Different Englishes: The Education System

uk v us

While there are not as many differences between UK and US words relating to education as there are in other areas of the language, there are a few significant ones. Fortunately, this entry on Different Englishes: The Education System is here to help if ever you want to study in either of the two English speaking countries – or just want to understand the difference in references between Harry Potter and Mean Girls!

Key: UK vs. US word

Primary School vs. Elementary School

  • While both refer to the first school a child attends (starting around age 5), it would be very unusual to say primary school in the US or vice versa!

Note: In the US, Preschool (age 4-5) and Kindergarten (age 5-6) refer to the transitional years when a first child first starts attending school. In contrast, in the UK, these years are included under the general term primary school.

Secondary School vs. High School

  • Another big difference. While both refer to the school attended before college/university (more on that later), in the UK secondary school is the school you go to from age 15-18. In contrast, students in the US typically go to middle school from ages 11-14 first.

Sats (test) vs. SAT (test)

  • These may look the same – and in fact they both refer to the standardised test taken by students across the country prior to entering college/university – but in the US they say the individual letters S.A.T and in England people say ‘sats’ as a word. A little difference that makes a big difference!

Uni/University vs. College

  • Both refer to a school for higher education which students attend after finishing high / secondary school but the term “college” is the chosen term in North America.

Term vs. Semester

  • A portion of the academic year. In the UK a term is divided three ways (e.g., September – Christmas, January – Easter, May – Summer holidays/vacation) while in the US a semester is just two.

Finally, here a few school subjects that are referred to differently. Although a lot of these are simple distinctions, you might not be understood if you say the wrong one in the wrong country!

UK                                            US

Maths                                      Math

P.E. (Physical Education)      Gym

Politics (Political Science)     Poli Sci (Political Science)

As always, be sure to check out Different Englishes mainpage for more examples!


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