Guide to French School Education

12. Private Schools in France

12.1. Introduction

Despite the centralised nature of school education in France there are many private schools, teaching approximately 15% of children at primary level and 20% at secondary level.

A great many of the schools are upper secondary lycées, with over 30% of all lycées in the country having private sector status.

Although 'private', most operate under contract with the government.

In these notes, we focus primarily on private lycées as they are of a greater priority to parents.

In recent years, there has been increasing public concern in France over many aspects of the public the lycées.

Criticisms are widespread particularly about the about the lack of discipline, poor academic results, staff absences, politicisation, and the frequently large amounts of unoccupied time.

As a result, an increasing number of French parents are sending their children to a private lycée, in the belief that they do not suffer from these problems to the same extent as their public counterparts.

In many metropolitan areas of France demand substantially outstrips supply. This is notably the case in Paris and in the Mediterranean regions, where the best private schools are reputed to be located. In and around Toulouse, Brittany and the Loire Valley there are also reports of schools having a problem keeping up with demand.

There are private lycées for both the general and the technological baccalaureate as well as the lycée professionnel, in some cases all under the same roof.

Private lycées are not, however, ‘international schools’, or lycées offering an international baccalaureate. Such schools are typically private institutions that conduct the bulk of their teaching in English, or 50/50 English/French, and they may follow a curriculum based on the US or UK educational programme.

You can read about international schools in our Guide to International Schools in France.

12.2. How are they Funded?

By definition, public schools obtain their funding from the State (mainly via the regional level of government), which means that the way the school is run is subject to a fairly tight regulation, with little freedom of action.

Although private schools are funded from a variety of sources, including student fees, the vast majority operate under a contract with the government (établissement sous contrat) through which they receive substantial public funding.

However, due to their more diverse income sources, private schools have a greater degree of freedom over matters such as staff recruitment, pupil selection, and discipline.

Where they operate under contract they have the same curriculum as public schools.

Private schools not operating under contract with the state (établissement hors contrat) have considerably higher fees and a much higher degree of freedom over their teaching methods and content.

12.3. What are the Fees?

Although no fees are payable to attend a public school, that is not the case with a private lycée, which inevitably means that a degree of social selection takes place.

Where a private school is under contract with the French state their fees will be set at relatively modest levels. These are usually considerably lower than those encountered in many other EU countries.

Fees vary by school and region and few private schools publish their tariffs openly. You need to contact the school to obtain their fee structure and a pre-inscription pack.

However, as a general rule, for schools under contract expect to pay between €750 and €1,200 a year in the provinces. In Paris and the Île-de-France, expect to pay considerably more.

In addition, there will be other costs, such as school meals and equipment, although such costs are also payable in a public lycée.

If the school is not under contract the school fees are comparable to those in many other European countries.

For children who are obliged to board for geographic or other reasons, for contracted schools the costs may range from €2,500-€10,000 a year. If the school is not under contract, expect to pay €8,000-€15,000. Levels of fees for state schools for boarders are around €900-€2,000. Yet again, prices may be higher in Paris and surrounding towns/areas.

Sending your child to private school does not preclude you from obtaining social assistance towards your costs. You might also find a reduced level of school fees are payable if you are already receiving some form of social benefits. Grants (bourses) may be available for families already receiving social benefits.

12.4. Admission Criteria

In public lycées you simply register your child with the school (increasingly done on-line) and their admission is guaranteed. That typically presumes they will already have completed their Diplôme National du Brevet (DBN) at college (lower secondary school), although even if they do not have the DNB admission is normally possible.

It is rare for a student to be rejected, although if they wish to pursue some particular courses they may well be required to attend a lycée some distance from home, as the full range of streams is not offered at all lycées.

By contrast, private lycées often have admission criteria. Typically, the academic background of students will be considered, as well as their disciplinary record. In a lycée that does not operate under contract there may even be an entrance examination.

Although it is frequently denied, students with a history of previous disciplinary problems in lower secondary school often find it difficult to enter into private lycées. The same is also likely to be true for children with a poorer academic background.

Admission to education by targeted selection runs contrary to a fundamental principal of the French education system, but it is acknowledged that this happens with many private lycées.

An application may require a personal interview of both the parents and their child. Assuming your child does not have a history of disciplinary problems during their earlier schooling, and they are in possession of a relatively encouraging (though not necessarily high-achiever) academic record, admission to a private lycée should be possible.

However, demand exceeds supply and places are therefore limited. Over-subscription is the norm. It is, therefore, sensible to apply sooner rather than later in the academic year cycle. You need to check the specific lycée’s processes and calendar of events, which you can normally do on their website.

12.5. Catchment Area

Depending upon your postcode, your children will typically be expected to attend a lycée within your department.

This can sometimes mean that if you happen to live near a border between two departments your child is allocated to a lycée 50kms and an hour’s school bus ride away when there is a fine school only 5kms away over the border.

