The French constitution states that it is the duty of the state to “provide free, compulsory, secular education at all levels”. The French school system was founded on general principles that were inspired by the 1789 revolution, built on and perfected by a set of legislative texts from the 19th century to the present day.
Freedom of choice
State schools and private schools that have a contract with the state coexist within the state system. In exchange for signing a public contract, private schools benefit from state support but are subject to regulation and must respect the national curriculum.
The state alone awards diplomas. Exams are set at the national level. 83% of pupils are schooled in the state system and 17% in private schools. A small number of pupils are taught in private schools that have not signed a public contract.
Provision of schooling primary level (pre-premary and primary schools), secondary level (lower secondary collèges and upper secondary general, technological and vocational lycées) is free in state schools. At primary level, local authorities at towns level (the municipalities) pay for textbooks in almost all cases. The State also provides free textbooks in collèges (lower secondary). Theoretically in lycées (upper secondary) textbooks are paid for by parents but in practice the conseils régionaux (regional authorities) cover this cost.
State schooling is neutral: teachers and pupils are required to show philosophical and political neutrality.
The French school system has been based on the principle of secularism since the end of the 19th century. State schooling has been secular since the Jules Ferry (after the Minister for State Schools from 1879 to 1883) Education Act of 28 March 1882. Staff have been secular since 30 October 1886. Respect for the beliefs of pupils and their parents means an absence of religious education in the curriculum, the prohibition of proselytising and the secularism of staff. The principle of religious freedom led to the introduction of one day off every week to allow for religious teaching outside school.
The Charte de la laicité (Secularism Charter)
- France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It ensures the equality of all citizens before the law, across its territory. It respects all beliefs.
- The secular Republic organises the separation of religions and the State. The State is neutral as far as religious or spiritual beliefs are concerned. There is no State religion.
- Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience for everyone. Everyone is free to choose whether or not they believe. It allows for everyone to express their beliefs freely, while respecting other people's beliefs and subject to maintaining law and order.
- Secularism enables citizenship to be exercised by combining individual freedom with universal equality and fraternity in a concern for the general interest.
- The Republic ensures that each of these principles is followed in schools.
- Secularism at school provides pupils with the conditions for shaping their personality, exercising their free will and learning about citizenship. It protects them from any proselytism and pressure that might prevent them from making their own choices.
- Secularism ensures that pupils can access a common, shared culture.
- Secularism enables pupils to exercise their freedom of expression as long as this does not encroach upon the smooth running of the school, respect of the French Republic's values or the pluralism of beliefs.
- Secularism requires that all forms of violence and discrimination be rejected, guarantees equality between girls and boys and is based on a culture of respect and understanding of other people.
- All members of education staff are responsible for teaching pupils about the meaning and value of secularism, as well as the other fundamental principles of the Republic. They ensure that these are applied in the school context. They must bring this charter to the attention of pupils' parents.
- Staff have a duty to be strictly neutral: they must not manifest their political or religious beliefs while carrying out their professional activities.
- Teaching is secular. In order to guarantee the most objective outlook possible for pupils on the world's diverse visions and on the breadth and depth of knowledge, no subject is theoretically excluded from scientific and educational questioning. No pupil may cite a religious or political belief to challenge a teacher's right to broach an issue on the programme.
- No one may refuse to follow the rules applicable in French schools on the grounds of their religious affiliation.
- In public schools, the behavioural rules in the different areas, stated in the school rules, are respectful of secularism. It is prohibited for pupils to wear symbols or clothing that ostensibly point to a religious affiliation.
- Through their remarks and activities, pupils help to make secularism part of day-to-day life in their school.
Schooling has been compulsory since 1882 Act. This applies to all French or foreign children over the age of 6 and resident in France. Originally the school leaving age was 13 but this was extended to 16 in 1959. Education is mainly provided by state schools and private schools that have signed a public contract. Parents can however, with prior agreement, choose to school their children at home.
Missions of national education policies
The state school system contributes to equality of opportunity and must enable each pupil to develop his or her personality, raise his or her standard of initial and continuing education, integrate socially and professionally, exercise his or her citizenship. School education facilitates the development of the child by allowing him or her to become cultured, preparing him or her for the workplace and exercising his or her responsibilities as a citizen. It is the basis of lifelong education.
According to the Guidance and curriculum planning law no 2005-380 for the futur of schools the main mission of schools, aside from the transmission of knowledge, is to communicate the values of the French Republic. Compulsory schooling must guarantee that pupils have the "necessary means to acquire a common core of knowledge and skills the possession of which is crucial for the successful completion of schooling and the development of a personal and professional identity."