General compulsory schooling was introduced in France in
the 1880s, during a politically troubled period of
contradictions between radical Republicans and conservative
forces. The Catholic Church at that time had a monopoly on
education. Education Minister Jules Ferry, through his
schooling laws (1881–82), created a state-run, confessional
school to anchor the new Republican ideal. The confessional
principle (laïcité) is still very strong, as expressed in
eg. The 2004 law against provocative religious statements
(including the Muslim shawl) in state schools. In addition
to the state school, there are a number of private schools.
Since 1959, private schools must follow the state curriculum
to receive state grants for teacher salaries. About 17% of
French students (2009) attend private schools.
Today's French school system has compulsory schooling
from 6 to 16 years. In September 2010, approximately 12
million children attended school. In addition, most children
attend voluntary preschool (école maternelle) from
the age of two. This one has clear educational ambitions.
The first stage of the school (Premier Degree)
comprises the first five year courses. The second stage (deuxième
degré) consists of 4 years of high school and 3 years
of high school. The high school teachers, le collège,
usually teach only one subject. At the end of high school,
students take a degree (the letter des collèges)).
The student is then guided towards colleges with either
vocational programs, technical programs or general programs.
The general programs are most popular and consist of a
humanities program (L), a social science program (ES) and a
highly sought after natural science line (S). These programs
culminate in the baccalaureate general,
corresponding to the Swedish bachelor's degree, but
which is obtained after a series of written and oral exams
for several days in each subject. The grades in each subject
are weighted differently depending on the program you are
reading. In 2010, 85.5% of a high school graduated with a
high school diploma. The students are then usually 18 years.
In contrast, only 65.5% of all year-end students complete
their bachelor's degree, of which 10% have no degree at all.
In 2009, 2.2 million students studied at universities and
colleges or other institutions of higher education. For most
students, the choice is between the two branches of higher
education, the university or the specialized colleges,
les grandes écoles, two parallel study paths that give
higher French education its unique character.
In 2010, there were around eighty universities in France
based on Digopaul.
The universities have adapted to the Bologna process with
three degrees: 62% of students read a three-year education
leading to a bachelor's degree (license), 33% build
on a two-year education leading to a master's degree (master)
and 5% continue to a doctorate degree (doctorate).
The number of foreign students has been increasing steadily
since the 1990s and constitutes just over 15% of the
registered students at the universities. For prospective
engineers or technicians there is the opportunity since 1968
to choose a two-year education, which is given at higher
technology institutes (IUT).
The specialized colleges, les grandes écoles,
which are government, recruit the future elites in French
administration, culture, technology and business. They
guarantee students a safe and well-paid job, often in
managerial positions. Their courses are therefore highly
sought after but difficult to access. Les grandes écoles has
a limited number of seats based on ranking by written and
oral entrance exams (concours). These exams can
only be taken at the end of a two-year preparatory course
after the bachelor's degree. The specialized colleges
receive a maximum of 10% of the total number of college
students. The best known of these schools is the École
polytechnique for civil engineers, the École
nationale d'administration(ENA) for senior civil
servants and Hautes études commerciales for
prospective business executives. The studies at these
colleges are done under better material conditions than at
The French education system is very centrally controlled
and is mainly sorted under the Ministry of Education. The
Ministry pays more than 1.1 million employees. A corps of
school inspectors reviews the quality of education at each
level. It can be noted that French education faces a
difficult economic and educational balance between a
traditional republican quality with intellectual aspirations
and a quest for greater equality, for example between
inner-city and suburban schools.