilities Basic  Modern  High-quality 
Admission Process Based on where
you live
(varies)
Entrance exams, grades,
interviews, and space
(varies)
Entrance exams,
grades, interviews,
space.
Uniforms NO Very rare. Mainly prestigious
or elite schools
require uniforms
Subsidized Fully state-funded Some private schools 
like Catholic schools
may be state-subsidized
Generally
private-funded
Religious Affiliation Secular education Largely private religious schools;
Catholic, Jewish, etc. 
Both secular & religious
Expat Community Limited expat community Smaller expat community Strong expat community

French High school diploma

The High School diploma in France is called the “Baccalauréat,” but it’s more commonly referred to simply as “Le Bac.”

One of the main differences between a French high school diploma and one from the US or the UK is that “Le BAC” is both a high school diploma and a university entrance exam that certifies a student has completed their secondary high school education and is academically prepared for higher education.

In other words, to be eligible to enrol in Universities in France, students don’t have to pass special University entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT in the US or A Levels in the UK— Le BAC is all students need.

Some private schools in France, especially international and bilingual schools, offer an internationally recognized diploma accepted by universities worldwide called the “IB,” short for “International Baccalaureate.” It’s a popular choice for students who plan to study abroad but not necessarily to get into foreign universities. 

Curriculum in French schools: 

By law, all public and private schools in France have to follow the national curriculum known as “Le Programme de l’Éducation Nationale.” The French Ministry of Education establishes this curriculum, outlines the subjects taught in schools, and sets the educational goals for each grade level from preschool and high school to higher education institutes.

For example, in middle school, students are expected to learn a second language, which is almost always English. Schools at this level also have to introduce new subjects, such as music and technology.

Public schools education and secularism

Secular public schools

Public schools in France are secular and must separate church from state. This principle of secularism is known in France as ( laïcité). In terms of education, this means that religious practices and teachings are not allowed to be part of public school education in France.

The public Fench schools system also has policies that forbid students (and teachers) from wearing visible religious symbols, accessories and clothing. One example is the hijab, a type of headscarf worn by Muslim female students. This has caused quite a bit of controversy in France because some people think it unfairly targets the Muslim religion and community. 

What public schools teach

Public education in France is well-rounded. It includes a broad range of subjects, which will differ by grade level. At the higher levels, schools will teach French literature, mathematics, science, history, geography, physical education, and foreign languages, including English.

Private Subsidized Schools (e.g., Catholic Schools):

Subsidized schools have unique challenges because they have to follow the national educational standards set by the French Ministry of Education while also including their own educational agenda.

Private Catholic schools, which are almost always government-subsidized, incorporate religious classes and activities covering various aspects of Catholicism, such as religious studies classes and attending mass. Some religious activities will be mandatory, while others may be elective.

International schools:

Private International schools also have to meet the national education standards set by the Ministry of Education to operate legally, but they do have more flexibility in designing their programs than both public and subsidized private schools.

International schools focus on more of a global education and have more courses and extracurricular activities that cater to international students, such as bilingual or multilingual instruction in foreign languages other than French. Many also offer the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is why international schools attract students from diverse nationalities.

Private schools: Factors to consider

Whether private catholic school, Montessori school or international school, here are some things to consider when enrolling a child in a private school in France. 

  1. Tuition Fees: Private Catholic schools will almost always be the most affordable type of private school in France because the government subsidizes them. Many schools offer scholarships or financial aid to eligible students. These are usually based on the income of the parents. Tuition fees will vary, but in general, fees become progressively more expensive the higher the grade level. So, preschool and primary will always be less than middle and high school levels. Many schools offer scholarships or financial aid to eligible students. These are usually based on the income of the parents.
    1. Catholic school average tuition range: €500 to €5,000
    2. Private International school tuition range: €7000 to €30,000
  2. Application: Private schools have limited space and usually work on a first-come, first-served basis which is why it’s important to research enrollment procedures and deadlines in advance. 
  3. Smaller Class Sizes: Many private schools, including Catholic ones, tend to have smaller class sizes compared to public schools. 
  4. Autonomy: Compared to public schools, Private schools usually have more freedom in designing their curriculum including teaching methods. A good example of this is Montessori schools. 
  5. Parental Involvement: Parents are usually more involved in private schools which can create a sense of community and support between students, parents, and teachers
  6. Resources and Facilities: Because private schools charge tuition fees and receive donations, they sometimes have better facilities, better-equipped classrooms, libraries, and a budget for better-qualified teachers.
  7. Extracurricular Activities: Charging tuition also means private schools can offer more extracurricular activities, and programs, that allow students to explore their interests and talents beyond the standard French curriculum.
  8. High Academic Standards: Private schools are known for setting high academic standards and expectations for their students. 
  9. Selective Admissions: Private schools, especially specialty and international schools may have selective admission processes. Typically, students will need to provide their grades from the previous two years, write a letter of motivation and or submit a letter of recommendation. 
  10. Diploma: Some international schools offer an IB Diploma in addition to the French BAC.

