Classification as Grandes Écoles

The phrase 'Grande École' originated in 1794 after the French Revolution 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 was 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 century and are older than the phrase '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 in 1826 by the Ecole des Eaux et Forêts at Nancy, 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 (1878), Hautes Études Commerciales (1881), Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales (1907) École supérieure d'électricité (1894) and Supaero (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 in 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, US, UK, Russia 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.