Grandes écoles

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For the film released in 2004, see Grande École (film).

The Grandes Écoles (French pronunciation: ​[ɡʁɑ̃d.z‿ekɔl], literally in French "Grand Schools") of France are higher education establishments outside the main framework of the French university system. While most Grandes Écoles select students for admission at the postgraduate level, others select students at the third year of undergraduate level based chiefly on national ranking in competitive written and oral exams. In contrast, French public universities have a legal obligation to accept in the first year of undergraduate studies all candidates of the region who hold a corresponding baccalauréat, however, universities have the right to select their students at the postgraduate level like the Grandes Écoles.

Usually candidates for the national exams have completed two years of dedicated preparatory classes. The Grandes Écoles are highly selective and usually do not have large student bodies: most give admission to few hundred students each year; there are 6,000 students at the establishment with the largest student population, Arts et Métiers ParisTech.

Studying in some grande écoles after passing the competitive exams is officially considered as public service; students generally pay low or no fees, and are paid monthly stipends in some institutions, with the exception of business schools which typically charge higher fees. Economically disadvantaged students in grandes écoles may have access to grants and subsidies, just like at a public university.

Classification as Grandes Écoles[edit]


The phrase 'Grande École' originated in 1794 after the French Revolution,[1] when the National Convention created the École normale supérieure, the mathematician Gaspard Monge and Lazare Carnot created the École centrale des travaux publics (later École polytechnique) and the abbot Henri Grégoire created the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers.

The model was probably the military academy at Mézières, of which Monge was an alumnus. The system of competitive entry was a means to open up higher education to more candidates based on merit.

Some schools included in the category have roots in the 17th and 18th century and are older than the phrase 'Grande École' dated 1794. Actually, their forerunners were civil servant schools aimed at graduating technical officers (Ecole d'Arts et Métiers, renamed Arts et Métiers ParisTech, established in 1780), mine supervisors (École des mines de Paris established in 1783), bridge and road engineers (École royale des ponts et chaussées established in 1747), shipbuilding engineers (École des ingénieurs-constructeurs des vaisseaux royaux established in 1741) and five military engineering academies and graduate schools of artillery established in the 17th century in France, such as the école de l'artillerie de Douai (established in 1697) and the école du génie de Mézière (established in 1748), wherein mathematics, chemistry and sciences were already a major part of the curriculum taught by first rank scientists such as Pierre-Simon de Laplace, Charles Étienne Louis Camus, Étienne Bézout, Sylvestre-François Lacroix, Siméon Denis Poisson, Gaspard Monge (most of whom were later to form the teaching corps of École polytechnique during the Napoleonic era).

Napoleon created in 1802 the École Spécial Militaire de Saint Cyr, which is also seen as a Grande École even though it only trains army officers.

During the 19th century, a number of higher education Grandes écoles were established to support industry and commerce, such as École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Saint-Étienne in 1816, Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris (today ESCP Europe, founded in 1819), L'institut des sciences et industries du vivant et de l'environnement (Agro ParisTech) in 1826, and École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (École Centrale Paris) in 1829.

Between 1832 and 1870, the Central School of Arts and Manufactures produced 3,000 engineers, and served as a model for most of the industrialized countries. Until 1864, a quarter of its students came from abroad. Conversely, the quality of French technicians astonished southeastern Europe, Italy, the Near East, and even Belgium. The system of grandes écoles expanded, enriched in 1826 by the Ecole des Eaux et Forêts at Nancy, the Ecole des Arts Industriels at Lille in 1854, the Ecole Centrale Lyonnaise in 1857, and the National Institute of Agronomy, reconstituted in 1876 after a fruitless attempt between 1848 and 1855. Finally, the training of the lower grades of staff, who might today be called ‘production engineers’, was assured to an even greater extent by the development of Ecoles d’Arts et métiers, of which the first was established at Châlons-sur-Marne in 1806 and the second at Angers in 1811 (both reorganized in 1832), with a third at Aix-en-Provence in 1841. Each had room for 300 pupils. There is no doubt that in the 1860s France had the best system of higher technical and scientific education in Europe.

