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Studying in France and in the UK: What are the differences?

By Joffre Agnes

 As an expat, understanding the school system of your new country is one of the biggest challenges. Indeed in your native country, every choice was almost innate: you knew what schools were good, what options to choose to have the best chances, which diplomas were valuable and which ones were simply cons. How did you get that? No idea, you just knew it. However it seems that you simply loose your Mr Know-it-all status as soon as you cross the border of your homeland…

Happily, France in London is here to help. I’m going to give you the key of this innate knowledge both in France and in the UK.

First of all, don’t panic. France and the UK are not so different: their educational systems both aim to form your children for professional life and to make them blossom personally and intellectually. Both countries are conscious that the way children are served by their education systems is a key stake and going to school is regarded as part of Human Rights on both sides of the Channel. Relieved?

Fine, so let’s start with the differences!




Educational systems in France and in the UK

Both structures and logic are different.

First of all you have to get this right. Let’s caricature a bit to underline the point. In the UK children have to learn the basics very early and very fast. They are used to having exams as early as primary school! Then, they specialise early with an “à la carte”program.   In France children have less options and the logic is totally different. Education begins slowly since the first thing to do is to make children blossom, think on their own, develop their personal creativity... Primary school is about that plus, of course, learning some elementary skills. Then it becomes harder and harder with the aim of giving  all students the same cultural basis. This also means not quite as many choices. In the UK things seem to be easier and easier and more personalized.

Let’s explain every step that an average pupil faces in France and in the UK.


The UK

In the UK, primary schools generally cater for children aged from four to eleven, that means from “reception” to “Year Six”. They are subdivided into infant schools, until age seven (“Key Stage 1”) and junior schools (“Key Stage 2”), except in Scotland where there is no division. You could also choose to place your child in a private and fee-paying school called preparatory schools. As their name suggests, they prepare pupils for entrance examinations for fee-paying independent schools.

When 11 they have a choice to make: comprehensive schools, grammar schools or, for a lucky few, private schools. Comprehensive schools are more common, especially since the 1960’s, but the few grammar schools left offer a better level since children have to pass an exam to enter in: the "11 ". School programs are heavy and pupils are used to having exams since primary schools.

At this stage, they have to pass the "GCSEs" (General Certificate of Secondary Education) which includes from 8 to 12 disciplines. Only four are imposed: mathematics, English literature, sciences and Religious Education, the rest are up to the pupil. And what a range of choice! From hairdressing and beauty to Greek and Latin, travel and tourism to woodwork… This has absolutely nothing to do with the French colleges and you have to take extreme care of the chosen subjects. After passing this exam, it is up to the pupils to decide whether they will go on to sixth form to take their "A-Levels" (equivalent to the French baccalauréat) or whether they will drop out of school. A-levels are graded from A to E according to the percentage of the UMS .

Grade     Percentage
A     80%
B     70% - 79%
C     60% - 69%
D     50% - 59%
E     40% - 49%

A new category, A will be added in 2010 in order to mark the differences between good pupils and very good pupils.

A-Level score determine the admission to University.

A Level
A Level


In France, children go to the “maternelle” from 3 to 5 and then to a primary schools from 5 to 11. There, they get few basis in French, History, Maths… but nothing really hard. A large place is reserved for their own flowering with a lot of manual and artistic activities.



Then, they are entre into “colleges” where things become harder. They begin to write essays and to study things in greater depth. Everybody follows the same courses. At the end of this step, French children are due to have their first exam called the “Brevet des Collèges”. Renowned for being easy, it remains important  to those who want to choose a professional formation such as BEP, CAP… Nevertheless, most of the pupils go to the “lycee”, the equivalent of sixth form, and then become specialized in the last two years before their baccalauréat. The most famous and common sections are : Literary, economic and social and scientific generally called “bac L”, “bac ES” and “bac S”.

Nobody can go to the university without having passed the bac.

Most of these schools are state run.


So what's the best system? Where are children more able to blossom intellectually? According to PISA, UK students are slightly better than the OCDE average. France is not so good.  In France about 14% of 15-19 teenagers are neither in education nor in employment, this is slightly lower in the Uk where the figure is closer to 9%. Unfortunately, in both countries too many students are still leaving school without any diplomas. Isn't this the worst failure?

That’s why both the UK and France are trying to improve their school systems by doing some deep reforms. It is impossible to tell, as yet, whether these will be for the better but, it seems that France is about to come closer to the English system and to truncate its core curriculum in order to give more choices to students. And yet the English system hasn't exactly had many fans over the years… And English schools have been looking up to France for years. Who knows!


