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French Culture

The French School System Explained

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis on August 29, 2018

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 a list of each grade as well as related French school vocabulary and French school supply vocabulary.

1 – “L’École Maternelle” = Preschool in France (Not Compulsory)

  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.

2 – “L’École Primaire” = French Elementary School (Compulsory)

  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

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…) and there is a main teacher that teaches several “matières” such as le français, les mathématiques, la géographie, l’histoire, les sciences

Click here to watch a video of Leyla telling us a poem about going back to school


3 – Schoolchildren 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.

Of course, there are always unique cases.

4 – “L’Enseignement Secondaire”Compulsory Until Minimum 16 Years Old

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”)

5 – Le Collège = French Middle School, From 11 to 16 Years Old (Compulsory)

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Un collégien, une collégienne

  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“.


6 – Le Lycée – High School in France, 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.

  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).

7 – “L’Enseignement Supérieur” – Higher Studies in France

They then go for “des études supérieures” (higher studies) à la fac, à l’université (watch out this is college…) 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.

8 – “Le Homeschooling” in France

“Le homeschooling” (yes, we use the English word) is not illegal in France, but extremely rare. Most children that are home-schooled are so because their parents are traveling, or because the kids have a medical condition. Homeschooling parents have to register with the school authorities and potentially face yearly inspections/evaluations to make sure the children keep up with French educational standards.


– Here we are!
– Not already?!

9 – French Vocabulary About School

  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

10 – French School 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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