— Mathias, Peter; Postan, Michael (1978). The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. Cambridge university press. p. 313. ISBN 9780521215909. 

During the latter part of the 19th century and in the 20th century, more Grandes écoles were established for education in businesses as well as newer fields of science and technology, including Rouen Business School (NEOMA Business School) in 1871, Sciences Po Paris in 1872, École nationale supérieure des télécommunications (1878), Hautes Études Commerciales (1881),[2], Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales (1907) École supérieure d'électricité (1894) and Supaero (1909).

Since then, France has had a unique dual higher education system, with small and middle-sized specialized graduate schools operating alongside the traditional university system. Some fields of study are nearly exclusive to one part of this dual system, such as medicine in universités only or architecture in écoles only.

The system of Grandes Écoles (and "prépa") also exists in former French Colonies, Switzerland and in Italy (because Napoleon, king of Italy for 10 years, established the French system there). The influence of this system was strong in the 19th century throughout the world, as can be seen in the original names of many world universities (Caltech was originally "Polytechnic Institute" as well as ETH Zürich -- "the Polytechnicum"—as well as the Polytechnique in Montréal, and as well as some institutions in China, US, UK, Russia who have the name of some of French "Grandes Écoles" adapted to their language). The influence of this model lost importance with the success of the German and then Anglo-Saxon university model during the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century[according to whom?].


There is no standard definition or official list of Grandes Écoles. Legislation generally uses the term "classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles". The term "Grande École" is not employed in the Code of Education, with the exception of a quotation in the social statistics. It generally employs the expression of "écoles supérieures" to indicate higher educational institutions that are not universities.

The Conférence des Grandes Écoles (CGE) (Grandes Écoles Conference) is a non-profit organization. It uses a broad definition of "Grande École" which is not restricted to the school's selectivity or the prestige of the diploma awarded. The members of CGE have not made an official or "accepted" list of Grandes Écoles. For example, some engineering school members of the CGE cannot award state-recognized engineering degrees.

Methods of admission to the Grandes Écoles[edit]

Admission to the Grandes Écoles is very different from that of French universities. Except for certain special academic programs, French universities are required by law to admit in the first year of undergraduate studies any student having completed the national baccalauréat, regardless of students' other grades or qualifications. This is in contrast with the selective admissions system for French Grandes Écoles, as explained below.

To be admitted into most of the French Grandes Écoles, most students study in a two-year preparatory program in one of the CPGE (see below) before taking a set of competitive national exams. Different exams are required by groups (called "banques") of different schools. The national exams are sets of written tests, given over the course of several weeks, that challenge the student on the intensive studies of the previous two years. During the summer, those students who succeed in the written exams then take a further set of exams, usually one-hour oral exams, during which they are given a problem to solve. After 20 minutes of preparation, the candidate presents the solution to a professor, who challenges the candidate on the answer and the assumptions being made. Afterwards, candidates receive a final national ranking which determines admission to their Grandes Écoles of choice.

Preparatory classes to the Grandes Écoles (CPGE)[edit]

The Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in Paris, is one of the most famous lycées providing preparatory classes for the Grandes Écoles. (It is on the right side of the rue Saint-Jacques; on the left is the Sorbonne.)

Classes préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles (CPGE) or prépas (preparatory classes for the Grandes Écoles) are two-year classes, in either sciences, literature or economics. These are the traditional way in which most students prepare to pass the competitive recruitment examination of the main Grandes Écoles. Most are held in state lycées (high schools); a few are private. Admission is competitive and based on the students' lycée grades. The preparatory classes with highest success rates in the entrance examinations of the top Grandes Écoles are highly selective. Students who are not admitted to a Grande École of their choice often repeat the second year of preparatory classes and attempt the exam again the following year.