10/05/2015 - jill.foulkes.100 said :

My son has cold shivers down his spine when he is reminded of his education at 'college' in France. He started school in the Uk system from the age of 13 1/2 and loves its interesting subjects and assignments. In France there weren't even white boards, let alone smart boards. I think this is because of the strong union ties that are to the detriment of the pupils as it stops progress. Special needs help here in the UK is fantastic. We are all so pleased we made the move back to the UK before his GCSEs. At 13 they let him go for his GCSE French where he got an A* and at 14 he is about to take his AS French. He also has time for sports - and time for a life other than school....

20/04/2015 - fatbuthole01 said :

I love French chicken. will French children know about me, im the founder of chicken&bacon. skinny tender babs.

25/03/2015 - 5yli43wpa said :

Not sure what you mean by questions, but here are some pionts that come to mind:1. By not educating children about sex, we leave them open for disease and pregnancy since they don't understand the science behind their genitals and changing bodies in general.2. Many parents do not talk to their children about sex and their changing bodies, so children turn to friends, so the information they do get is not necessarily factual. Was this answer helpful?

30/12/2014 - helen.finbarr said :

I agree with BMSimmons. I must add that in England children brought home reading books from a range of reading schemes (and our head teacher found factual books to encourage boys to learn to read whereas girls preferred to read stories) and library books. In our small french primary school the children sometimes brought home a library book but the one reading book they brought home when they were learning to read was a photocopied story of little merit. what a shame not to tap into a child's innate curiosity etc.
Not much personal development and manual activity in our french primary school where children sat in rows taught by the teacher with no extra staff. Compare that to the six tables with different ability groups where the teacher was aided by another classroom assistant in our London primary. Different again near Bordeaux where non academic activities were encouraged (2002-2010)

13/11/2013 - louisbiddulph684 said :

Hi, i live in france (i'm english) and have done since the age of six (with one return to england) at 10 for 3 years. I am about to go to university and clicked onthe link thinking it was for studying at uni. I agree with the fact that the french college is much for general than in england, and i think that in france the lack of streaming classes put the better students at a disadvantage and is stopping those brighter ones get better. But i think you are very wrong about primary school. France is the country in europe with the most school hours for children all the way through the system, i can tell you i compared my hours with english friends all the time, and u often had a few hours extra a week (in last two years i had nearly 10 more hours a week than my friends). And not only are the days longer, i beleive they are maybe harder, in primary school i had very little sport (a bad thing i guess) but we learnt alot, in fact after primary school in france you are meant to know how to spell much better than in england and we do alot of grammar! Just wanted to add this to the article.

08/12/2009 - bmsimmons said :

I think this article is very biased!! My children have both been through the French école maternelle and primaire system. We are returning to the UK for their secondary school education. My experience is that there is a huge jump from maternelle to primaire. I agree about the "manual and artistic" activites in maternelle but in primaire there is very little of this and lots of learning by rote. I have seen very little encouragement of my children to think on their own and develop personal creativity. In fact, their English cousins do much more interesting "learning through play and by doing" in their schools than the "sit at a desk and fill in a worksheet" type learning I have seen here in France. And yes, parents are much more involved in schools in the UK and there is loads more feedback. There is also no recognition system in France for gifted or bright children and the extra stimulation they need. The only pluses I have found in France are the smaller class sizes and I agree that the socio-economic divide is more evident in the UK. As regards secondary education, we will find out ;-)

02/05/2009 - carinesanjuan said :

As a 37 yr-old French I don't recall my primary school years as being that focussed on 'manual & artistic activities', I guess things may have changed.
Two things strike me in the UK (1 child in Year 1).
First how schools are keen to get parents involved, I don't recall my parents spending that much time in my school as we do nowadays
Secondly (and maybe that's linked with the first point)is how the socio-economic background impacts on the school. I never lived in posh neighbourhoods in France but we never felt the divide in terms of opportunities that I now see in the UK.

26/02/2009 - agnes_garcia74 said :

My son is 4 and i've got it all to come here in the UK!
He's already got homework (phonics and writing) and 3 books a week to read at home with me having to write a comment about how he felt about the book and sign the dated book record.When i hear my friends in France, their children come home with paper flowers and paint on their fingers!Mine is in uniform and nearly ready for bed he's so tired!i wish he had more of a childhood at school like i had,kids are kids, it wont last so why push them so fast?


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