French School Uniform:  Types of Schools

Figure 1.--This French school in the early 1900s required a military-like uniform with knee pants. Note the one boy in a sailor suit. Also note that the school did not require kneepants, several boys wear long trousers. 

France since the mid-1870s had a very centalized national education system. French children learn about the same material zt the same time throughout the country. Secondary education was not widespread until aftr Workld war II. This is a common pattern in Europe. The system is dominated by the national government's state schools. The private sector is of less importance than in England. Most of the private schools are Catholic schools which receive some Government support. Nursery schools called marernelles have vbeen added to the sysem.


HBC has only limited infirmation on French school uniforms. Except for requiring smocks in the 1872, the state schools have not required uniforms. Some but not all of the Catholic schools have required uniforms, but this appears to have been a post-World War II development. There are also some military schools which have required uniforms even in the 18th century. Other than those military schools, the only schools that have generally required uniforms have been private cathloic schools. This appears, however, to have been been an inovation after World War II (1939-45).

French School System

France has 2 basic kinds kinds of schools: 1) the école publique (public or state school) and école libre (free or private schools school). The private schools were never as important in France as they were in Britain. This was in part because the French Government placed a greater emphasis on public education than the British Government. This was true beginning with the French Revolution (1787) and continued in the Napoleonic Era (1797?-1814). The new second French Republic (1871) placed a great emphasis on public education. In Britain during the 19th century there were still important elements that considered mass public education a dangerous experiment. One should not over emphasize the different types of French schools. One of the unique characteritics of French schools is that an ecole libre as well as an ecole publique can on the same campus offer tuition from the maternelle (primary school) to the lycée (senior highschool).

Gender Policies

All French schools through the 1930s separated boys and girls. They were not separated in the schools, but actually went to different schools with different buildings and of course play grounds. Since the 1950s the state schools have slowly moved to coeducation. The Catholic schools have been slower to shift. All state schools are now coed, just ike French schools. Catholic schools are now mixed. Some are coeducational while others are still single gender schools.


There are different terms for school in French. These terms have been used differently over time. This was especially true in the 19th century. Usage has become more standardized in the 20th century. The primary term is école. This term as in English can be used to mean different types of school, indicated by a drscriptive adjetive. There are different kinds of schools. The école maternelle is a nursery school for pre-school age children 2 to 5 years of age. The école primaire is the primary school. Unlike the word school in English, the word école in French with out a descriptive adjetive can be used to mean primary school. The word école as in English can be used to mean a variety of specialized scchools when used with the appropriate descriptive adjetive. Lycee is anither common term for school. The use of the term in the 20th century is generally to designate a secondary school. Most state secondary schools are called lycees. Ther term college is also used in France. Generally it means a private school offering both a primary and secondary program.

State Schools

The école publique is the basic state school. It is an elementary school and through the early 20th century it was the only state school that most French boys attemded. Most boys did not go on to secondary school. Before World War II education was mandatory only till 14. In those days l'école primaire provided tuition for the children who intended to leave at 14. The end of these short studies was ended by a diploma : the Certificat d'étude primaire. The teachers, professors and other staff at a école publique are public servants. As the French State they are lay, i.e. non-confessional, teachers. Historically, leaving aside Sunday, a day of the week, earlier it was Thursday, now it is Wednesday, was set aside without classes. This was to allow those whose who wish it to attend a confessional tuition to receive catholic instruction. A chaplaincy was also installed in most of them.

Figure 2.--Almost all of the boys at this French elementary school wear short pants, most as part of suits. Notice that only one boy wears a smock, presumably because these were the older boys at school. A few boys wear sandals. 

Primary schools

French primary boys through the 1950s wore smocks to school, almost always black, dark blue, or grey smocks.  I am not sure what French schoolboys wore before the 1870s, but the school smock as we now know it was part of the educational reforms of the Third Republic. (The Third Republic was the Government that emerged in France after Louis Napoleon's (Napoleon III) defeat by the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Educators thought that the smock was an ideal school garment. Not only did it protect clothes, but it hid differences in clothing resulting from social class. Thus boys and girls from affluent families could not show off with expensive clothes. (Sound familiar?) I'm not sure how the style was introduced, whether there was a national policy or if local schools had any disgression. Also I am not sure to what extent the Government spelled out the style of the smocks to be worn. It does look like most of the early smocks were black or dark blue and buttoned at the back. Available images confirm that French boys were wearing berets and smocks well before World War I--although I have no 19th Century images. The smock was generally worn with short pants and often a beret. The image of a boy going off to school in a beret, smock, and book satchel on his back is a nostalgic one for many French people. Schools smocks were still commonly worn in the 1940s because many World War II images exists of French boys in smocks. They were not nearly as common as before World War I. Usage varied from school to school. I believe they were also commonly worn in the 1950s. A French contributor to this site tells me that he wore smocks as an elementary schoolboy during the late 1950s and early 60s, but did not wear a betet. Smocks began to disappear in the late 1960s, especilly after the Paris student riots of 1968. Of course it was not the elementary children rioting, but actions of the older children soon filtered down to the younger children.

