The French School System Explained 👩🏼‍🏫

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

This is always a problem for my students. Understanding the French school system, l’école française, knowing which grades are which is a real nightmare. So here is a post that should make things easier. I wrote the equivalent grades in the US/UK school system, and the age of the students for reference.

Navigating the French school system and the equivalent US/UK grades can be tricky. Here’s an explanation of each French grades as well as related French school vocabulary and French school supply vocabulary.

How to Say School in French?

School, the generic term is l’école (feminine, singular).

Leyla aime aller à l’école.
Leyla enjoys going to school.

Now let’s see the different French school levels.

graphic with the names the French education system

How to Say Preschool in French?

Preschool is l’école maternelle (la maternelle). Attendance to preschool is not compulsory in France.

Here are the different French preschool grades:

  1. La petite section de maternelle ou PS (3 ans) = Nursery.
  2. La moyenne section de maternelle ou MS (4 ans) = Pre-K (Reception UK)
  3. La grande section de maternelle ou GS (5 ans) = Kindergarden (Year 1 UK)

Read my thoughts about switching from an American to a French preschool system.

How to Say Elementary School in French?

Elementary school in French is “l’école primaire”, or “le primaire” and it is compulsory in France. This means that in France, kids 6 and up must go to school (see the paragraph below about homeschooling in France). 

Here are the different French elementary school grades:

  1. Cours préparatoire ou CP (6 ans) = 1st Grade (Year 2 UK).
  2. Cours élémentaire 1re année ou CE1 (7 ans) = 2nd grade (Year 3 UK).
  3. Cours élémentaire 2e année ou CE2 (8 ans) = 3rd grade (Year 4 UK).
  4. Cours moyen 1re année ou CM1 (9 ans) = 4th grade(Year 5 UK).
  5. Cours moyen 2e année ou CM2 (10 ans) = 5th grade (Year 6 UK).

Les écoliers = elementary school children
L’école is often used to talk about elementary school in French.

The teachers are called traditionally “le maître” and “la maîtresse” (be very careful with this word since it means “elementary school teacher” AND “a (woman) lover”… go figure…)

In elementary school in France, a main teacher teaches several “matières (f)” such as le français, les mathématiques, la géographie, l’histoire, les sciences

School Children Age in France

The age indicated in this article is the minimum age you are supposed to be when entering that grade.

Of course, it’s a bit flexible: Leyla is from November, so we had a choice: she could have been one of the youngest or one of the oldest in her class. With the agreement of the school director, she joined CP at 5, turning 6 in November and therefore finishing that grade age 6.

It could be the contrary as well: kids entering CP at 6, turning 7 that year: it’s the majority of the cases.

And some kids also repeat years (this is called “redoubler” in French).

Of course, there are always unique cases.


– Here we are!
– Not already?!

What is the French Word for Middle School?

After elementary school, French kids start what we call “l’enseignement secondaire”.

It starts with “le collège” – Middle School. Kids usually attend Middle school in France from age 11 to 16. Some kind of formal education is compulsory in France till 16.

Here are the various French middle school grades:

  1. La sixième (11 ans) = 6th grade (Year 7 UK).
  2. La cinquième (12 ans) = 7th grade (Year 8 UK).
  3. La quatrième (13 ans) = 8th grade (Year 9 UK).
  4. La troisième  (14 ans) = 9th grade (Year 10 UK).

The collège ends with a test called “le brevet“.

Kids attending middle school are called “un collégien, une collégienne”

There are several “professeurs” (un professeur, always masculine even when referring to a woman teacher.

Camille est un bon professeur, but in slang, you can say “un/mon prof” or “une/ma prof”)

Middle school is also referred as “le premier cycle des études secondaires”.


Collège in French vs College in English

Watch out for the common French mistake:

  1. le collège = middle school
  2. la fac, la faculté, l’université = college

Confusing indeed!

The best way to memorize these kind of subtleties is to learn French in context. My beginner level audiobook A Moi Paris L1 has a chapter about middle school (ch 17), and in my intermediate audiobook method  A Moi Paris L4 chapter 1 describes a typical day at a university.

Both French audiobooks clearly explain French and then illustrate the new grammar/ vocabulary points with a level-adapted bilingual French story recorded at 2 levels of enunciation (enunciated and modern).

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High School in France

High school in French is called “le lycée”. Students are about 16 to 18 years old.

Le lycée can be in general studies, with some specialty as in languages or sciences, leading to the diploma of Baccalauréat général (commonly called “le bac” – do say the “c”), or prepare you for a special trade (hairdresser, a cook, mechanic…) leading to CAP or BEP diplomas – you can stop at 16 years old – or to a Baccalauréat technologique.

