Whether you’re moving to France with teenagers or have bilingual children heading to collège—here’s what you need to know about the French secondary school system.
Secondary School or Collège in France: from 11 to 16
Secondary education is compulsory until the age of 16 and includes attendance in a collège or middle school until age 15. At the end of the forth year (level 3ème) in one of the lower secondary school, the students pass an exam known as the “diplôme national du brevet” and decide to attend either a “Lycée général and technologic” and prepare for the baccalaureate exam or to attend a “Lycée professional” where they can prepare for the CAP, a vocational exam, or simply follow a supplementary year of classes in professional training. For more details see: www.education.gouv.fr
Some colléges are attached to “lycées”, with students attending the collège granted preferential entrance to the “lycée”.
Collège: Educational Cycles
The four years of college are divided into three educational cycles:
The 6ème, or first year of collège, is the only grade in this cycle. Pupils consolidate the skills learned in primary school and become acquainted with the works methods that will be required during the coming four years of study. Students choose their first foreign language.
This cycle covers the grades 5ème and 4ème. Here students build their knowledge and their know-how. During these two years, their studies are enriched progressively by adding on options that will help them identify the subject matters they would like to pursue as they continue their education. The study of physics and chemistry begins in 5ème, and a second foreign or regional language is taken on in 4ème.
3ème, the last year in this lower level of secondary school, allows students to improve the skills learned during their collège years and to prepare for either a general studies curriculum that leads to university and the “grands écoles”, or to pursue technological or professional training. Pupils continue in the languages they are learning and can, if they wish, take on a third foreign or regional language or an ancient language. A series of “discovery” classes designed to help them choose their future orientation adds 3 to 6 hours to their weekly workload, if the choose to enroll.
As explained above, at the end of this 4th year in collège the students take the “brevet” exam and make decisions concerning the orientation of their final years of secondary studies.
Performance and Evaluation: Brevet des Collèges
At the end of each term (three terms per year) the students are evaluated in class. These evaluations are important as they determine the future studies options a student has, and ultimately the type of baccalaureate they may take. Parents have a say in their child’s progress via the parent association and are able to appeal against decisions made by the school council. One of the key issues is often whether children should advance a year if they are performing particularly well or repeat a year if progress has been slower. “Redoublement”, repeating a year, is not unusual in French education, and the system is designed to allow pupils in primary, lower secondary or upper secondary school to do this without stigma or hindrance to their future potential. Pupils are now also assessed on how well they fit into school life.
In 4ème and 3ème, depending on the student’s evaluation grades, there are opportunities to begin orienting studies towards vocational instruction.
The written examination mentioned earlier, the Brevet des Collèges, covers French, Maths and History/Geography. This is not an entrance exam to “lycée” and is not obligatory, though all students are automatically enrolled to take the exam. The results of this exam are an indication of the student’s overall level in these basic subject matters. It is the first long, hand-written exam taken in a totally impersonal setting because students from different schools are pooled and sent to another location to take the exam. Because it recreates, more or less, the conditions of the “Baccalauréat” that will be taken three or so years down the road, it is a useful experience.
High School or Lycée in France: from 16 to 18
A “lycée” is akin to a high school or sixth form college and is for students who are typically age 15 or 16. It is perhaps the most well-respected part of the French state education system and leads to the prestigious “Baccalauréat”.
A general and technological school (Lycée d’Enseignement Général et Téchnologique) prepares students for either the general or technology baccalaureate exam or for the technological certificate (Brévet de Téchnicien). There are also professional “lycées” and “Centres de Formation d’Apprentis” (CFA) offering courses leading to vocational certificates.
Lycée: Educational Cycles
The French “lycée” is divided into two cycles: the “Cycle de détermination” and the “Cycle terminal”
The “Cycle de détermination” consists of one grade, the “seconde générale et technologique”.
The “Cycle terminal” includes the grades “Première” and “Terminale” and leads to one of two end-of-school diplomas – the “Baccalauréat Général” or the “Baccalauréat Téchnologique.”
In the first year, during the class of “seconde”, the student decides which “Baccalauréat” to choose. At the end of this first year in “lycée”, they decide which subjects they will take during the next year, in “première”, and which final exam they are aiming for.
Cycle de détermination
The “Cycle de détermination” consists of a minimum of 28 ½ hours per week. There are nine main subjects that are obligatory and 2 hours of personalized assistance to help students in their studies or in the orientation of their studies. Then students have 3 hours per week of “options obligatoires” where they can choose study among others economics, social sciences, innovation technologies, the arts or literature and society. There can be up to 6 hours of additional options in the arts or sciences. See article How does the Baccalauréat differ from A-Levels?
Le “cycle terminal” includes between 27 and 28 hours of obligatory study with a certain number of hours each week spent in the chosen series or field of study: L (literature), ES (economics and social studies), S (science and maths). During the year “terminal” the number of hours spent studying in this chosen field increases and students spend quite a bit of time preparing for the big final exam which takes place in June.
Vocational Schools: Lycée Professionel
Students who opt for vocational studies may apply to attend a vocational school (Lycée professionel) where they may take courses that lead to exams such as the “Brevet d’Etudes Professionel” (BEP) or the “Certificat d’Aptitude Professionelle” (CAP) which in turn lead to the third type of exam, the “baccalauréat professionel”. These options have proven very popular in recent years and have led to successful employment in a vast range of trades, industries and commerce for the less academically inclined.
Studying in France?
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