Grandes écoles

The grandes écoles (French: [ɡʁɑ̃dz‿ekɔl]; lit."great schools") of France are higher education establishments that are separate and parallel, but often connected to, the main framework of the French public university system. Grandes écoles are highly selective, elite, and prestigious institutions; their graduates have dominated upper levels of the private and public sectors of French society for decades.[1][2]

Grandes écoles chiefly admit students based on their national ranking in competitive written and oral exams. While open for anyone to register (for a small fee), candidates for the national exams have almost always completed two or three years of dedicated preparatory classes for admission. Some admit, in far smaller numbers and with strict criteria, select graduates of associate or bachelor's degree programs, of 2-year technical curriculums, and even of candidates already working, and international students through exchange programs.

Grandes écoles differ from public universities in France, which 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 just as grandes écoles do.) Grandes écoles usually do not have large student bodies; most give admission to a few hundred and for some a few dozen, students each year. Arts et Métiers ParisTech has the largest student population, with 6,000 students.

Studying in a small number of grandes écoles after passing the competitive exams is officially considered part of public service. Most grandes écoles are public and as such, have very low to no fees and students who apply and qualify receive additional public help such as for housing. Health is public under Social Security for a low yearly fee with access to full care. Private schools also exist, have strict legal obligations, and typically have tuition fees, with comparable curriculum (under legal control by the Commission des Titres d'Ingénieur). The business schools typically charge higher fees.

Classification as Grandes écoles


The phrase grande école originated in 1794 after the French Revolution,[3] 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 as 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 centuries and are older than the term grande école, dated 1794. Their forerunners were schools aimed at graduating civil servants, such as 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), and shipbuilding engineers (École des ingénieurs-constructeurs des vaisseaux royaux established in 1741).

Five military engineering academies and graduate schools of artillery were established in the 17th century in France, such as the école de l'artillerie de Douai (established in 1697) and the later école du génie de Mézières (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 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).

In 1802, Napoleon created the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, which is also considered a grande école, although it trains only 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 by the Ecole des Eaux et Forêts at Nancy in 1826, 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 in 1878, Hautes Études Commerciales in 1881,[4] École supérieure d'électricité in 1894, Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales in 1907, and Supaero in 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 Italy (Napoleon, as 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 was ETH Zürich -- "the Polytechnicum"—in addition to the Polytechnique in Montréal. Some institutions in China, Russian, the UK, and the US also have names of some French grandes écoles, adapted to their languages). The success of the German and Anglo-Saxon university models from the late 19th century reduced the influence of the French system in some of the English-speaking world.


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 grandes écoles

Admission to grandes écoles is very different from that to French universities. Except for certain special academic programs, French universities were 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 was in contrast with the selective admissions system for French grandes écoles, as explained below.

To be admitted into most French grandes écoles, most students study in a two-year preparatory program in one of the CPGEs (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 for grandes écoles (CPGE)

Classes préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles (CPGE), or prépas ("preparatory classes for 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. Preparatory classes with the 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) and chemistry, physics and technology (TPC) .
  • 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

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, in engineering, there are the six schools of the INSA network, the three Universités de Technologie, the three schools of the ISEN group, and the thirteen 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 engineering grandes écoles, according to the French magazine l'Usine nouvelle, are in 2014 UTC, INSA Lyon, ESTACA, UTT, and EPITA.[5]

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.

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

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 first go to a university and then enroll in a grande école.

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


Grandes écoles can be classified into following broad categories:

Écoles normales supérieures

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.[6] There are four ENS:

  • the École Normale Supérieure of Paris, nicknamed "Ulm" from its address rue d'Ulm (Ulm Street) (sciences and humanities);
  • the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon in Lyon (sciences and humanities);[7]
  • the École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay in Cachan, Paris (sciences, engineering, social sciences, economics and management, foreign languages).
  • the École Normale Supérieure de Rennes near Rennes (sciences, engineering, social sciences, economics and management, sport).

Until recently, unlike most other grandes écoles, 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 are 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)

Many engineering schools recruit most of their students who have 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.

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 four 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

4. Instituts polytechniques

  • the Institut polytechnique de Grenoble: includes the Grenoble Institute of Technology, and the Grenoble INP (formerly INPG) which has six departments (ENSIMAG, Ense3, Phelma, ESISAR, Génie Industriel, Pagora);
  • the Institut National Polytechnique de Lorraine: includes the EEIGM, the European School of Materials Sciences and Engineering, the École Nationale Supérieure d'Agronomie et des Industries Alimentaires (ENSAIA, the National School of Agronomy and Food Sciences), the École Nationale Supérieure d'Électricité et de Mécanique (ENSEM, the National School of Electricity and Mechanics), the École Nationale Supérieure de Géologie (ENSG, the National School of Geology), the École Nationale Supérieure en Génie des Systèmes Industriels (ENSGSI, the National School of Industrial Systems Engineering), the École Nationale Supérieure des Industries Chimiques (ENSIC, the National School of Chemical Industries), the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Nancy (ENSMN, the National School of Mines of Nancy) and the École Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nancy (ENSA Nancy, the School of Architecture));

5. Écoles Nationales Supérieures d'Ingénieurs (ENSI), which encompasses approximately 40 grandes écoles:

6. Institut National des Sciences Appliquées (INSA) network is the largest engineer training group in France and has grandes écoles of applied technology within regional universities: in Lyon, Rennes, Toulouse, Rouen, Strasbourg, and Val-de-Loire.

