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)

Age Grade Abbreviation US UK
3 -> 4 Petite section PS Nursery Nursery
4 -> 5 Moyenne section MS Pre-K Reception
5 -> 6 Grande section GS Kindergarten Year 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)

Age Grade Abbreviation US UK
6 -> 7 Cours préparatoire CP 11 ème 1st Grade Year 2
7 -> 8 Cours élémentaire première année CE1 / 10ème 2nd Grade Year 3
8 -> 9 Cours élémentaire deuxième année CE2 / 9ème 3rd Grade Year 4
9 -> 10 Cours moyen première année CM1 / 8ème 4th Grade Year 5
10 -> 11 Cours moyen deuxième année CM2 / 7ème 5th Grade Year 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)

Age Grade Abbreviation US UK
11 -> 12 Sixième 6e or 6ème 6th Grade Year 7
12 -> 13 Cinquième 5e or 5ème 7th Grade Year 8
13 -> 14 Quatrième 4e or 4ème 8th Grade Year 9
14 -> 15 Troisième 3e or 3ème 9th Grade Year 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)

Age Grade Abbreviation US UK
15 -> 16 Seconde 2de 10th Grade Year 11
16 -> 17 Première 1ère 11th Grade Year 12
17 -> 18 Terminale Term or Tle 12th Grade Year 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.

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Chevalier-Karfis, Camille. "French School Level and Grade Names." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Chevalier-Karfis, Camille. (2023, April 5). French School Level and Grade Names. Retrieved from Chevalier-Karfis, Camille. "French School Level and Grade Names." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).