History of education in France

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The education system in France can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Schools may have operated continuously from the later empire to the early Middle Ages in some towns in southern France. The school system was modernized during the French Revolution, but rough in 19th and early 19th century debates ranged on the role of religion.

Gaul and Roman empire[edit]

Prior to the establishment of the Roman empire, education in Gaul was a domestic task or provided by itinerant druids traveling in the Celtic Western Europe. Latin schools were later established by wealthy patricians.

Middle Ages[edit]

As in other parts of medieval Western Europe, literacy was mainly in Latin. Church schools associated to abbeys and cathedrals developed from the 8th century onwards and were controlled by the Catholic Church. The University of Paris was one of the first universities in Europe, created possibly as early as 1150. Grammar schools, often situated in cathedrals, taught the Latin language and law.

Universities were formally established in the 12th century onwards, including Université de Paris (1150), Université de Toulouse (1229), Université d'Orléans (1235), Université de Montpellier (1289), Université d'Avignon (1303), Université de Cahors (1331), Université de Grenoble (1339), Université de Perpignan (1350), Université d'Angers (1364), Université d'Orange (1365), Université d'Aix (1409), Université de Dole (1423), Université de Poitiers (1431), Université de Caen (1432), Université de Valence (1452), Université de Nantes (1461), Université de Bourges (1464), Université de Douai (1559) and others.

Earlier modern period[edit]

In the early modern period, colleges were established by various Catholic orders, notably the Oratorians. In parallel, universities further developed in France. Louis XIV's Ordonnance royale sur les écoles paroissiales of 13 December 1698 obliged parents to send their children to the village schools until their 14th year of age, ordered the villages to organise these schools, and set the wages for the teachers..


By the 1800s France had about 350 eight-year and six-year colleges; they provided classical education to about 50,000 young men from the ages of 10 to 20. Some were centuries old, and most gave scholarships to their students. They were primarily funded by cash endowments and farmlands, but in 1789 during the French Revolution, the government seized their endowments and properties and dismissed priests and church-controlled teachers. The plan was for local governments to take up the burden while the central government set up a new system of advanced schools. The new funding plan was not effective for years and meanwhile many of the schools closed or struggled after a 90% reduction in income. By 1793 the national government sold off properties because it needed the money for its foreign wars. A similar treatment was given charitable institutions.[1]

Condorcet in 1792 drew up plans for universal schooling, but it was based on the assumption that the historic endowments would be available. The endowments were diverted to military expenses in 1793 and Condorcet's plan was not adopted.

New secondary schools was established in the larger cities, and were open to all young men of talent. Liberal education, including especially modern sciences, became possible and widespread. It was geared to young men who would become bureaucrats in the new regime. A short-lived "loi Bouquier" (29 frimaire an II) was soon replaced by the "loi Daunou" of 3 brumaire an IV (25 October 1795), which organises the elementary schools, taking away the compulsoriness, and reinstating school fees.

Faculties of the Université de France were organised as four categories (law, medecine, sciences, humanities), under the strict supervision from the government.

After more than a decade of closures, Napoleon set up lycées in 1802 as the main secondary education establishments targeting baccalauréat examinations. They taught French, Latin, Ancient Greek and sciences. A law of 1808 fixed the syllabus as "ancient languages, history, rhetoric, logic and the elements of mathematical and physical sciences". They were usually boarding schools under military-like discipline.

In parallel to faculties of law, medicine, sciences, humanities in the universities, grandes écoles were established as specialized higher education institutions focusing on sciences and engineering. The term came after the French Revolution, with the creation of the École Normale Supérieure by the National Convention and the École Polytechnique. Actually, their forerunners were civil servant schools aimed at graduating 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.

19th century[edit]

Educational policy was highly politicized and used as a weapon in the battle between republican left and monarchist right. The conservatives wanted schools controlled by the Catholic Church that would teach obedience and traditionalism. The radicals were anticlerical and afraid of church influence and demanded secular education, with no role for the church and an emphasis on teaching republicanism.

