More than just symbolism? France makes pre-primary school compulsory from age 3

france blog 1President Macron of France announced yesterday that, as of 2019, school will be compulsory in the country for all children from age 3, making France the country with the lowest compulsory age of education in the European Union.  Apart from a few European countries, which begin compulsory education at four years of age, eight countries in the EU start it at five years, and almost half of EU members start it at six.

Explaining his move, Macron tweeted a list of the benefits that he believes come from more time in school, including playing, drawing, learning to write, and improving chances of work.

Already today, 97% of children aged 3 years old (and almost 100% of children aged 4 and 5) go to pre-primary school in France. This new policy, therefore, would only affect access for about 25,000 children in total.  This change, therefore, in Macron’s own words, is to ‘even out social inequalities’.

france blogThese concern children in overseas French territories, where the enrolment ratio is about 70%, and in some of the more marginalised communities in the French mainland. The President backed up the importance of early childhood education for closing these gaps by citing a statistic from the United States that four-year-old children from marginalized communities have heard on average 30 million fewer words compared with children from a privileged background.

But, how much of this is just symbolism? Certainly, France spends 0.8 per cent of its GDP on pre-primary education — above average across the OECD. But this amounts to 7,800 dollars per student, less than the average among EU countries. In Denmark, 14,000 dollars are spent per student for example – almost the double.

In addition, no doubt partly down to France having some of the highest birth rates in Europe, there were 22 children for each teacher in 2014, meaning France has a long way to go before catching up with some of the Nordic countries. There are only 6 students per teachers in Sweden, 10 for each teacher in Demark and Finland, for example, and only 13 per teacher on average across the whole of the EU.

Looking at progress over time, as well, it appears that other countries in the EU are not as far behind as initially meets the eye, and are catching up since subject to a new EU goal set in 2002 in Barcelona for 90% of 3-6 year olds to be in education. It is currently being considered to extend the EU benchmark on pre-primary school participation to this age group for 2030.

Symbolic or not, it is yet another sign of the importance that Macron places on education at home and abroad. “The mother of all battles is in primary schools”, he famously said in November 2016 during his televised debate with Marine Le Pen during the presidential election campaign. Just last month, France co-hosted the GPE Financing conference with Senegal, putting themselves on the world stage for education, along with increasing its financial contribution ten-fold to €200 million for the 2018-2020 period.

This announcement will help raise awareness if nothing else of the important role that pre-primary education plays in helping children be “ready for primary education”, as stated in SDG target 4.2.



  1. I think a slight confusion is being made between education (in French instruction) and schooling (scolarisation). What is being recommended is education (instruction), therefore the education can be also led in an informal, home setting for instance, and doesn’t necessarily imply going to a pre-primary school. France has the constitutional freedom of education which allows parents to choose the type of school for their children, including homeschooling ( loi Jules Ferry, article L131-2 du Code de l’éducation).

  2. Hi,

    It is good to have a blog on the decision by Mr. Macron to make education compulsory from 3 years old from the school year 2019/20 in France. However, I find a great part of it unecessary negative downplaying such a decision. Indeed, by announcing to make education compulsory from age 3 France will at the same time make pre-primary education compulsory, that’s well beyond what the Education 2030 Framework for Action is asking countries to do (at least one year). In the context where pre-primary education is not compulsory in the majority of European countries even though there is a legal entitlment to it, having a developed country like France that is taking such a decision should be greeted more.

    Yes, the decision is definively symbolic since most children of 3 years are enrolled already at this level on average. But, still it is an indication of the attention paid by Mr. Macron to education as said in the blog, but also to SDG Education 2030 agenda, a point that should have been stress as well.

    May be France is not making that much for pre-primary education compared with some EU countries. But, let’s wait and see. The new decision will bring with it more money and Investment in pre-primary education. Who know?


  3. Where are the studies to support better outcomes with compulsory education from an earlier age? Where is the evidence to show that this is founded on good, solid research? I am a teacher and a majority of research studies that I have read show better outcomes with a later start. Notwithstanding that, I agree with a legal right to education from age 3, but I do not agree that it should be compulsory. France already has class sizes much larger than the average for this age group and has a very low investment per child. When will the changes take effect? How will they recruit and train 1000 additional teachers in time? It sounds to me like they may just implement “on the job” training…i.e. put untrained people in classrooms. Who will support them, when the existing teachers are already stretched teaching big classes? There is some wording in these articles that suggests that it won’t be just play and that there could be plans for some sort of structured early reading/writing education. The neurobiology suggests that for the average child of this age, this may not be a good idea. For me, it is clear that this is not a decision taking on the grounds that this will result on better educational outcomes. My daughter already attends a French “maternelle” class in France. There are 25 kids in her class – mostly aged 4. There is one teacher and one assistant, who spends most of her time sticking notifications in the kids’ “cahiers”. There is a total lack of technology and investment to support these staff, We bring our daughter home for lunch as there are 60 kids who use the canteen, with just 2 assistants to supervise. In my opinion, the system isn’t working very well as it stands and it needs investment, rather than changes like this that do not seem to be based on any real evidence of better outcomes. There is a big difference between a legal right to education for every child from a certain age and making education compulsory from a certain age. Yes….a small number of kids in the French overseas territories will possibly benefit, but what will be the effects for parents like us who want to travel for a month or two with our kids while they are young?

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