Useful Notes / Les Grandes Écoles

This page is about the French educational system, not just the grandes écoles, which are only a small part of it.


Jules Ferry's laws

The principle of the modern educational system were defined by Jules Ferry in 1880-1882. Ferry decided that the educational system must be public, laïc, gratuit et obligatoire (public, secular, free note  and mandatory). He passed laws to create public elementary schools in every town. Before that, education was mostly in the hands of private (religious) institutions. Ferry's laws allowed all children to have access to the same basic education. Professors of elementary schools (called instituteurs, nicknamed les hussards noirs de la république note ) played a crucial role in the cultural unification of the country, as well as in the suppression of many regional languages.

Those laws are still the core of the French educational system. Education is mandatory until the age of 16. Concerning the other principles, they still hold in public schools. Every child can receive a good education that costs their parents almost nothing. Yet about 20% of French children attend private schools, mostly because of religious concerns, though it should be noted that even these have exactly the same curricula as the public schools note .

Laïcité and the public/private school war

This was, and still is, a very sensitive issue in France. If you think that war is too strong a word, keep in mind that this issue caused some of the biggest demonstrations in France's history; some politicians and even a few governments had to resign because of it. In fact, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the Catholic church was opposed to the French Republic, so the creation of a secular public school system was a direct attack against the influence of the church. Some priests called the public school l'école du diable (the devil's school).

Laïcité, or secularism, means that the state and all public institutions must be neutral with regards to religious beliefs. Civil servants are not allowed to display any religious symbols, and no religious education can be provided in public schools. Recently, a law was passed so that children are also not allowed to display any overt religious symbols note . Therefore, parents who wish for their children to receive some religious education must send them to a private school. Most private schools have a contract with the French state. They agree to teach the same things as public schools, with the possible addition of some religious course. In exchange, the state pays the teachers.


The French educational system may be complex, but the grades are very simple. At every level, from elementary schools to university, the grades range from 0 (the worst) to 20 (the best). This grading system is even standard outside the education system and many newspapers and critics give grades in the same range about everything.

For any examination, a candidate must get a grade of at least 10 to pass. Special mentions may be awarded if one's grade is greater than:
  • 16: très bien (very good)
  • 14: bien (good)
  • 12: assez bien (good enough)
  • 10: passable (pass)

Until quite recently, the teacher would announce the grades of everyone from highest to lowest in front of the entire class, with the lower half of the class getting a severe talking to, although this practice has become quite rare in recent times. Some teachers note  will still do this, but it's mostly frowned upon.

The grades also determine if a student advances to the next level, or has to spend another year at the same level.

School conditions

France's school year runs from early September to early July... so you get a two-month holiday. In addition, there are four two-week breaks, around All Saints Day, Christmas, in February and in mid April (the precise dates vary depending on which of three regions you are in). This means that French pupils only spend 144 days a year in school as opposed to the OECD average of 187... but those days are much longer (8am to 4.30pm)

French pupils used to go to school on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday... and Saturday morning. The Wednesday (Thursday until 1972) was a result of the 1882 introduction of compulsory education where pupils got a day off for religious schooling... and did Saturday morning to make up for it. Recent introduction of Wednesday teaching under the Hollande administration has been controversial to put it mildly; Wednesday is now the day the French cinemas get new films - it's that entrenched.

Education system before the baccalauréat

La maternelle (kindergarten)

Children may begin to attend l'école maternelle from the age of 2, until they are 5 to 6 years old. This school is not strictly mandatory, but almost all children go there when they are 4 years or older. The school is generally divided into three sections, the petite section (2-3 yars old), moyenne section (3-4 years old) and grande section (5-6 years old).

La primaire (elementary school)

Children begin attending this school from the age of 6, for a period of 5 years. The name of the classes are: CP (cours préparatoire), CE1, CE2 (cours élémentaire 1 and 2) CM1, and CM2 (cours moyen 1 and 2). The main goal of elementary school is to learn how to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic, while secondary goals include learning some basic notions of sciences, arts, history, and foreign languages. This is the last school where there is only one teacher per class. After that, there will be one teacher per subject (French, Maths, English, History/Geography, et cetera).

