The supreme authority over national education in France is the Ministry of Education. Education is compulsory for children from the age of 6 to 16 and is free in all state primary and secondary schools. Higher education is not free, but academic fees are low, and more than half of the students are excused from payment. Virtually the entire adult population is literate. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 5.9% of GDP.
Since the end of 1959, private institutions have been authorized to receive state aid and to ask to be integrated into the public education system. In 1999, 15% of elementary-school children and 21% of secondary-level students attended private schools, the majority of which are Roman Catholic. In Brittany, most children attend Catholic schools. Freedom of education is guaranteed by law, but the state exercises certain controls over private educational institutions, nearly all of which follow the uniform curriculum prescribed by the Ministry of Education.
In 1997, there were 4,004,704 pupils in primary schools, with 211,192 teachers. Student-to-teacher ratio stood at 19 to one. In the same year secondary schools enrolled 5,979,690 students and employed 483,493 teachers. As of 1999, 100% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, while 93% of those eligible attended secondary school. There are two levels of secondary instruction. The first, the collège, is compulsory; after four years of schooling are successfully completed, the student receives a national diploma (brevet des collèges). Those who wish to pursue further studies enter either the two-year lycée d'enseignement professionel or the three-year lycée d'enseignement général et technologique. The former prepares students for a certificate of vocational competence, the latter for the baccalauréat, which is a prerequisite for higher education. Choice of a lycée depends on aptitude test results.
All institutions of higher learning had a combined enrollment of 2,062,495 in 1997; teaching staff numbered 141,410. There are 70 public universities within 26 académies, which now act as administrative units. Before the subdivision of these 26 units, the oldest and most important included Aix-Marseille (founded in 1409), Besançon (1691), Bordeaux (1441), Caen (1432), Dijon(1722), Grenoble (1339), Lille (1562), Montpellier (1180, reinstituted 1289), Nancy-Metz (1572), Paris (1150), Poitiers (1432), Rennes (1735, founded at Nantes 1461), Strasbourg(1538), and Toulouse (1229). The old University of Paris, also referred to as the Sorbonne, was the oldest in France and one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the world; it is now divided into 13 units, only a few of which are at the ancient Left Bank site. There are Catholic universities at Argers, Lille, Lyon, and Toulouse.
Besides the universities and specialized schools (such as École Normale Supérieure, which prepares teachers for secondary and postsecondary positions), higher educational institutions include the prestigious Grandes Écoles, which include the École Nationale d'Administration, École Normale Supérieure, Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, and École Polytechnique. Entrance is by competitive examination. Advanced-level research organizations include the Collège de France, École Pratique des Hautes Études, and École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.