Types Of Schools, School Years

In the comments for my last entry, Paul Danon wondered about the names of school years in AmE and how they compare to those in BrE. The Brackley Baptist Church in Northamptonshire has on its website (for some reason!) the following table summari{s/z}ing these differences .

British stage British
year Old British system Year in age American year Preschool Children enter Pre-school sometime after they are 2 years and 6 months old. They do not wait until September to start.
Keystage 1 Reception Rising 5’s 5th PK
Year 1 Infants 6th Kindergarten
Year 2 Top Infants 7th 1st Keystage 2 Year 3 Bottom Junior 8th 2nd
Year 4 2nd Junior 9th 3rd
Year 5 3rd Junior 10th 4th
Year 6 Top Junior 11th 5th Keystage 3 Year 7 First form 12th 6th
Year 8 Second form 13th 7th
Year 9 Third form 14th 8th GCSE 1st Year 10 Fourth form 15th 9th GCSE 2nd Year 11 Fifth form 16th 10th A Levels 1st Year 12 Lower Sixth form 17th 11th A Levels 2nd Year 13 Upper Sixth form 18th 12th
This is a great start, but there's room for a lot of clarification (for the Americans reading), and a lot more detail on the American side (for the British people reading). Let's start with some caveats before we get into either too deeply. First, there's a lot of local variation that can't all be covered here. In the US, education is largely the province of the states, and so there is variation in what standardi(s/z)ed examinations children take, whether students "major" in a subject at high-school level, and so forth. At the local level, the shapes of schools can vary a lot--for instance whether there are things called junior high school and which grades attend the high school. So, I'll talk about what I know as 'typical', but there will be variation. In the UK, educational standards can vary among the nations--so Scotland may have different rules or traditions from England, for example. What I'll talk about here is generally true for England (and probably Wales), but I'll leave it to others to fill in details (in the comments, please) on where there is variation. Second, educational systems seem to be in a near-constant state of flux. What you knew as a child may be quite different from what is done now. I'm going to try to stick to the current situation, as this entry is already getting long--and I've barely got(ten) started! Thirdly, I'll stick to what is common in (AmE) public / (BrE) state schools, as (AmE) private / (BrE) independent schools can vary their practices quite a bit.

Before we get back to that table, a note on types of schools. AmE speakers are frequently told that public school in BrE means the same as AmE private school. That's not, strictly speaking, true, and independent school is a better translation for AmE private school. The OED explains:

public school [...] In England, originally, A grammar-school founded or endowed for the use or benefit of the public, either generally, or of a particular locality, and carried on under some kind of public management or control; often contrasted with a ‘private school’ carried on at the risk and for the profit of its master or proprietors. In modern English use (chiefly from the 19th century), applied especially to such of the old endowed grammar-schools as have developed into large, fee-paying boarding-schools drawing pupils from all parts of the country and from abroad, and to other private schools established upon similar principles. Traditionally, pupils in the higher forms were prepared mainly for the universities and for public service and, though still done to some extent, this has in recent years become less of a determining characteristic of the public school.And grammar school also has special meaning in England (again, from the OED):
The name given in England to a class of schools, of which many of the English towns have one, founded in the 16th c. or earlier for the teaching of Latin. They subsequently became secondary schools of various degrees of importance, a few of them ranking little below the level of the ‘public schools’.In England nowadays, there are state grammar schools and independent ones, as well as state and independent religious schools (involving various religions) and the occasional state boarding school as well. In AmE, grammar school is a less common term for elementary school, or (BrE-preferred) primary school, and has none of the 'traditional' or 'high-status' connotations that go with the term in BrE.

And a final bit of terminology before we get back to the table. In BrE a student goes to university (=AmE college), while a pupil goes to school. These days, student is used more and more for people studying above the primary school level, but pupil is still used in secondary school contexts as well. Pupil is understood in AmE, but generally not used--all learners in institutions of education are students in AmE.