The Loi Guizot of 1833 provided for free education at the parish level. After the Bourbon Restoration, the lycées were called collèges royaux but were renamed lycée in the Second Republic. This was confirmed by the loi Falloux (texte). At this time the lycées included junior classes.

An act proposed by Camille Sée in 1880 brought secondary schools for girls. There were 36 such schools in 1896.[2] Secondary schooling became free of charge between 1926 and 1930.

Total spending on the public system of secondary schools in 1865 was 28 million francs a year. Three-quarters of the money was tuition paid by the parents, and only 5.9 million francs came from the national and local governments. However, families spent even more money for private schools, lay and Catholic, which in 1865 enrolled more pupils than the public system at the secondary level.[3]

The schools became political battlegrounds after the end of the Second Empire. The radicals passed the Jules Ferry laws, which established first free education (1881) then mandatory and laic education (1882). Proposed by the Republican Minister of Public Instruction Jules Ferry, they were a crucial step in the secularization of the Third Republic (1871–1940). Republicans feared that since religious orders, especially the Jesuits and Assumptionists, controlled the schools then anti-Republicanism was indoctrinated to children. Determined to root this out, Republicans insisted they needed control of the schools, if economic and militaristic progress was to be achieved (Republicans felt that one of the primary reasons for the German victory in 1870 was the superior education system). Religious instruction in all schools was forbidden and religious orders were forbidden to teach in them. Funds were appropriated from religious schools in order to build more state schools. Later in the century other laws passed by Ferry's successors further weakened the Church's position in French society. Civil marriage became compulsory, divorce was introduced and chaplains were removed from the army.[4]

Higher education[edit]

France lagged well behind Germany in technological education but was on par with Britain and the United States. During the 19th century, a number of higher education grandes écoles were established to support industry and commerce, including Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris (today ESCP Europe, founded in 1819), École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (École centrale de Paris) in 1829, École des arts industriels et des mines (École centrale de Lille) in 1854 and École centrale lyonnaise pour l'Industrie et le Commerce (École centrale de Lyon) in 1857.

During the latter part of the 19th centuries, new grandes écoles were established so as to further develop education in new fields of sciences and technologies, including HEC School of Management (HEC Paris), École nationale supérieure des télécommunications (TELECOM ParisTech), the École supérieure d'électricité (Supélec).

20th century[edit]

A decree of 1959 established "classical, modern and technical lycees".[5] In 1963, the junior classes were absorbed into primary schools. In 1977 lycées d'enseignement professionnel (vocational schools) were established. They were renamed lycée professionnel in 1985.

In 1985, the education minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, announced a target of "80% of an age group to reach baccalauréat level". This aim was taken up by his successor, René Monory and informed an act of parliament in 1989 proposed by Lionel Jospin. In the next decade lycées and higher education grew rapidly.[6] The baccalauréat professionnel was created in 1987. It allowed the holder of a Brevet d'études professionnelles or a Certificat d'aptitude professionnelle to complete their secondary education and perhaps be able to undertake higher study. Between 1987 and 1995, the number of baccalaureate holders rose from 300,000 to 500,000.[7][8]

