The French School System Explained


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 school system, and the age of the students for reference.

Navigating the French school system and the equivalent US grades can be tricky. Here’s a list of each grade as well as related French school vocabulary and French school supply vocabulary.

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

  • La petite section de maternelle ou PS (3 ans)
  • La moyenne section de maternelle ou MS (4 ans)
  • La grande section de maternelle ou GS (5 ans).

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

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

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

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


“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”)

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

Un collégien, une collégienne

  • La sixième (11 ans) = 6th grade.
  • La cinquième (12 ans) = 7th grade.
  • La quatrième (13 ans) = 8th grade.
  • La troisième  (14 ans) = 9th grade.

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



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.

  • La seconde (15 ans) = 10th grade.
  • La première (16 ans) = 11th grade.
  • La terminale (17 ans) = 12th grade.

“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 than you pass a special test.

“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?!

French Vocabulary About School

  • La maternelle = preschool
  • L’école primaire = elementary school
  • Le collège = middle school
  • Le lycée = high school
  • L’université, la faculté (la fac) = college
  • Un écolier, une écolière = elementary school child
  • Le maître, la maîtresse = elementary school teacher
  • Un collégien, une collégienne = middle school child
  • Un professeur = teacher – always masculine
  • Un prof, une prof = teacher, common slang
  • Un lycéen, une lycéenne = high school child
  • un étudiant, une étudiante = a student
  • Les vacances – always plural in French – vacation
  • La rentrée (des classes/ scolaire) – 1st day back to school
  • Faire ses devoirs – to do one’s homework
  • 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.
  • l’APEL – association des parents d’élèves (parent association)
  • Le directeur, la directrice – principal
  • La cantine – the cantine / cafeteria
  • La récréation (la récré) – recess
  • L’étude – study hall
  • Une colle – detention
  • Se faire coller – to be sent to detention
  • Les notes – grades


Danger- School
– Are we still going?

French School Supplies

  • Les fournitures scolaires (f) – school supplies
  • Un classeur – a binder
  • Un cahier – a notebook
  • Un livre – a textbook
  • Un agenda – an agenda
  • Une feuille de papier – a piece of paper
  • 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
  • Une trousse – a pencil case
  • Un crayon (à papier / de couleur) – pencil / color pencil
  • Un feutre – marker
  • Un stylo, un bic (say the c) – a ball-point pen
  • Un stylo plume – an fountain pen (ink) – yes, French kids still use these!
  • Un effaceur – ink eraser + marker
  • Une gomme – an eraser
  • Une calculatrice – a calculator
  • Une règle – a ruler
  • Un tableau – black/white board
  • Une craie – a chalk
  • Un sac à dos – backpack
  • Un bureau – desk (un pupitre is quite old-fashioned)

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

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Learn French in context! My audiobook A Moi Paris Level 1 has a chapter about elementary school (ch 17), and in  A Moi Paris Level 4 chapter 1 describes a typical day at the university.