What do all those funny words mean? A primer on English educational jargon for Americans
By: Yana Weinstein (UK expat in the US), Harry Fletcher-Wood (UK), & Dan Williams (UK)
This guide came about because I (Yana) noticed that I was often having to translate terms from English sources to our American audience. I reached out to Harry (@HFletcherWood) who used to teach History and now researches teaching for Teach First. Harry also writes a great blog on improving teaching. We then joined forces with Dan (@FurtherEdagogy) a Further Education teacher, to help us out with the vocational qualifications offered in the UK. Dan also writes an awesome, evidence-based blog on teaching!
Here we present a set of terms commonly used in England when referring to education. It is important to note that these terms only cover England (see map and flag below!) specifically - not other parts of the United Kingdom, i.e., Scotland and Wales, who have their own set of terms.
General classroom terms:
Pupil - student under the age of 16; more teachers now shifting to using “student” instead of pupil, though. Another common term is “learner”.
Marking - grading
Revision - studying for exams. Many schools will include a “revision period” of a few weeks before the major exams (GCSEs and A-levels - see below).
Term - similar to semester, but while there are 2 semesters, there are usually 3 semesters.
Lesson - classes (e.g., 10 lessons = class meets 10 times this semester)
Class - a group of students that you teach (i.e., a section of a class)
Setting - regrouping students into classes according to their ability in a particular subject; most common for math so that, e.g., the kids that find math easier can go through the curriculum more quickly and cover more advanced material.
Steps on the ladder to the high school diploma:
Primary school - Elementary school (in America, K-5th grade)
Secondary school - Middle & High school (in America, 6th-10th grade)
Year 7 - 6th Grade; first year of secondary school. In general, to translate from UK years to US grades, take away 1.
Sixth Form - Final two years of high school (in America, 11th and 12th grade). Some sixth forms are parts of schools, some stand alone as Sixth Form Colleges.
Further Education - Similar to Community Colleges and trade schools, but usually available from age 16 onwards. Usually cover more vocational and applied courses (see track B below); also includes Adult Education.
Adult Education - Similar to Continuing Education; Typically delivered at a Further Education college or community venue to provide a range of part and full-time courses to improve adult skills.
Note: Up until 2013, children were allowed to leave school aged 16 - even without taking any GCSEs (see below) However, since 2013, education is now compulsory until age 18. This has caused quite a few issues as it has created a division in the sector, with schools and Further Education colleges competing for students. Schools have started to create more vocational options to cater for diverse needs.
NEET - 15-24 year olds not in education, employment, or training - a big problem in the UK.
How schools get ranked:
Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) - National high-stakes school inspection service
League tables - government published rankings of school results, based on results of SATs, GSCEs, A-levels, and some of the vocational qualifications - all described below.
SATs (Standardised Assessments Tests) - pronounced “sats”, not “ess-ay-tees” - tests of English, maths and science taken at the end of “primary school” (US equivalent of 5th grade). Not the same as American SATs, which students would also sit if they want to apply to American universities!
In high school, students can pick between (A) and academic route; and (B) a vocational / trade / work-based route
(A) The academic route:
GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) - pronounced “gee-cee-ess-ees” - content-based exams that students take at the end of 10th grade, based on information taught in the previous 2-3 years. Students choose around 10 subjects to specialize in; English and Math are compulsory. Exams are standardized, but include a variety of answer formats such as short-answer and essay. Students can sit easier versions of the exams that only allow for a maximum grade of a C.
A-levels (General Certificate of Education Advanced Level) - content-based exams taken at the end of 12th grade, usually in only 3-4 subjects that the students study for the previous 2 years. Choice of A-levels narrows what major can be taken in college. Exams are standardized, but include a variety of answer formats such as short-answer and essay.
(B) The vocational route, with lots of different options:
ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network), ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) - Certificates in skills, some of which currently count in league tables
Apprenticeships - work-based qualifications in conjunction with Further Education establishments or private training providers. This includes a program of vocational qualification, English and math, personal learning, and thinking skills.
BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council) diplomas - vocational qualifications - formerly used as ‘alternatives’ to GCSEs and A levels
NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) - a qualification in a vocational subject set at various levels corresponding in standard to GCSE and A levels
ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) - programs for non-native English speakers
Types of K-12 schools:
Public school - private school, i.e., fee-paying.
Independent school - another common term for a private, fee-paying school.
State school - public school, i.e. free, government-run school
Grammar school - free, government-run school that selects pupils by ability at age 11.
Academy - Charter school; includes schools that are called “free schools”, “new schools”, “studio schools”, and “university technical colleges” - see here for more details.
MATs (Multi-Academy Trusts) - chains of academies, equivalent to CMOs (Chartered Management Organisations) in the US.
Note: currently there is currently a plan for all state (US: public) schools to become “academies”, i.e., charter schools.
Uni(versity), but never “school”! - college
Degree - Major; “gen eds” are not a thing; almost all classes are taken within the major. Note that degrees in the UK take only 3 years to complete.
Fresher - freshman; there are no terms for students of other years.
Foundation Degree (Fdeg) and Higher National Diploma (HND) - Similar to an Associates Degree. Usually vocationally based subject - equivalent to first two years of a degree, but studied within a Further Education College (see above - similar to a Community College in the US). Students typically ‘top up’ at a University to complete the third year.
Thesis - Master’s thesis or PhD dissertation - the word “dissertation” is not used.
Viva - Oral defense of dissertation at PhD level.
Lecturer, Principal/Senior Lecturer, Reader (less common), Full Professor - full-time academic positions from most junior to most senior. A few universities (e.g., Warwick University) have now changed their job titles to align with the US system.
Note: There is no tenure process in the UK. Positions are either “temporary” (fixed contract), or “permanent”, with about 50% of academic jobs falling into each category.
We hope you find this useful! For a much more complete glossary, see here.