7. Ecole Nationale d'Ingénieurs (ENI) network is an engineer training group:

8. Réseau Polytech schools of engineering, is a French network of 13 graduate schools of engineering within France's leading technological universities. All schools in the Group offer Master of Engineering degrees in various specialities:

  • Polytech Clermont-Ferrand
  • Polytech Grenoble
  • Polytech Lille
  • Polytech Lyon
  • Polytech Marseille
  • Polytech Montpellier
  • Polytech Nancy
  • Polytech Nantes
  • Polytech Nice Sophia
  • Polytech Orleans
  • Polytech Paris-UPMC, in the University of Pierre-Marie Curie
  • Polytech Paris-Sud, component of University of Paris-Sud and now also of the big scientific cluster University of Paris-Saclay.
  • Polytech Savoie
  • Polytech Tours

9. Universités de technologie (UT) group: Compiègne (UTC), Troyes (UTT); Belfort-Montbéliard (UTBM).

10. Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers

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

11. Grandes écoles of Actuarial Sciences, Statistics and Econometrics

12. Grandes écoles of Chemistry

13. Grandes écoles of Physics

14. Grandes écoles of Information Technology and Telecommunications

15. Grandes écoles of Applied Physics and Technology or Civil and Industrial Engineering

16. Grandes écoles of Biology and other Natural Sciences

17. Other private engineering schools

Business schools (grandes écoles de commerce)

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 the Conférence des grandes écoles.

Business schools recruiting students just after taking the baccalauréat, most of them are private:

Business schools recruiting students from post-baccalaureat preparatory classes, with higher demanding selection:[8]

Business schools recruiting students with professional experience:

  • INSEAD (Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires)

Grandes écoles without preparatory classes

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 Conférence des grandes écoles

In 2014, Paris-Dauphine University joined the Conférence des grandes écoles and now has the status of university, grand établissement, and grande école.[9][10]

Administrative schools

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:

- Institut d'études politiques de Bordeaux

- Sciences Po Lille

- Institut d'études politiques de Rennes

- Institut d'études politiques de Strasbourg

- Sciences Po Aix

- Sciences Po Lyon

- Sciences Po Grenoble

- Sciences Po Saint-Germain-en-Laye

- Sciences Po

- Institut d'études politiques de Toulouse

Military officer academies

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

Facts and influence in French culture

Altogether, grandes écoles awarded approximately 60,000 master's degrees in 2013,[11] compared with 150,000 master's degrees awarded by all French higher institutions in the same year, including universities.

Grandes écoles graduates in 2013 represent 10% of the French population graduating from high school 5 years before (600,000 in 2008[12]).

Some grandes écoles (CentraleSupélec, MINES ParisTech, ENA, ENS, Ecole Polytechnique, SUPAERO, École nationale des ponts et chaussées, EDHEC, ESSEC, HEC Paris, EMLYON Business School, GEM, ESCP Europe, Paris Dauphine University) are renowned in France for their selectivity and the complexity of their curriculum. In the press, they are usually called [13][14] the "A+" schools, referring to the grade given by some rankings. These elite schools represent less than 1% of the higher education students in France.

INSEAD is a grande école that recruits international students with working experience and awards an MBA considered among the best MBAs in the world.[15][16] It was ranked number 1 worldwide in 2016 and 2017 by the Financial Times.[17]

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.

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

See also


  1. "France's educational elite". 17 November 2003. Retrieved 5 February 2019 via
  2. Pierre Bourdieu (1998). The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. Stanford UP. pp. 133–35.
  3. Michel Nusimovici, Les écoles de l'an III, 2010.
  4. "HEC - History". Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  5. "Comparatif 2014 des écoles d'ingénieurs en France". Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  6. 11-12 Nobel laureates and 10 Fields medalists were educated at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (in French)
  7. The École Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines in Lyon (humanities), was merged in 2010 with the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (Sciences) to create the current ENS Lyon.
  8. L'étudiant, Journal. "L'université Paris Dauphine rejoint le cercle des grandes écoles". L'étudiant (in French). Retrieved 6 November 2016.
  9. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-03-16. Retrieved 2014-11-12.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  11. "L'Express palmarès 2018 des écoles d'ingénieurs" (in French). Retrieved 2019-03-13.
  12. "L'Étudiant palmarès 2018 des écoles d'ingénieurs" (in French). Retrieved 2019-03-13.
  13. Graphics, FT Interactive. "From MBA to CEO of FT500 company". From MBA to CEO interactive. Retrieved 2018-08-21.
  14. "Insead". Forbes. Retrieved 2018-08-21.
  15. "Business school rankings from the Financial Times -". Retrieved 2018-08-21.
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