A Guide to Education in France

Whether you move to France for the first time or return from an expatriation, if you come as a family the choice of school will certainly be of great importance. Paris and its surroundings offer a wide and varied choice of possibilities:  a great number of schools, from nursery to high school, offer bilingual education in a variety of languages. There are national and international curricula to choose from. In addition, France offers state-run and private schools with an equally high educational standard.

Approximately 15-20% of children receive private education through either subsidised private schools (écoles “sous contrat”) or wholly independent establishments (écoles “hors contrat”).

Bilingual education is offered through various channels: either in independent international schools, bilingual governmental schools (or governmental schools with bilingual sections) or French private schools with international sections.

An overview of the different categories of establishments to consider is spelled out below:

Independent International Schools

The independent international schools in Paris encompass those establishments which are not following the French curriculum. They usually follow the syllabus of their country of origin (e.g the American School of Paris follows the American curriculum) or an International Baccalaureate (e,g the International School of Paris follows the IB programme).

Belonging to the private sector, the independent international schools do not receive any funding from the French state. In consequence, tuition fees are generally at a high level. In return they are wholly independent from the governance of the French Ministry of Education and are free to choose how they operate (syllabus, timetable, holidays).

Turnover rates for students tend to be high in these schools, this largely being a result of expatriate families not living in a country for more than a few years at a time. However, these schools can offer an ideal solution for those family who would like to maintain a consistency in their child’s teaching, who plan to stay in France for a short time or who have older children nearing the end of their school education and who envisage higher education in their home country.

French State-run Schools

The majority of children in France are educated in state schools. These are regulated and funded by the French Ministry of Education, who dictates the curriculum. Teachers are employed by the Government and are considered civil servants. Education is free, open to all and secular (“laïc”).

International Sections

Although the teaching language will, for the most part, be French, there are some government funded bilingual schools (e.g. Ecole Franco-Allemande in Buc) or International Sections attached to government funded schools (Sections Internationales de Sèvres). In total, Paris boasts 22 International Sections in 14 languages.

The primary objective being to facilitate the insertion of foreign children into the French education system whilst supporting a continuation of their first language, and equally to allow French bilingual children a cultural and linguistic opening of both their mother tongues. In some cases, and depending on the structure of the establishment, these schools offer an environment for francophone children to acquire foreign language skills at a very high level.

Few primary schools off this programme – it is largely reserved for middle and high school (“collège” and “lycée”). The bilingual level of these schools are high and entry competitive (based on the level of language competence).  Generally, the school leaving certificate acquired through the International Sections is the OIB – the Baccalauréat à Option Internationale, a variant of the French national Baccalaureat.

These programmes are very sought after by French people returning from an expatriation who wish their children to continue the language they have learned abroad, as well as bilingual children from mixed-family backgrounds.  However, it could be an interesting option for expatriates also, who wish their children to acquire an excellent level of French whilst continuing their native language, especially if they plan to stay in France for the medium- to long term.

French Private Schools (“sous-contrat”)

The state funded school system is complemented by a large network of private schools. The majority of children who receive private education in France attend an ècole “sous contrat”:  although not government-run, these schools are mainly funded by the Government by way of subsidies (e.g. teachers’ salaries) and consequently demand a relatively modest tuition fee. In return they have to adhere to the Government guidelines and curriculum.

Unlike governmental schools, these private schools do not have to be secular and, for the most part, are catholic (however usually open to non-Catholics). This means that their curriculum incorporates a faith-based value system or religious education of some sort, although the degree of which may vary widely.

International Sections

French is the primary teaching language in most private schools. However, a good and steadily rising number of these offer bilingual education through their International Sections. In most cases these programmes start at the collège level (middle school), although some primary school also offer International Sections.

Pupils at collège level receive 6 hours of teaching per week in the language of their section. These are divided between language teaching (4 hours) and history/geography teaching  (2 hours. In the Chinese sections the 2 non-language hours are used for teaching math in Chinese). Only those children who are already bilingual may be admitted to these International Sections – it is not offered to French children wishing to improve a foreign language skill.

As is the case with the governmental-run bilingual education, these International Sections are very popular with families returning from an expatriation, expatriate families staying in France long-term as well as mixed-background families whose children grow up with two mother tongues. Spaces are limited and entry is selective based on language competence.

French Independent Schools (“hors contrat”)

Private schools denominated “hors-contract” are wholly independent. This means that they are privately funded and do not receive any governmental subsidies, chose and employ their teachers directly and do not need to adhere to Government guidelines with respect to teaching methods and syllabus. Depending on their location and structure, tuition fees can vary greatly.

A number of establishments that fall into this category pursue non-traditional teaching methods (Rudolf Steiner, Montessori) or follow their own curriculum (e.g Ecole Hattemer).

Many French independent schools in Paris and environment offer bilingual education.

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