Secondary schools

Children in France as in other European countries did not begin to commonly attend secondary sdchoolsd until after World War I. In many countries, such as Britain, it was not until after World War II. France made great strides in the inter-war era in extending secondary education to all social classes. Secondary education became free (no charge) in 1930 at state schools. Until after World War II (1939-45) most children did not attend secondary school and it was not mandatiry. Until after the War, attendance at secondary schools was reserved only to the children of well-off parents. Scholarships were, however, available for clever children. HBC has less information about what secondary school children wore to school. Boys began secondary school at fairly young ages, about 11. Thus it is possible that some of the younger boys wore smocks in there first year of secondary school. I do not know if secondary schools had any requirement on wearing smocks or other clothing styles. I do not believe that state secondary schools required uniforms.

Administrative structure

France has a very centralized school system. It also has a very involved administrative structure. I am not sure at this time just how this affects the school system. The national government is composed of the president, ministries and parliament. Les régions (the regions) are something like a British country. An example is the region of Burgundy. owadays "régions" have more and more power due to the "décentralisation" in 1981. Les départements (the departments) are something like an English county. For example they are four "départements" in Burgundy (Saône-et-Loire, Côte d'Or, Yonne, and Nièvre). They are the heritage from the French Revolution (1798). Due to European system, they will disapear in the future. Les cantons are a special area to elect concellors in the "département". es groupements de communes group districts, towns and villages together. They were invented at the end of 20th century, to manage cooperation between towns (schools, rubbish burning, sanitation, ect). Les communes are an urban or rural district, town or village, directed by the maire and the local council. They are another heritage from the French Revolution. Due to European system, they will also disapear in the future.

Figure 4.--This photograph of a junior school was taken at an école libre (private school) about 1935. Note that most of the boys wear jackets with short pants and kneesocks. One of the boys has while knee socks. Almost none of the boys wear ties. This was the quatrième 1 and 2. The boys are about 13 or 14 years old. 

Private Schools

Almost all private schools in France are catholic schools. The French Catholic schools which are by definition private schools, are not entirely private in the American sense of being entirely apart from the state-controlled system. Private schools in France are referred to as an école libre (free school). This means that it does not depend on the State. It can be lay but in fact most are confessional, mainly catholic. Catholic schools are particularly prevalent in the departments of Vendée, Bretagne, and Alsace. Even though they are private schools, they are very largely paid for by the State though there may be some small fees charged to the parents. Most of the curriculum and what now is pretty much controlled by the State like all the other schools. It's just that they have a strong religious dimension (with priests often providing the pastoral/counselling side of school life, which would be unthinkable in the ordinary state schools). The catholic schools also had much stricter discipline standards. In the past, the Catholic schools also required uniforms while the state schools did not, other than smocks in elementary schools. Many Catholic schools had quite strict uniform standards in the 1950s and 60s and, at some schools, even in the 1970s. Some of these schools required the boys to wear short pants. Blue shorts and white kneesocks were adopted by several schools. The Catholic schools by the 1990s have generally relacced uniform standards, especially those regulations which once required the boys to wear short pants.

Military schools

HBC at this time has very little information about French military schools. I know they existed in the 18th century as Napoleon attended one on Corsica. As to just when they firsrt appeared I am not sure of. They were, however, some of the few French sdchools to require uniforms. I'm not sure who ran these schools. Presumably schools for younger boys would have been private sdchools. As theybare French schools, the church, especially before the Revolution presumably had a role.

Boarding school

Boarding school has never been a rite of passage in France as in England. Few French children have attended a boarding school. France schools are generally only day schools. There are a few, generally exclusve, boarding school. Some children also do board at largely day schools. Generally French children only board if they cannot do otherwise, such as rural children who do not live near a school. In fact, Saint-Francois, one of the schools assessed in detail by HBC had and still has a dormitory, to allow children from remote spots of this part of the country to attend school. Some public colleges and lycées also have boarders for the same reason.

Modern System

France's modern educational system is highly centralized. Both the state schools and the private schools are organized along the same basis up to the Baccalauréat. Nursery schools (école maternelle) has become an important part of the state system.

The école maternelle

The école maternelle is a nursery school for pre-school age children 2 to 5 years of age. We are not sure just when the école maternelle was founded. Attenance is not mandatory, although it is part of the state system. Many parents now begin sending their children to school before primary school which begins at age 6 years. Ecole maternelle usually begins with age 3 years. Some 2 year olds can be accepted if they are toilet trained. The école maternelle is usually affiliated to a borough's primary school, commonly attached to the schools. The école maternelle are now a deeply engrained part of the French school sdystem abd are even available in rural areas. An estimate 30 percent of 3 year iolds attend and almost all of 5 year olds. L’école maternelle. School is divided into three sections: Petite section (3-4 years olds), Moyenne section (4-5 years old), and Grande section (5-6 years old). The last year of maternelle (Grande section) is an important step in the educational process French children. It is essentially Kindergarten and the year in which the children are introduced to reading and basic aspects of a primary school classroom.

The école primaire

The école primaire is a primary or elementary school. The children are from 6 to 10 years of age. Attendance is mandetory.

Secondary schools

Secondary education is today in France provided by two diferent types of scools rouhly equivalent to American junior and senior highschools. Education is mandatory till the age of 16. It should be noted that the modern meaning of the words college and lycée were not so always so precise. One could use one word for the other and some older schools still retain the same names which do not always corresond to the modern meaning.
Collège: The modern meaning of collège is a secondary school for children 11 to 14 years of age. Attendance is mandatiry.
Lycée: The modern mening of lycée is a secondary school for children 15 to 17 years old. ttendance is manditory, but children can leave when they reach 17 years of age.


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Created: November 13, 19994
Last updated: 12:25 PM 6/12/2011