Until 1994, the streams in the lycée were called A (literature, philosophy and languages), B (economics and society), C (mathematics), D (biology), E (mathematics and technology), F1, F2, F3, F4,... F12 (technology), G1, G2, G3 (administration, secretarial work, business studies, accounting) and H (hospitality). These streams were then regrouped as the three routes: general, technological and vocational.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ R.R. Palmer, "How Five Centuries of Educational Philanthropy Disappeared in the French Revolution," History of Education Quarterly (1986) 26#2 pp. 181-197 in JSTOR
  2. ^ A. Prost, « Des lycées pour les filles », in Prost Regards historiques sur l'éducation en France (XIXe-XXe siècles), p.113-116.
  3. ^ Palmer (1986) p 193
  4. ^ Patrick J. Harrigan, "Church, State, and Education in France From the Falloux to the Ferry Laws: A Reassessment," Canadian Journal of History, April 2001, 36#1 pp 51-83
  5. ^ A. Léon, P. Roche, Histoire de l'enseignement en France, p. 110.
  6. ^ Eric Maurin, La nouvelle question scolaire, Seuil, 2007, p 132
  7. ^ Eric Maurin, p 133
  8. ^ Anne Corbett, and Bob Moon, eds. Education in France: continuity and change in the Mitterrand years 1981-1995 (Routledge, 2002)
  9. ^ présentation des trois voies de formation en lycée, MEN/DESCO.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, R. D. Education in France, 1848-70 (1975)
  • Baker, Donald N. and Patrick J. Harrigan, eds. The Making of Frenchmen: current directions in the history of education in France, 1679-1979 (Waterloo, Ontario: Historical Reflections Press, 1980).
  • Clark, Linda L. "Approaching the History of Modern French Education: Recent Surveys and Research Guides," French Historical Studies (1987) 15#1 pp. 157–165 in JSTOR
  • Clark, Terry N. Prophets and Patrons: The French University and the Emergence of the Social Sciences (1973)
  • Clark, Linda L. "A Battle of the Sexes in a Professional Setting: The Introduction of Inspectrices Primaires, 1889-1914," French Historical Studies, (1989) 16#1 pp. 96–125 in JSTOR
  • Corbett, Anne, and Bob Moon, eds. Education in France: continuity and change in the Mitterrand years 1981-1995 (Routledge, 2002)
  • Curtis, Sarah A. "Religious Schooling in Nineteenth-Century France," History of Education Quarterly (1999) 39#1 pp. 51–72 in JSTOR
  • Davis, James Herbert, Jr. Fénelon (Twayne Publishers, 1979).
  • Gildea, Robert. Education in Provincial France, 1800-1914: A Study in Three Departments (1983)
  • Gill, Natasha. Educational Philosophy in the French Enlightenment (2010) excerpt and text search
  • Harrigan, Patrick J. Mobility, Elites and Education in French Society of the Second Empire (1980) excerpt and text search
  • Harrigan, Patrick J. "Church, State, and Education in France From the Falloux to the Ferry Laws: A Reassessment," Canadian Journal of History, (2001) 36#1 pp 51–83
  • Harrigan, Patrick J. "French Catholics and Classical Education after the Falloux Law," French Historical Studies (1973) 8#2 pp. 255–278 in JSTOR
  • May, Anita Rasi. "The Falloux Law, the Catholic Press, and the Bishops: Crisis of Authority in the French Church," French Historical Studies, (1973) 8#1 pp 77–84 in JSTOR
  • Maynes, Mary Jo. Schooling for the People: Comparative Local Studies of Schooling History in France and Germany, 1750-1850 (1985)
  • Nettelbeck, Colin. "A Forgotten Zone of Memory? French Primary School Children and the History of the Occupation," French History & Civilization, 2011, Vol. 4, pp 157–166
  • Palmer, R.R. The Improvement of Humanity: Education and the French Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1985) online edition
    • R.R. Palmer, "How Five Centuries of Educational Philanthropy Disappeared in the French Revolution," History of Education Quarterly (1986) 26#2 pp. 181–197 in JSTOR, summarizes his 1985 book
  • Popiel, Jennifer J. Rousseau's Daughters: Domesticity, Education and Autonomy in Modern France (2008) covers 1762 to 1833
  • Rodgers, Rebecca. From the Salon to the Schoolroom: Educating Bourgeois Girls in 19th-Century France (2009)
  • Rodgers, Rebecca. "Retrograde or Modem? Unveiling the teaching nun in nineteenth-century France," Social History, (May, 1998), 25: 146-64.
  • Whitehead, Barbara J., ed. Women's Education in Early Modern Europe: A History, 1500-1800 (Garland, 1999) online edition