A tongue-in-cheek look at the French Education System

If you have children in France, there’s a good chance that you might possess at least the stirrings of the beginnings of a stab at understanding it.
Then again, you might not.
If you don’t have children in France, there’s a mega-chance that your quest for grasping it will prove even more futile than your search for a short line at La Poste.
No, we refer not to The Meaning of Life. We refer to…..the French education-system.
So, here is a very incomplete (in the interest of space), extremely simplified (in the battle against cerebral overload) exploration of pedagogy as known and–sometimes not–loved in France and beyond.
Which brings us to our first point: the “beyond” part. The French system of elementary, middle and high schools not only graces Gallic soil but also extends throughout the world in what is recognized as a unique offering that accommodates the needs of French expats and follows the same curricula, administers the same tests and delivers the same degrees as do schools in l’Hexagone 1.
Say What?  Sometimes it feels as if we need to take a course to learn all the words for where courses are taken in France. If a French colleague says his adolescent daughter is in collège, you think she must be a genius. If you tell your French friends that your 20-year-old son is in college, they think he must be an idiot. That’s because the French version of this word means junior high school/middle school and the English version means university.
Speaking of which: Whereas it’s prestigious to go to a university, going to an université carries about as much prestige as would attending a community college in the U.S. To the surprise of most foreigners, who conceive of La Sorbonne as the zenith of French higher education, hélas, it is merely an université, i.e., a state-supported school whose admission criteria are extremely broad, tuition is negligible and drop-out rates can be significant. Those who want to denote the equivalent of an Ivy League university or similarly esteemed establishment (Science Po, for instance) need to say grande école.
But if in their English cover letters your French neighbors’ children put “Having been admitted to a big-school…,” Anglophone interviewers will ask, “Why would you think I’d care about the number of square meters of the building where you got your degree?!” (Not, as Francophones say, “…got your diplôme.”) They should write “the equivalent of an Ivy League university” –which their French culture of discretion and humility often prevents them from feeling comfortable doing, thus depriving them of a possible advantage in consideration for internships, PhD programs and jobs.
And if you’re wondering why some grande école graduates are older than their Anglo-world counterparts, it might be because after le lycée (high school), they attended a two-year CPGE (classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles, or prépa) that prepares students for merely taking the enormously competitive grande école entrance exams!
Which brings us to your possible encounters with some of these young folks in the stairwell of your building wherein they might have told you, in what they thought was correct English, that they were about to “pass” said entrance exams.  You possibly commented on the admirable self-confidence that allowed them to know that they would not fail tests that they had not yet taken. They likely said that they had no idea whether they would fail or not–all they were going to do for the moment was pass these tests. 2  When they do pass the exams and are admitted into high-level universities, they will learn in their English classes that passer un examen = to take a test and réussir un examen = to pass a test (literally, to succeed on a test).
Alphabet Soup  But all that is the easy part–a warm-up for minds called upon to confront, stock and recall the astounding array of terms and acronyms that represent French degrees:
The Bac (from Baccalauréat) is roughly the equivalent of a high-school diploma (not a university Bachelor’s Degree), obtained after having passed a standardized test; their not passing the test usually sends students back to repeat the last year of high school, officially known by the endearing name of terminale (notice the feminine “e” at the end, as this is an adjective modifying the feminine noun année, or year 3), after which they will take the test again (as you’ve gathered, the French are big on tests).
And while we’re on names of academic years, if a French colleague says his 16-year-old daughter is in première (first grade), you think she must be an idiot. Think again: Starting with sixième (sixth grade) in junior high school, the numbers go down, not up on their way to the year before la terminale!
Employment ads often ask for candidates with a Bac + 2 (or, 3, 4, etc.), meaning the numbers of years of higher education completed after the Bac. Or the ad might specify the requirement for a DEUG (Diplôme d’études universitaires générale 3, received after two years at university), a DEUST (Diplôme d’études universitaires scientifiques et techniques), a DUT (Diplôme universitaire de technologie), a BTS (Brevet de technician supérieur), a License (received after three years at university), or any of the degrees on the dizzying list on Wikipedia,   Scrolllll alllll the wayyyyyy dowwwwwn!
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.

  1. “The Hexagon,” one of France’s nicknames, refers to its shape, with its three landlocked legs and three seacoasts.
  2. Who’s on first?
  3. Notice that in titles–of basically everything and everyone–only the first word (or the first word after an article or preposition) is capitalized.

For a nice diagram and some specific, and more serious, info about the French education system please see http://www.france.fr/en/studying-france/french-education-system-nursery-school-high-school