Le collège (junior high school)

While in America, college refers to the university level, in France it refers to junior high school. It is 4 years long, and children normally start collège when they are 11 years old. The 4 classes are called sixième (6th), cinquième (5th), quatrième (4th) and troisième (3rd), in that order: it is a countdown to the baccalauréat. Children who have some problems with school may finish collège at the age of 16 or more, when education is no longer mandatory. Therefore, the collège is the last school that everyone attends. At the end, children obtain their first qualification, the brevet des collèges. It is fairly easy to obtain, and it is worth almost nothing, but it may be the only diploma some people ever have. It is, however, the minimal qualification required to be a civil servant (D grade, the lowest).

Le lycée (high school)

Unlike previous schools, in which everyone received the same kind of education, there are three kinds of lycées:
  • Lycée général: provides general, more theoretical education that equips students for higher studies of a relatively longer duration in university or grande école. It is three years long, and students take one of three types of baccalauréat depending on their specialisation: L (literary), S (scientific), or ES (economics-human sciences). note 
  • Lycée technique: provides technical education. In theory, it is for children who do not wish to spend too much time on higher studies. It is three years long, and it ends with one of a number of bac[calauréat]s techno[logiques] analogous to the other types, although there are many, many more different "filières" reflecting a further level of specialization than the three of the bac général: e.g. accounting, tourism...
  • Lycée professionnel: provides professional knowledge, to suit the profile of children who wish to enter the workforce without going through higher studies. It ends with a CAP (1 year of study) or BEP (2 years) specialized in a profession. People may also study 2 more years to get a bac pro[fessionnel].

In theory, students are able to choose which lycée they will go to. In practice, there is an element of selection: students with the best, or at least average, grades tend to go to the lycées généraux, while those with the worst grades go to the lycées techniques or the lycées professionnels.

Le baccalauréat

Called le bac (a shortened form) by many, this qualification is very important to the French. Since it is obtained when one is 18, which is the age of legal majority in France, the bac is considered as a Rite of Passage.

The bac is an institution in itself: every year, newspapers publish the results and there are long discussions about it in the media. People over 30 usually say that this diploma was hard when they sat the exams for it, but is worth nothing today since everybody gets it easily. The topics of the philosophy tests are announced on TV news (after the tests, of course) and becomes a national conversation starter for a few days thereafter. Since everybody in France have the same subjects, teachers put a lot of efforts to preserve secrecy, everyone starts the tests at the exact same time, and there is a spare topic if the main one happens to be leaked.

Candidates first undergo a series of written tests; the marks are then converted into a weighted mean out of 20 (see above). Candidates whose weighted mean mark is more than 10 earn their bac. A weighted mean mark of less than 8 means that the candidate has failed and has to redo their final year of high school, or terminale. Should a candidate obtain a weighted mean mark between 8 and 10, s/he may take some oral tests to get a better grade. Should the weighted mean mark still not be equal to or greater than 10, the candidate is considered to have failed the bac.

Higher education

There are universities in France, like in all other countries. The oldest one is the university of Paris, called la Sorbonne. But there is another higher education system, called les grandes écoles, that exists only in France. The grandes écoles are similar to colleges or graduate schools, but are very selective.

La Sorbonne

The University of Paris was founded in the mid-12th century and is thus one of the oldest in the world. It was nicknamed la Sorbonne, which was technically the main college of the university. The building still exists, but the University of Paris was split to create 13 smaller universities in 1970, only 3 of which kept the word Sorbonne in their name. The historical place of the university, in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, is still famous for the universities and grandes écoles that are there.

Since the university is located in the capital of France, its students took part in many protests and revolutions that happened there. The last major one occurred in May 1968, and those protests, as well as the massive strike that happened at the same time, threatened the power of President Charles de Gaulle, who resigned a few months after the protests.

Other universities

There are about 80 universities in France. In the big cities, the universities that existed before 1970 were split. That is why French universities' names often have numbers added after the name of the city in which they are located, as in the case of (to name a few) Université de Bordeaux 1, Université de Bordeaux 2 and Université de Bordeaux 3.

There is no real selection to enter an university, and the tuition fees are extremely low. Consequently, the universities are often viewed in much the same way that Americans view community colleges — overcrowded and poor. There is a high failure rate during the first years, so the classes are overcrowded only during the licence, equivalent to a Bachelor's degree (3 years). After one obtains one's licence, one may stay on to obtain a master (2 years), or Master's degree. Some continue beyond their master for 3 years or more to obtain a doctorat (PhD).

