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.
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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).
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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 universities.
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.