French School Level and Grade Names

The Upside-Down World of French Names for Fifth Grade, Junior High and More

French School System versus US UK
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From kindergarten to higher studies, the names for grades and school levels (elementary, junior high, high school) vary substantially from French to English. The words used to describe the elements of the educational experience can also vary widely for those of us who have studied in US or UK schools. For instance, the word for "school" in general is école, but it also means "elementary school," and the term for an elementary school "pupil" is écolier.

 In later grades and college, a student is un étudiant. 

Here are French school names, according to level and year, with the corresponding term in the US and UK. For clarity, we've provided the age as a reference.

L'Ecole Maternelle (Preschool / Nursery School)

AgeGradeAbbreviationUSUK
3 -> 4Petite sectionPSNurseryNursery
4 -> 5Moyenne sectionMSPre-KReception
5 -> 6Grande sectionGSKindergartenYear 1

Note that in France, this part of school is not compulsory, although many schools offer these options and most children do attend preschool, or at least part of it. These three years are government supported and, thus, free (or very cheap). There is also before- and after-school care.

L' Ecole Primaire (Elementary School / Primary School)

AgeGradeAbbreviationUSUK
6 -> 7Cours préparatoireCP / 11ème1st GradeYear 2
7 -> 8Cours élémentaire première annéeCE1 / 10ème2nd GradeYear 3
8 -> 9Cours élémentaire deuxième annéeCE2 / 9ème3rd GradeYear 4
9 -> 10Cours moyen première annéeCM1 / 8ème4th GradeYear 5
10 -> 11Cours moyen deuxième annéeCM2 / 7ème5th GradeYear 6

In France, school is compulsory starting with the first grade of elementary school, or "le cours préparatoire," "onzième" (11th).

Note that this is the first major difference between French and English-language school names: The French count school years in descending order (11,10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and a final year called terminale).

The US and UK count years in ascending order (2, 3, 4, and so on).

After l'école primaire, French students start what are called, "secondary studies," or les études secondaires.

Le Collège (Junior High School)

AgeGradeAbbreviationUSUK
11 -> 12Sixième6e or 6ème6th GradeYear 7
12 -> 13Cinquième5e or 5ème7th GradeYear 8
13 -> 14Quatrième4e or 4ème8th GradeYear 9
14 -> 15Troisième3e or 3ème9th GradeYear 10

Watch out for the false cognate "college." In French, le collège is junior high school, not college. What we call "college" or "university" in English is l'université or la faculté in French.

Some formal education is compulsory until the end of junior high, although several solutions are possible if a student wants to enter an apprenticeship. The rules concerning this process change frequently, so it is best to seek out an expert at school for more information. 

Le collège ends with an exam called le brevet des collèges (BEPC).

Le Lycée (High school)

AgeGradeAbbreviationUSUK
15 -> 16Seconde2de10th GradeYear 11
16 -> 17Première1ère11th GradeYear 12
17 -> 18TerminaleTerm or Tle12th GradeYear 13

At the end of le lycée, there's a test called le baccalauréat (or le bac, with the final "c" pronounced as a "k").

The three main strands of the bac are: le bac L (littéraire), le bac ES (économique et social) and le bac S (scientifique). There is also le bac professionnel, which comprises nearly 40 specialist or vocational areas.

Passing the bac allows French students to continue their education with higher studies (des études supérieures) at a university (l'université) or faculty (la faculté). The prestigious Grandes Ecoles are the equivalent of the Ivy League. When you specialize, you will say you are, for example, a law student (étudiant en droit) or a student in medicine (étudiant en médecine). An "undergraduate student" is un étudiant avant la licence. A "postgraduate student" is un étudiant après la licence.