This page is about the French educational system, not just the grandes écoles, which are only a small part of it.
Jules Ferry's lawsThe 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 warThis 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.
GradesThe 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:
School conditionsFrance'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, 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:
Le baccalauréatCalled 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). 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 educationThere 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 SorbonneThe 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 universitiesThere 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, or Master's degree. Some continue beyond their master for 3 years or more to obtain a doctorat (PhD).
Grandes écolesThe 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: