French public school for young children

You are relocating to France with your family? Then, finding a school for your children will be one of your first worries. You may want to consider enrolling them in a public French school, especially if they are still young.

Besides, the financial aspect, the main advantage of enrolling your children into a French school is that they will become integrated into French society and become fluent in French much faster than they would at an international school. The younger the child is, the easier.

If you have children under the age of 11 years old, you will be interested in reading this article until the end as I will explain into details the Pre-school and elementary public school in France: how it is organised and the enrolment process.

School levels and curriculum

State-school teaches and follows the values of the French Republic. They may differ from other countries, as French secular law is deeply set in the French culture.

All children are admitted and respected regardless of their origins, their religion, their nationality, their family status, their sex or any handicap they may have. Boys and girls are taught together. State-schools are non-religious and no adult or child is allowed to show and express their personal religious belief or political opinion at school.

Preschool/nursery (école maternelle)

Ecoles maternelles provide care for children from three (sometimes two) years old until six years old.

While attending maternelle is not compulsory, education is mandatory by French law from the age of three. State schools are free and are an excellent way for expat young children to learn French easily.

The curriculum is organised into 5 main topics: oral expression, physical expression, artistic expression, explore the world and start to structure thoughts. Maternelle has 3 levels based on the children’s age:

  • Petite section: age 3 to 4 years old
  • Moyenne section: age 4 to 5 years old
  • Grande section: age 5 to 6 years old
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As the children develop their language abilities naturally at a young age, the first contact with foreign language starts from the Moyenne section through songs and games.

Enrolment at French public school
Photo by Jess Bailey


Elementary school (École élémentaire)

Attending school becomes mandatory from the age of three in France until 16 years old for every child living in France.

Children learn the fundamentals at elementary schools such as reading, writing and counting. Early learning (artistic and fun) activities are also offered. One foreign language is introduced for about 1h30 per week.

There are five levels:

  • Cours préparatoire (CP) : age 6 to 7 years old
  • Cours élémentaire (CE1): age 7 to 8 years old
  • Cours élémentaire (CE2): age 8 to 9 years old
  • Cours moyen 1 (CM1) : 9 to 10 years old
  • Cours moyen 2 (CM2) : 10 to 11 years old

The Primary school (école primaire) includes both the maternelle and elementary school.

Allophone children starting elementary school will have an assessment organised by the school to determine which class they should be in. This evaluation will be done according to their language skills, their knowledge, personal development and their age. This assessment will be performed preferably in the child first language of education.

School enrolment process


Catchment areas

Public schools have catchment areas. Your local Mairie (town hall) will assign you to the relevant school based on your address and provide you with the contact details and pre-enrolment certificate.

If you want your child to go to a school outside of your areayou’ll need to have a good reason and get permission from your local Mairie and the rectorate (schools inspectorate) via an exception request (Demande de dérogation). 

French school enrolment
Photo by Tiger Chap

Pre-enrolment at your local Mairie

For both preschool and primary school, the pre-enrolment should be done at your local city hall; if this is the first enrolment in a French public school. It should be done in May and June before the start of the school year. If it is done after, the school assignation may also take into account the number of pupils per school. 

State-school is free however lunch services are charged if provided. In some cases, a fee may be requested for the school manuals depending on the municipalities.

You’ll need the below documents for the enrolment:

  • Your birth certificate (see INSIDER TIP 1). The certificate must mention:
    • Your Date and place of birth
    • Your gender
    • Your father’s and mother’s name
  • Your child’s vaccination certificate
    These are the compulsory certificates to enrol in a French school. For children born after 20018:


    • Diphtheria, tetanus and poliomyelitis (DTP)
    • Pertussis
    • Type B Haemophilus influenzae
    • Hepatitis B
    • Pneumococcus
    • Serogroup C Meningococcus
    • Measles, mumps and rubella.
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For children born before 2018: Diphtheria, tetanus and poliomyelitis (DTP)

  • Proof of address less than three months old in your name:
    • If you are a tenant: an energy bill such as electricitygaswater, landline phone, Internet. CAREFUL: the mobile-phone bill is usually not accepted.
    • If you are being hosted: a hand-written certificate of residence signed by your host + your host last energy bill + a copy of your host’s proof of identity
  • Assurance scolaire (see INSIDER TIP 3) – not mandatory but recommended.

Birth certificates in any other languages should be translated into French by a sworn translator approved by a French Court of Appeal and in some cases apostilled or legalized (see INSIDER TIP 2).

Birth certificates from certain countries to be stamped with an “apostille” or legalized. In either case, this stamp certifies that the document is official. Some countries have bilateral agreements preventing their citizens from the need for apostille or legalization. Check out the first column of the Recap legalization table attached from page four, what letter matches your country line:

  • D for Dispense: Exemption
  • L for Legalisation: Legalization required
  • A for Apostille

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Guiga from Expat in France

Canteen enrolment

It should be done at the Mairie together with the school enrolment. Ask for details on the fees as it varies from one city to another.

Some Mairies apply the “quotient familial”. 

It is an index to apply the fee based on people’s income as per their previous tax declaration. Ask your Mairie how you can get your “quotient familial” as a newcomer as there are different administrations that can provide it (CAFCCAS…)


Public extra-curricular activities (activités péri-scolaire)

Classes usually end at 16h30, however municipalities provider daycare until 18h in most cities in the school premises supervised by childcare city official (not the teachers).
Same as the canteen, the enrolment should be done at the same time as the school enrolment. You can choose which day of the week you want our child to stay for the extra-curricular activities. This service is charged and may also depend on your income via the quotient familial.

Photo by Jon Tyson


Enrolment finalisation at the school

To finalise the enrolment, you will need to make an appointment with the school director and bring all the documents listed above.
If you feel that your French is not sufficient, it is advised to go with someone that could translate for you if possible. During this appointment, the Director will explain the school organisation, the teaching methods, the families’ rights and duties as well as the children’s.

During this meeting, while insurance is not required to attend class, some schools may ask that you carry an insurance policyassurance scolaire, for your child to participate in any extra-curricular activities. Check your housing insurance as the school insurance may be included in the policy.

School calendar

The French school year starts at the beginning of September and goes until the end of June, beginning of July. Four school holidays of two weeks each are intercalated every 6 weeks during the 10-months school year. France is divided into 3 zones to spread the winter and spring holidays over 4 weeks. This zoning system goes back to the ’60s for economic and touristic reasons. 

  • Zone A: CaenClermont-FerrandGrenoble, Lyon, Montpellier, Nancy-Metz, Nantes, Rennes et Toulouse.
  • Zone B: Aix-Marseille, Amiens, Besançon, Dijon, Lille, Limoges, Nice, Orléans-Tours, Poitiers, Reims, Rouen et Strasbourg.
  • Zone C: Bordeaux, Créteil, Paris et Versailles.

The school week is from Monday to Friday at most schools. Classes usually begin between 8 am and 9 am and end between 4 pm and 6 pm for a maximum of 24h classes per week (this doesn’t include the péri-scolaire activities).

Depending on the municipalityschools can welcome children on Wednesdays. 

hope this information will help you to understand the French schooling system for younger children. You can also find information on the French high school system here.

I will soon prepare another article about middle school in France. Stay tuned!

If you have any questionslet me know in the below comments.

One Comment

  • Katie Ketner

    I need to a certificate of pre enrollment in one day for our visa appointment can you help me understand hot to get this?

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