Other considerations:

  1. Location, Location, Location: The geographic area where you plan to live can significantly impact the schools in your area.  Seek input from local residents, expats, and other parents. Their experiences and recommendations can provide valuable insights.
  2. Visit Schools: Whenever possible, visit schools to get a sense of the environment and teaching approach. This can help you gauge compatibility with your child’s needs.
  3. Educational Priorities: Consider your educational priorities for your children. Are you seeking a specific curriculum, language immersion, or a more traditional approach? 
  4. Child’s Needs: Does your child have special educational requirements that might be better addressed in a private setting? Are they bilingual or facing language barriers? 
  5. Language barriers: If your child does not speak French, and you place them in a public French school they will most likely be mainstreamed into a French classroom unless the school has special immersion classes for immigrants. How will you help them to learn French? Or do you put them in more expensive international schools where classes are given in English and French?

Public and Private International Schools in France

In France, there are a variety of different types of international schools. The majority of them are private; therefore, they charge tuition. And these are the most expensive types of private schools in France. However, there are a handful of free public international schools. 

These schools offer bilingual or multilingual education, emphasizing multiple languages and cultures rather than being tied to a single one.

And finally, there are country-specific international schools which can be free or tuition-based.

Let’s quickly go over them. 

Private International schools

Elit private international schools in France like École des Roches have the highest tuitions averaging 25k per year or more.

 

The tuition fees for private international schools are usually much higher than other types of private schools in France. Ranging from 7k to 15k per year.

Then there are the Elite and prestigious private international schools that will cost even more. Although uniforms are a thing of the past in France, the students in these elite schools often wear school uniforms. Because of the high tuition, they have better facilities and a bigger budget for many activities and offer programs that public and other private schools cannot afford to do.

For example, École des Roches is an exclusive private day and boarding school in Verneuil d’Avre et d’Iton, 2 hours east of Paris. It attracts students from all over the world and is considered one of the top international schools in France. They offer a French BAC, as well as an IB diploma. Their IB program costs 25K Euros per year for the first year. 

Free International Schools

A handful of International school in France are free such as the "Lycée international des Pontonniers" located in Strasbourg
Free international school “Lycée international des Pontonniers” in Strasbourg.

There are a handful of free public international schools in France, like the “Lycée international des Pontonniers” in Strasbourg.

These free public international schools are called “les écoles internationales publiques” or “écoles internationales gratuites.”

Children usually have to pass a language test and provide previous years’ grades. 

Country-specific international schools in France: 

Country-specific international schools primarily teach in that country’s language. However, most of these country-specific international country schools also offer French language programs in their curriculum to help students integrate into the local French culture and education system.

For example, the American School of Paris and the British School of Paris teach primarily in English but offer some courses in French. 

Here are a few.

List of Free Public International Schools throughout France

Below, I’ve listed some of the more well-known country-specific international schools in France that are free. 

English-Language Schools:

1. American School of Paris

  • Location: Saint-Cloud, France
  • Age Range: Pre-K (3 years old) to Grade 12 (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: American High School Diploma

2. British School of Paris

  • Location: Croissy-sur-Seine, France
  • Age Range: Nursery (2 years old) to Year 13 (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: GCSE and A-levels

French-Language School:

3. Lycée International de Saint-Germain-en-Laye

  • Location: Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
  • Age Range: Maternelle (3 years old) to Terminale (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: BAC (Baccalauréat)

Japanese-Language School:

4. Ecole Japonaise du Nord de la France (Japanese School of Northern France)

  • Location: Villeneuve-d’Ascq, France
  • Age Range: Preschool (3 years old) to Senior High School (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: Japanese High School Diploma

Chinese (Mandarin)-Language School:

5. Ecole Internationale Chinoise de Paris (Chinese International School of Paris)

  • Location: Paris, France
  • Age Range: Preschool (3 years old) to primary (12 years old)
  • High School Diploma: Chinese High School Diploma

Russian-Language School:

6. Ecole Russe de Paris (Russian School of Paris)

  • Location: Paris, France
  • Age Range: Preschool (3 years old) to Secondary School (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: Russian High School Diploma

Dutch-Language School:

7. Ecole Hollandaise d’Enseignement (Dutch School of Teaching)

  • Location: Paris, France
  • Age Range: Primary School (4 years old) to Secondary School (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: Dutch High School Diploma

Spanish-Language School:

8. Ecole Espagnole Luis Buñuel (Spanish School Luis Buñuel)

  • Location: Paris, France
  • Age Range: Preschool (3 years old) to Secondary School (16 years old)
  • High School Diploma: Spanish High School Diploma

German-Language School:

9. Ecole Allemande de Paris (German School of Paris)

  • Location: Paris, France
  • Age Range: Preschool (3 years old) to Secondary School (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: German High School Diploma

Portuguese-Language School:

10. Escola Portuguesa de Paris (Portuguese School of Paris)

  • Location: Paris, France
  • Age Range: Preschool (3 years old) to Secondary School (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: Portuguese High School Diploma

Italian-Language Schools:

11. Scuola Italiana Paritaria Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo da Vinci Italian Paritarian School)

  • Location: Paris, France
  • Age Range: Preschool (3 years old) to Secondary School (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: Italian High School Diploma

12. Ecole Italiene de Paris (Italian School of Paris)

  • Location: Paris, France
  • Age Range: Preschool (3 years old) to Secondary School (18 years old)
  • High School Diploma: Italian High School Diploma

Conclusion

Whether you choose a public, private, or international school in France for your child, each path has its own unique qualities and benefits.

I hope this guide has been helpful and that you find the school, and location that aligns with your family’s values

“Bonne rentrée,” or Happy back-to-school. It sounds better in French. 

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 annieandre.com 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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