The essential language you need to understand the French school system

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
The essential language you need to understand the French school system
A teacher talks to pupils in their classroom (Photo by Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

If you have kids in French schools you'll need this essential language list to help you understand how the French school system works.


The French school system can seem complicated: the words associated with it sound technical and can be daunting to anyone who isn’t French

In France, children start school by going to the école maternelle when they are 3 (and it will become compulsory from the aged of 3 in September). This is like a preschool and it lasts for three years. Children in maternelle are taught about letters and sounds and may do a little reading.

The official school curriculum doesn't start until primary school which kids go to after the maternelle when they are 6. Primary school is called école élémentaire or école primaire and is usually just referred to as 'école'

After five years, children move on to secondary school when they are 10 or 11 years old. Secondary education is split into two: the first part is called the collège and lasts for four years. At the end of collège, all pupils must sit an exam called the Brevet.

Most school children then move on to the lycée (although it is not compulsory) for three years to prepare for the French Baccalauréat exam, which they sit at the end of the lycée.

Here are the words you need to know if you have a kid in the maternelle:


There are three classes in maternelle. The first year is called 'petite section', the second 'moyenne section' and the third 'grande section'. The teacher is called the maîtresse (for a woman) or maître (for a man).

Days in maternelle are busy. Children sing nursery rhymes (comptine), learn about letters and sounds and also have quiet time (temps calme). In the first year, children are allowed to take their teddys (doudou) to school, especially for when they take the afternoon nap (la 'sieste'). After the nap, they go out to the school playground (cours de récré) for playtime (la récré).

After all that running about everyone is hungry and the school will set up the goûter, French kids' sacrosanct afternoon snack. 

READ MORE: Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

Here are the words you need to know if you have a kid in 'Ecole élémentaire':

The first day of primary school is called the 'rentrée' and it's a big deal.

Your kids will be proudly wearing their first school bag (cartable) filled with all the items on the school list: the 'trousse' (pencil case), jotters (cahiers) and everything else they need for school (l'école).

Kids go to primary school for 5 years: The first year is called  CP (year 1 in UK) (short for 'cours préparatoire'), then the second year is CE1 (short for 'cours élémentaire'), third year is CE2, 4th is CM1 (short for 'cours moyen') and the 5th year (year 6 in UK and 5th grade in the US) is CM2.

If you were used to getting involved in your children's school abroad, you may be surprised by how little daily interaction you have with your kid's French school. On a normal day, children are dropped off outside the school where the headteacher (directrice for a woman or directeur for a man) usually stands each morning, in case you need to talk to him or her.

A good way of knowing what's going on inside the school is to become a member of the parent-teacher's association (a 'parent d'élève).



There are lots of other words you'll often hear from your child's primary school, such as:

Kermesse: the school 'fête'; which usually takes place once a year just before the summer holidays. 

Sortie scolaire: a school outing

Accompagnateur or accompagnatrice: the person (often a parent) who accompanies the teacher on a school outing.

Devoirs: homework 

Cahier de texte or agenda: a diary to write down homework.

Dictée: spelling test  

Activités périscolaires: School activities that happen before or after fixed school hours.  

L'étude: a  study period in the school, during which pupils are supposed to do their homework after class.

Centre de loisirs: French school children usually have Wednesday afternoon off and kids who stay on at school after class can attend the 'Centre de Loisirs' where different activites are organised.

Centre aéré: If you have to go to work during the school holidays, you can take your child to the 'Centre aéré'. This is a subsidised government-run holiday day care centre, usually based in the local schools. 

Ateliers: these are activities (sports, art, drama etc...) for children who stay on at school after class - but are not run by the same teams as the 'centre de loisirs'.

Bulletin: school report


Carnet de liaison: a jotter for teachers and parents to write notes to each other

Livret scolaire: this is the pupil's assessment booklet which runs from the CP all the way to the end of the collège. Parents get to see it at the end of each term. 

Tableau: blackboard

READ MORE: Parents reveal: What to expect when your non-French speaking child starts school in France

Here are the words you need to know if you have a kid in secondary school, or collège:

Collège runs from the first year of secondary school for children aged 11 until they are 15 or 16.

In collège, pupils have different teachers called “professeurs” or "prof" for each subject (matière). At the end of the collège, pupils take an exam called the "Brevet". The collège lasts for 4 years. Year 1 is called the sixième, year 2 the cinquième, year 3 quatrième and year 4 is troisième.

You'll also expect to hear these words:

Un collégien, une collégienne: a pupil of the collège 

Un prof, une prof: a teacher 

Un pion: slang for the person who supervises children in the playground at school.

Principal: the head teacher in collège

Brevet and Brevet Blanc: the first big general exam that French school children take when they are 15 years old. A Brevet Blanc is the mock exam.

EPS: PE (physical education, sports), short for “Education Physique et Sportive”, 

SVT: Biology, short for “Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre”.  

Mention: students get a 'mention' when they pass an important exam with distinction. There are four grades: “Assez Bien”, “Bien”, “Très Bien”, “Excellent”.  

Bulletin scolaire: school report  

Une colle: a detention.  

Délégué de classe: the student class representative  

CDI: Short for “Centre de Documentation et d’Information”, a place in school where students can use computers, read magazines, newspapers and get general information for their studies.  

Emploi du temps: school timetable 


Finally - for those with children in lycée, the second and last part of secondary school (high school):

Lycée is the last three years of school and it ends with the Baccalauréat exam.

Pupils enter the lycée aged 15 and leave at 18. It starts with the seconde, then première and ends with the last year called terminale.

In France, there are three types of lycées. The lycée général which prepares students for higher education and the lycée professionnel and lycée technologique which are vocational and train students for specific trades and careers.

READ MORE: 'Section internationales': How do France's bilingual secondary schools work?

Here are some words you're likely to come across in the lycée:

Un lycéen, une lycéenne: a student of the lycée

Baccalauréat or just 'Bac': the final school exam.  

TPE: Short for “Travaux Pratiques Encadrés”, a group project that is prepared in the “Terminale” class for the Baccalauréat.

Options: these are extra subjects student choose to take.

Stage: Compulsory work experience.  

Proviseur: the name of the head teacher in lycée

In France, children spend a lot of time in school, but they also spend a lot of time away on long school holidays. Here are the words you need to know about those long breaks.

Vacances: Holidays 

Vacances d’hiver: winter holidays, held in February 

Vacances de printemps: spring holidays, held in April 

Vacances de Noël: Christmas holidays  

Vacances d’été or Grandes Vacances: Summer holidays, they begin in July and last for 2 months 



Vacances de la Toussaint: A break around All Saint's Day holiday on November 1st.

“Faire le pont”: This is when students take an extra day off when a public holiday falls near the weekend.

Colonie de vacances or 'la colo': holiday camp 

Zones A, B and C: Schools in France are in one of three geographical areas 'zone A, B or C", which each have school holidays on different dates. 



Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also