There are five categories of prépas:

  • Scientifiques: These prepare for the engineering schools and teach mathematics, physics, chemistry, and technology. They are broken down in sub-categories according to the emphasis of their dominant subject: they are mainly focused on mathematics and either physics (MP), industrial sciences and technologies (TSI), physics and chemistry (PC), physics and engineering science (PSI), physics and technology (PT).
  • BCPST: biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and mathematics. Commonly called "Agro-Véto", these classes prepare students primarily for agricultural and veterinary schools, but also for schools in geology, hydrology, and forestry, as well as for research and teaching careers via the Écoles normales supérieures.
  • Lettres: humanities, essentially for the Écoles normales supérieures (students can also compete to enter business schools, but represent a small minority of those admitted). There are two main sub-categories: "Lettres", in either "A/L" (with Ancient Greek and/or Latin) or LSH (with geography), and B/L (with mathematics and social sciences).
  • Économique et commerciale: mathematics and economics. These prepare for the entrance exams to the French business schools, and are subdivided between science (mathematics) and economics tracks - a third track also exists for students with a "technological", i.e. applied background.
  • Chartes: humanities, with an emphasis on philology, history and languages, named after the school École Nationale des Chartes. By far the smallest prépa in number of students.

Recruitment at baccalauréat level[edit]

Some schools are accessible after a selection based on the grades of the two last years of lycée and/or the baccalaureate results. For example, there are the six schools of the INSA network, the three Universités de Technologie, the three engineering schools of the ISEN group, and the thirteen engineering schools of Polytech Group. It is also possible to join these schools in third year after a preparatory class or university and then the recruitment is based on a contest or the student results.

The top five of these Grandes Écoles according to the French magazine l'Usine nouvelle are in 2014: UTC, INSA Lyon, ESTACA, UTT and EPITA.[3]

Most of them simply include the two-year preparatory class in their program while others like INSA Toulouse chose the LMD to start the specialization earlier. Most students choose to get their licence, master or doctorate close to home.

These years of preparation can be highly focused on the school program so students have a greater chance of succeeding in the admission exam or contest in their school if there is one, but they are not prepared to take the examinations for other schools so their chance of success in these other examinations is low.[citation needed]

The advantage is that instead of studying simply to pass the admission exams, the student will study topics more targeted to their training and future specialization. The main advantage is that students choose their speciality more according to their interests and less according to their rank. (Indeed, the rank obtained after standard preparatory classes determines a list of schools with their specialities).

The selection process during the first preparatory year is considered less stressful than in a standard first preparatory class. Nevertheless, the selection percentage can be the same as during standard preparatory classes. These schools also recruit people who did not manage to follow the programs of CPGE.

Parallel admission[edit]

In many schools, there is also the possibility of “parallel admission” to Grandes Écoles. Parallel admissions are open to university students or students from other schools. The prépas years are not required to sit the entrance exams, provided that the candidates performed well in their previous studies. This method of recruitment is proving increasingly popular, with many students choosing to go first to university and then enrol in a Grande École.

Some Grandes Écoles have dual diploma arrangement in which a student can switch establishments in the last year to receive diplomas from both establishments.


The Grandes Écoles can be classified into following broad categories:

Écoles normales supérieures[edit]

These schools train researchers, professors and may be a beginning for executive careers in public administration or business. Many French Nobel Prize and Fields Medal laureates were educated at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Lyon or Paris-Saclay.[4] There are four ENS:

Until recently, unlike most other Grandes Écoles, the écoles normales supérieures (ENS) did not award specific diplomas. Students who completed their curriculum were entitled to be known as "ENS alumni" or "normaliens". The schools encourage their students to obtain university diplomas in partner institutions while providing extra classes and support. Many ENS students obtain more than one university diploma. Normaliens from France and other European Union countries are considered civil servants in training, and as such paid a monthly salary in exchange for agreeing to serve France for ten years, including those years spent as students.