Studies in France are compulsory until you reach 16 years old, but they can be in school or in some kind of study/apprentice program.

High school in France is sometimes referred to as “le second cycle des études secondaires”.

Here are the various French high school grades:

  1. La seconde (15 ans) = 10th grade (Year 11 UK).
  2. La première (16 ans) = 11th grade (Year 12 UK).
  3. La terminale (17 ans) = 12th grade (Year 13 UK).
collège vs. college in French

Higher Education in France

Higher education in France is generally called “l’enseignement (m) supérieur”.

French students then go for “des études supérieures” (higher studies) à la fac, à l’université (watch out this is college in French…) or in les Grandes Écoles (the French Ivy League: SciencePo, HEC, more… ).

You need to have le baccalauréat to get into these schools, and Les Grandes Écoles often require that you have “une mention” (honors of the jury) to get in, or that you pass a special test.

Homeschooling in France

Homeschooling in France is often called “Le homeschooling”. We also say “l’école à la maison” ou “la scolarisation à domicile”. Homeschooling in France is not illegal, but quite rare.

Most children that are home-schooled in France are so because their parents are traveling, or because the kids have a medical condition.

Homeschooling parents have to register with the French school authorities and potentially face yearly inspections/evaluations to make sure the children keep up with French educational standards.

How to Say to Take a French Class in French ?

In French you cannot say “French class”. Your class is not French itself: it’s a class about the French language.
Saying “French class” is an idiom in English.

So translating word by word and saying: “une classe française” is a mistake.

So here are a few possible translations to talk about your French class:

  1. “Je suis un cours de français” (of the verb “suivre”: ‘to follow’)
    I’m taking a French class
  2. “Je fais partie d’une classe de français”,
    I’m enrolled in a French class
  3. “J’adore ma classe/mon cours de français”,
    I love my French class
  4. “Je déteste ma prof de français”
    I hate my French teacher

In any case, to say “French” for a class, it’s “de français“, never “français/française”, which is my point :-)

More about how to translate French and France in French.

How to translate ‘I study French’ in French

To say ‘I study French’, here is what you can say:

  1. “J’étudie le français”
    I study French
    The name of the language is “le français”, and it’s masculine.
  2. J’étudie la langue française
    I study the French language
    “La langue” being feminine, the adjective “française” is also in the feminine.

Now let’s review the French school vocabulary we saw in this article and add additional French school terms.

French School Vocabulary

  1. La maternelle = preschool
  2. L’école primaire = elementary school
  3. Le collège = middle school
  4. Le lycée = high school
  5. L’université, la faculté (la fac) = college
  6. Un écolier, une écolière = elementary school child
  7. Le maître, la maîtresse = elementary school teacher
  8. Un collégien, une collégienne = middle school child
  9. Un professeur = teacher – always masculine
  10. Un prof, une prof = teacher, common slang
  11. Un lycéen, une lycéenne = high school child
  12. un étudiant, une étudiante = a student
  13. Les vacances – always plural in French – vacation
  14. La rentrée (des classes/ scolaire) – 1st day back to school
  15. Faire ses devoirs – to do one’s homework
  16. Suivre un cours de français/ une classe de français – to take a French class – watch out, you can’t say “un cours français/ une classe française”, it’s a class OF French (language) in French, the class itself is not French – more in this blog article.
  17. l’APEL – association des parents d’élèves (parent association)
  18. Le directeur, la directrice – principal
  19. La cantine – the cantine / cafeteria
  20. La récréation (la récré) – recess
  21. L’étude – study hall
  22. Une colle – detention
  23. Se faire coller – to be sent to detention
  24. Les notes – grades

20 French School Words For Supplies

  1. Les fournitures scolaires (f) – school supplies
  2. Un classeur – a binder
  3. Un cahier – a notebook
  4. Un livre – a textbook
  5. Un agenda – an agenda
  6. Une feuille de papier – a piece of paper
  7. Une copie double – I don’t know how to say that in English… it’s 2 pieces of paper together, so 4 sides total – we use them for exams
  8. Une trousse – a pencil case
  9. Un crayon (à papier / de couleur) – pencil / color pencil
  10. Un feutre – marker
  11. Un stylo, un bic (say the c) – a ball-point pen
  12. Un stylo plume – an fountain pen (ink) – yes, French kids still use these!
  13. Un effaceur – ink eraser + marker
  14. Une gomme – an eraser
  15. Une calculatrice – a calculator
  16. Une règle – a ruler
  17. Un tableau – black/white board
  18. Une craie – a chalk
  19. Un sac à dos – backpack
  20. Un bureau – desk (un pupitre is quite old-fashioned)

Voilà, I hope you’ll find this article useful.

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Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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