So, let's get back to that table and the British (or at least English) system. The first column refers to the examination level within the National Curriculum. Everyone goes through Key Stages 1-3. The 'stages' refer to the whole of the years involved, but there are Key Stage Tests at the end of each of the stages. At the next level, GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) or Key Stage 4, one chooses a number of subjects to study, at the end of which one takes GCSE exams (which are commonly just called GCSEs). The Scottish equivalent of GCSE is the Standard Grade. Prior to 1986, people took O-levels. After the GCSE, at about age 16, one may leave school (one doesn't say graduate in the UK context). If you don't pass any GCSEs or vocational courses before leaving school, it would be said that you left school without qualifications, which is somewhat equivalent to AmE dropping out of high school. Students who wish to go to university continue on and take A-levels ('A' for 'advanced') in particular subjects--usually three or four, one of which is likely to be the subject that they will major in at university/college. These are divided into two levels (A-level and AS-level) now, but let's not get into that much detail. See here for more info.

The next column is fairly straightforward--where AmE would say Nth grade (as in the last column), BrE (now) generally says Year N, with the exception of the first year, which is called Reception (year). (Note though, that N≠N in this translation, as the table shows.) Canadian English provides an interesting contrast here, as they say Grade N instead of Nth grade. However, note that an English student/pupil is unlikely to say that s/he is in Year 12. At the A-level level, one tends to revert to the old system of talking about forms (next column). So, a student studying for A-levels could be said to be in the sixth form. Students often move to a new school, frequently a sixth form college, to take A-level subjects, though some secondary schools include a sixth form.

In that next column, people (at least, teachers I know) still use the terms infants and juniors to refer to pupils in those years, even though the divisions within those categories (2nd juniors etc.) are not now used in most schools. Many schools still have names that reflect those divisions, however.

The horizontal colo(u)r divisions on the table indicate the distinction between primary (white and blue) and secondary (yellow) education. In AmE, the terms primary and secondary are used as well. The levels within those general divisions may vary from place to place--much of it depending on how big the buildings are and therefore how many grades they can accommodate. Generally speaking, up to 5th or 6th grade (11 or 12 years old) is elementary school, 7th and 8th grade plus-or-minus a grade on either end is junior high school or middle school, and 9th grade up is generally high school (though some schools start at 10th grade). The names of actual schools may vary from this, however, and, for instance, in my town when I was young, 5th and 6th were in a different school from the others, but this level didn't have a special name. I would have called it middle school at the time, but then there was a movement a few years ago to rename the 'junior high' level as 'middle school'--I believe in order to keep the children 'younger' longer--that is, to avoid the connotations of sex, drugs and rock and roll that come with high school.

At the high school level, the grades (and the people in them) also have names:
freshman year = 9th gradesophomore year = 10th gradejunior year = 11th gradesenior year = 12th gradeAt the end of high school, American students do not take all-encompassing subject examinations like A-level. (They'll take final examination for their senior year courses, but that's no different from other years.) Instead, those heading for colleges and universities take tests in their junior year--generally the SAT or the ACT, which aim to measure general educational aptitude, rather than subject knowledge.

On to the the tertiary level! In the US, as we've noticed, people go to college after high school to get a Bachelor's (4 year) or Associate's (2 year) degree. The names of the four undergraduate years are the same as those of the high-school years (freshman, etc.). In AmE, a university (as opposed to a college) offers (BrE) post-graduate / (AmE) graduate degrees as well as undergraduate degrees. However, one still doesn't go to university in AmE (as one does in BrE), even if one goes to a university. After one goes to college in AmE, one might go to grad(uate) school. All of these things can be referred to as school in AmE. [added in 2019] In contexts where it's assumed people went to college/university, Americans ask Where did you go to school? and expect the answer to be a college/university.

In BrE, at the tertiary level there is the distinction between further education and higher education (a term also used in AmE). Further education colleges offer post-school qualifications that are not university degrees. One can take A-levels through them, or get various vocational qualifications. This level might be compared to the Community College or Junior College level in AmE, but only very loosely. While fresher is used for the first year (especially in informal circumstances), in general undergraduates are referred to by their year: first years, second years... Students in their final undergraduate year are also called finalists.

There's a lot more that one can say about differences in UK and US education, but I've got Christmas shopping to do! Happy longest night of the year...