Grandes écoles

The grandes écoles (lit. great schools) are colleges or graduate schools that require would-be students to sit a competitive entrance exam. Students prepare for this exam over 2 or 3 years. This preparation is done in special preparatory classes in lycées, called CPGE — classes préparatoire aux grandes écoles. So the students of grandes écoles may never go to the university but receive a Master's degree after 3 years in one of those grandes écoles. Only about 10% of students attend one of these special schools, but this small minority includes a large majority of political leaders, corporate executives and renowned scientists.

The most famous grandes écoles are:
  • the Écoles normales supérieures (ENS), which are schools that train future teachers and scientists. Most French Nobel Prize and Fields medal winners hail from these schools. Alumni are called normaliens. Professors teaching core subjects in prépa, even in the less prestigious of them, seem to invariably hail from these.
  • the École polytechnique (nicknamed l'X) is an engineering school with a strong military tradition. Alumni are called polytechniciens. Many French scientists and mathematicians from The French Revolution and Napoleon's First Empire like Laplace and Cauchy studied there and/or taught there. Many French people know them for being part of the Bastille Day military parade, marching in Napoleon-style bicorn hats.
  • the École des Mines, popularly known as Mines ParisTech, is technically the oldest engineering school still in activity, since it was founded during the Ancien Régime.
  • the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers, a.k.a. ENSAM, a.k.a. Arts et Métiers, officially Arts et Métiers ParisTech, is not a fine arts school but an engineering school founded by a liberal noble before, during, and after The Revolution. Is semi-(in)famous in France for alleged cases of hazing, for having its own dialect, and for its students' unusual dress sense. Is incidentally one of only two institutions in France allowed to keep a military-inspired uniform despite no longer actually being linked to the military, which is otherwise forbidden by law. Alumni include several inventors and engineers, one of Mustafa Kemal's Western "alphabet counselors", a tech consultant for the Clinton administration, the current head of Caltech, and if his bio on The Other Wiki is to be believed, one porn baron note .
  • Sciences Po, officially Institut d'études politique (IEP), is a school attended by future journalists and politicians. There are several IEP, the most famous of which is in Paris. Further complicating the matter is that Sciences Po Paris itself has branches dotted all over the country. Seven of the last eight French presidents, including current President Macron, attended Sciences Po.
  • École des hautes études commerciales (HEC) is a business school. Former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former President Hollande both studied there at some point.
  • École nationale d'administration (ENA) trains high level civil servants and politicians. Contrary to the others, students attend this school after obtaining a Master's from another grande école. Alumni are called énarques. Several Presidents and Prime Ministers are ENA alumni, including current President Macron and former Presidents Hollande and Giscard d'Estaing. So are Hollande's ex-ex-partner, former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, SNCF executive officer Guillaume Pépy, and several senior members of every administration and every major political party. Enarques have usually previously studied in Sciences Po as well and because of this many politicians know each other personally, much in the same way as British public school alumni do. Unsurprisingly, populist parties across the board tend to dislike what they depict as cronyism.

The common factor of all of these schools is invariably a strong alumni network, comparable to that of British universities and public schools and almost inexistant in regular French universities. Their critics view them as the symbol of an entrenched, self-perpetuating caste of political and economic elites, while their supporters point out that few systems in France are so fundamentally meritocratic. The truth is, obviously, more complex than either of these assertions, especially when applied to several different institutions with sometimes very different histories. This comes from the fact that some of the most prestigious of the afore-mentioned grandes écoles have their roots in the aftermath of The French Revolution, when the nobility was either exiled or wiped out, and the now-centralised French republic took to creating a whole new caste of Self-Made Men. Today, one has far more chances of being encouraged towards grandes écoles if one is from a somewhat specific income bracket, so grandes écoles contain a disproportionately low number of students from a working-class background, even though they're largely all free of charge.

In fiction

  • Marcel Pagnol wrote some books about his childhood and his time at school. His father was an instituteur of the French Third Republic, and the book describes well what French elementary school was like at that time.
  • The Class is a movie about a teacher in a collège near Paris.
  • Être et avoir is a film/documentary about an old instituteur in a remote area.
  • Tanguy is a normalien who does not want to finish his doctorat. His dad is a polytechnicien.
  • Nicolas Bourbaki is a Nom De Plume of several French mathematicians (alumni of the ENS)note . It started as a student prank, but it ended with a series of books that changed the way in which maths is taught.