Engineering schools (grandes écoles d'ingénieurs)[edit]

Many engineering schools recruit most of their students who has completed their education at scientific preparatory classes (2 years of post-baccalaureat study). Many are also joint graduate schools from several regional universities, sometimes in association with other international higher education networks.c

In France, the term 'engineer' has a broader meaning compared to the one understood in most other countries, and can imply a person who has achieved high level of study in both fundamental and applied sciences, as well as business management, humanities and social sciences. The best engineering schools will often provide such a general and very intensive education, although this is not always the case. Most of the schools of following first three groups train the so-called 'generaliste' engineers:

1. Centrale Graduate Schools of engineering; its students are commonly known as pistons (a reference to the piston engine, one of the centrepieces of industrial revolution)

2. ParisTech schools of engineering (however, some of these schools are now part of the new Paris-Saclay University. Also some of these schools teach only a specific area)

3. Institut Mines-Telecom schools of engineering

The following schools usually train each students for a more specific area in science or engineering:

4. Other engineering schools

5. Grandes écoles of actuarial sciences, statistics and econometrics:

6. Grandes écoles of chemistry:

7. Grandes écoles of physics:

8. Grandes écoles of information technology and telecommunications:

9. Grandes écoles of applied physics and technology or civil and industrial engineering:

10. Grandes écoles of biology and other natural sciences:

Business schools (grandes écoles de commerce)[edit]

Most French business schools are partly privately run, often by the regional chambers of commerce.

The below list contains French business schools that are officially part of theConférence des Grandes écoles.

1. Business schools recruiting students from post-baccalaureat preparatory classes[6]:

2. Business schools recruit students just after taking the baccalauréat :

Grandes écoles without preparatory classes[edit]

Some schools are accessible after a competitive entrance exam directly after the baccalauréat. Often, students of these schools will progress to an administrative school.

These schools include:

Universities that have joined the Grandes écoles Conference[edit]

In 2014, Paris-Dauphine University has joined the Grandes écoles Conference and now has the status of university, grand établissement and grande école[7][8]

Administrative schools[edit]

These schools train students for civil service and other public-sector positions. Some students in these schools do end up working in the private sector. Most of these schools are reserved for French or EEA citizens only:

Military officer academies[edit]

Today, there are only 3 grandes écoles that are officially denominated as military academies of the French Republic.

While École polytechnique is also under supervision of the French Ministry of Defence, it is no longer officially a military academy. Only a small number of its students progress to military careers, while between a fifth and a quarter choose to remain in France to work for the State's technical administrations; the majority of its graduates choose to work abroad either in US or UK.

Communication, Journalism & Media schools[edit]

Facts and influence in French culture[edit]

Altogether, the Grandes Écoles awarded approximately 60,000 master's degrees in 2013[9] compared with 150,000 master's degrees awarded by all French higher institutions in the same year, including universities.

Grandes Écoles graduates of 2013 represent 10% of the French population graduating from high school 5 years before (600,000 in 2008[10]).

But a distinction must be made within the Grandes Écoles. Some elite schools (CentraleSupélec, ENA, ENS, Ecole Polytechnique, ESCP, ESSEC, HEC, ParisTech schools, Sciences Po) are renowned in France for their selectivity and the complexity of their curriculum. They are usually called the "A+" schools, referring to the grade given by some rankings. These elite schools represent roughly 1% of the higher education students in France.

Admission to a certain number of these institutions,(e.g. l'Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature in Bordeaux) but not all of these establishments is reserved only to French citizens, raising questions relating to European mobility and institutional reciprocity.

These top-rated schools, which the French praise for being généralistes, i.e. interdisciplinary, have traditionally produced most of France's high-ranking civil servants, politicians and executives, and many scientists and philosophers.

Since 1975, the Comité d'études sur les formations d'ingénieurs has studied the questions of training and job placement for engineers graduating from the Grandes Écoles.

See also[edit]