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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of private education


2.Organisation and governance

2.4Organisation of private education

Last update: 27 November 2023

A share of primary, secondary and higher education in France is dispensed by the private sector. Law no. 59-1557 of 31 December 1959 (or "loi Debré") - which defines current relations between the State and private education institutions - does not recognise "private education" as such, but only a plurality of institutions. In a decision taken on 23 November 1977, the Constitutional Council considered that freedom of education was one of the fundamental principles recognised by the laws of the Republic.

Private school education is mainly dispensed (97.9% of cases) by institutions that have signed a contract with the State (so-called "under contract" institutions) even though an only a tiny share of private schools are "non-contract". It is 95% catholic and welcomes 1 out of 6 pupils. The choice of private schooling by families follows very varied motivations: reception facilities, religious, cultural or social affinity, search for an educational structure adapted to the child's profile.

Private higher education is mainly dispensed by religious institutions, engineering or business schools, some of which are funded in variable ways by the government authorities. 14% of students are registered in private higher education institutions, representing 30% of the total number of higher education institutions.

Private school education

In France, there is "under contract" private education and "non-contract" private education. Practically all (97.9%) of pupils in the private sector attend institutions having signed contracts with the Stage, within the framework set out by law no. 59-1557 of 31 December 1959.

Under contract private education

The Law no. 59-1557 of 31 December 1959 allows the possibility of signing a "simple" contract or "association" contract with the State.

The simple contract can only be stipulated with primary or specialist schools. Classes should have been running for at least 5 years and the premises should satisfy healthy and safety regulations. The institution under contract should organise teaching of basic subjects with reference to public education programmes and timetables. Teachers are appointed by the private authority and are private sector employees but paid by the State.

The association contract can be stipulated with primary schools and secondary schools (collèges, lycées). Private teaching should be dispensed under the same conditions as in the public system. The institution undertakes to follow programmes and national educational objectives and teachers are paid by the state and are public sector employees. However, they are directly recruited by the school head. Public authorities take charge of all or part of operating expenses of private schools. In exchange, schools under contract are subjected to the same inspections as public-sector schools.

Non-contract private education

Non-contract private education groups together schools that have no specific legal ties with the State besides the application of general laws. There are few schools of this type in France: they represent 0.3% of all pupils. They sometimes apply innovative teaching methods and may be faith schools (Islamic, Catholic, Protestant, Sikh or Jewish). These schools are free or not to adopt the school curriculum defined by the Department of Education and the administrative and financial aspects are not controlled by the State. However, all non-contract private schools are subject to an inspection system bearing on:

  • qualifications required for school heads and teachers;
  • the schooling obligation;
  • compulsory education;
  • respect for public order and moral standards;
  • sanitary and social prevention.

Conditions to create a private school

The same rules as for primary and secondary schools apply. French citizens or citizens from member States of the European Union or the European Economic Area are required to declare the creation of a private school to the relevant authorities. Other foreign citizens need to obtain permission from the Conseil académique de l'éducation nationale.

Status of diplomas awarded

The State has the monopoly of school and university diplomas: private schools can therefore only issue schooling certificates which are not diplomas. They do however prepare their pupils for official examinations in view of diplomas issued by the State.

Public funding of private schools

All private schools can obtain public funding as per conditions set by the law.

As regards all private schools: local authorities are not entitled to fund private primary schools. Départements and regions are authorised to allocate premises and/or a limited subsidy to collèges and general education lycées respectively.

For private schools under contract, pursuant to law no. 59-1557 of 31 December 1959, the State pays for teaching personnel, with welfare and tax contributions paid by the employer as well as initial and continuing training costs for teachers. Local authorities contribute to the material operation of classes under contract in the form of packages. For secondary schools under association contract, the financial contribution of départements and regions is compulsory.

Control of private schools by the State

All private schools, regardless of their relations with the State, are subject to inspection.

The inspection of non-contract private schools is limited to qualifications demanded of school heads and teachers, the schooling obligation, compulsory education, respect for public order and moral standards, sanitary and social prevention. Control of the content of compulsory education was tightened by law no. 98-1165 of 18 December 1998.

Control is more extensive for schools under contract: it covers compliance with programmes and teaching timetables as well as total respect for pupils' freedom of conscience. Teachers are also assessed. Private schools under contract are also submitted to financial and administrative control.

Private higher education

In virtue of the law of 12 July 1875, higher education is free. Private higher education is mainly dispensed by religious institutions, engineering or business schools, some of which are funded in variable ways by the government authorities.

Conditions to create a private higher education institution

As with primary and secondary education, the recteur (chief education officer) has various competences regarding schooling in private higher education institutions: student enrolment conditions, organisation of studies leading to a national diploma, means of testing knowledge. The State is able to monitor the teaching dispensed.

Major categories of private higher education institutions

There are three types of institutions:

  • There are 13 free private higher education institutions (including 5 Catholic institutions) that offer general education. They cannot issue national diplomas but may cooperate with scientific, cultural and vocational public institutions and allow their students to take exams in order to obtain a national diploma.
  • Private technical higher education institutions have a more vocational profile: they are engineering colleges and business and management schools. There are currently 44 private engineering colleges and 24 private business schools.
  • Private lycées offering Higher Technical Section (sections de techniciens supérieurs - STS) and "classes preparing for admission to the Grandes Ecoles" (classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles - CPGE) are governed by rules on secondary schools; they can sign an association contract with the State or remain non-contract.

Public funding of private higher education institutions

The State can subsidise private higher education courses. Certain schools are financed by the Departments in charge of Agriculture, but many of them receive subsidies from the Department in charge of Education and Reserch. The institution needs to be "recognised" by the State: recognition results from monitoring an institution’s operation, courses dispensed, and supervisory and teaching staff. State recognition then enables the institution concerned to request subsidies, the granting of which is not automatic.

In 2006, 58 private higher education institutions were subsidised by the Department for Higher Education, 13 of which were free higher education institutions, 32 were private engineering colleges and 13 were private business schools.