In such cases, you have the right to apply to the nearest institution but if they are over-subscribed or simply rigidly enforcing the rules, your child may be refused entrance.

You do have the right of appeal in such cases, and if your appeal fails many schools, both public and private, offer boarding facilities for students travelling long distances.

Living in one department but sending your children to public lycée in another can mean ongoing administrative confusion and additional paperwork throughout their three years of schooling.

Private schools will usually be more relaxed about their catchment area and will typically ignore such considerations, even if they are theoretically meant to apply them. If they want the student, they will accept them if they have room – wherever the family might live.

12.6. Results Orientation

Many private lycées are recognised to be far more results-oriented than their public counterparts.

That is not to say that the position across France is uniform; some state lycées outperform local private lycées in terms of academic achievement tables. Each year a performance table of lycées is published, which can be seen at Indicateurs de Results Lycées and Palmares Lycées.

However, as a general rule, private lycées do very well in terms of the national performance standards, not least because of their admission procedures. Their academic ethos is invariably strong and students must anticipate being pushed hard by staff who set demanding targets.

Expect to see children getting substantial amounts of homework and regular updates from the school if the teachers believe your child is not making the required effort. The schools insist that parents support the workload placed on their children and deal promptly with any issues arising from a lack of effort.

Public lycées will teach the same curriculum as state associated private lycées, but most are believed to offer a more supporting environment for students, including those who are struggling to achieve academically.

12.7. Discipline

Private lycées operate very tight disciplinary standards – far more so than is the norm in public lycées. It is not uncommon for students to stand when the teacher enters the room and to not sit down until they’re invited to do so.

Behaviour problems may be subject to some help and counselling, but private lycées have a reputation for moving quickly to exclusion processes if the student and parents do not show an immediate effort to address the problem.

Although they may not express it so directly, many operate without a strong commitment to pastoral care.

The social responsibility dimension is typically much stronger in public lycées. Young people with problems of behaviour will be viewed more sympathetically and special remedial programmes, perhaps using external bodies for help, are more commonplace.

12.8. Teaching

Generally, the commitment of French teaching staff is excellent and that applies whether the lycée is private or public.

Private lycées are as selective of their teaching staff as they are their students. That should not be surprising, given the establishments’ typically high focus on formal academic achievement.

Most teaching staff in private schools hold a qualification that enables them to teach in state schools, particularly those lycées operating under contract with the state, although this is not the case with wholly private lycées. Nevertheless, teaching standards are high. Some excellent teachers do have fundamental political objections to the notion of private education and may not apply for jobs in private lycées.

Private lycées are generally smaller, and class sizes are, on the whole, smaller than most public lycées, but there is no guarantee on this point. In some cases classes may be larger, so although private lycées may have a stronger academic ethos this does not necessarily mean a higher level of personalised tuition takes place. Each school is different, so you need to do your research before coming to a decision.

The schools are subject to general inspection by the government school inspectors in the same manner as public schools.

12.9. Religion

The French State is officially and strictly secular. Nowhere is this more strongly encoded than in education.

In public lycées, no religious symbolism is displayed and no religious education takes place. There may be comparative religious studies but the teaching of religion is forbidden.

In private lycées, the position is more complicated.

The vast majority of such schools in France are Catholic. They may have very close associations with local churches, convents or monasteries and it is normal to see certain religious symbols displayed around the school, most commonly crucifixes on classroom walls.

However, religious-based teaching in private lycées is still subject to restrictions. Time may be set aside, where required, for religious studies but under no circumstances must students be compelled or even strongly encouraged to attend.

How this is handled may vary from one lycée to another. Typically, religious studies may be organised for one or two lessons on a given afternoon each week and other activities will be available for those students who choose not to attend.

Students who choose to opt out of religious studies cannot be subject to any form of academic penalty.

12.10. University Entrance

Although the process is being changed, until recently students could simply turn up at a French university and register as a first-year student with little or no relevant background academic qualifications.

That meant that, unlike the system in many other countries, going to a specific lycée or type of lycée didn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of ease of access to a degree course or given institution (excluding the Grande Ecoles).

However, with the system changing towards entrance to university being driven at least partly by academic achievement at lycée (the new and much-maligned 'Parcoursup' system), it can be anticipated in future that the more demanding expectations and achievements of private lycées may result in a consequential positive effect on university admissions.

Private lycées place considerable emphasis on positioning students for higher education in university, specialist trade schools or the “Prépas” schools, used for pre-admission studies for entrance to the most prestigious Grande Ecoles.

Accordingly, while public lycées make similar efforts, the arguably higher results-based emphasis within private lycées may advantage their students as university entrance becomes increasingly competitive in France.

12.11. Where to Apply

If you wish to find details of a private school near you then you can do so at Choisir un lycée privée.

All of the schools have good websites, from where you can find out a great deal of information.

Next: International Schools

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