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Comparing the Canadian, American, and British school systems

What’s the difference between the Canadian, US, and British education systems?

Here we cover the education systems of Canada, the US, and the United Kingdom (including England, Wales, and Ireland). We discuss the ages kids study in each grade, the exams they take, entrance to post-secondary institutions, and other educational features of these countries.


The education system in Canada

All education in Canada is overseen by the federal government. The onus, though, is on provincial governments to institute funding and academic regulations, which vary widely among provinces and territories. Whether a school is public or private, it must meet stringent requirements based on federal or provincial regulations.

Canadian schools are normally in session for about 190 days a year, leaving about two months off during the summer and offering two holiday sessions, in late December (for Christmas) and April (for Easter). The school year begins in early September and ends in late June.

Levels in Canadian education

Preschool or nursery school for children aged five and under includes some preschool or daycare programs, junior kindergarten (in Ontario only), and kindergarten.

Elementary school runs from Grades 1 through 6 (ages 6 to 12).

Middle or junior high school, sometimes also called "senior public school," is available in most provinces. In a few select areas, schools may run from K to 8. In most provinces, middle school runs from Grade 6 to 9 (age 12 to 15), although in Ontario, it ends at Grade 8 (age 14).

High school ends in Grade 12 (age 18) in Canada.

To learn more about grade levels across the country, read our guide to Canadian grade levels and Canadian provincial grade levels.

Upon graduation from high school, children may enter the workforce or enter university, college, or a career school. In Quebec, students are required to go to a two-year CEGEP program before attending university. 

The education system in Great Britain

In Great Britain (also known as the UK), England, Wales and Northern Ireland follow the National Curriculum, with some variations. Scotland, meanwhile, has its own curriculum.

In the UK, children normally start formal education at the age of four, earlier than in the US. Students take exams at key stages in their education. Then the two-year program starting at the age of 14 ends with the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education—O-Levels or ordinary levels until 1988). The next two-year program starts at the age of 16 and is called with the English “Baccalaureate”—secondary school diploma exams, i.e., A-Level exams (Advanced Level). Overall, this system leads students toward increasing specialization.

GCSE

The GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) is the main graduating certificate in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (Scotland has an independent national qualifications system). It’s generally highly valued by both post-secondary institutions and employers.

In recent years, the UK government has introduced a GCSE reform program, including a grading system that uses numbers (1-9) instead of letters (A-G).

GCSEs are available in approximately 50 subjects and are usually preceded by full-time five-semester courses. GCSE exams are taken in May/June when students are in Grade 11 (Year 11), and their results are published in August.

IGCSE

The International GCSE (IGCSE) is an internationally recognized exam at the same level as the GCSE. It aims to adopt a broader approach to learning.

According to the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) board, which is the main governing body of IGCSE for independent schools in the UK, the exam "encourages an inquiry-based approach to learning and develops the skills of creative thinking, analysis, and problem-solving, giving students excellent preparation for the next stage of their education ”.

Schools may offer any combination of subjects for which each student receives a separate certificate. There are over 70 subjects, including over 30 language courses, offering a variety of options for students with a wide range of abilities, including those whose first language is not English.

A-Levels

The A-Level diploma was introduced in Great Britain in 1951, and its aim is to educate the best candidates for leading universities.

The A-Levels are taken between the ages of 16 and 18 and are much more difficult than the GCSEs. They can’t be taken without having passed the GCSEs in similar subjects. If you want to go to university in Britain, you’ll need to take both exams.

The education system in the United States

In the US system, less emphasis is placed on exams and students study general subjects until the end of high school, which is Grade 12 (the UK equivalent of Year 13).

In the United States, most children attend preschool part-time, but state-provided education doesn’t start until Kindergarten (Year 1 in the UK).

In the early years, children are gradually introduced to learning, with a strong focus on socialization as well as basic language and math. Kids then apply and develop this basic knowledge more rigorously beginning in Grade 3 or 4.

The US system is typically divided into three levels:

The curriculum in the United States is usually quite challenging, and students are expected to study many subjects—such as English, math, science, foreign languages, history, art, music, and physical education—all the way to Grade 12.

Students are assessed at the end of each grade when they move on to the next. Exams aren’t standardized at the national level, though, and have traditionally had relatively little influence on their progression to the next grade. They can, however, help to determine at what level a student can choose a course from in the next grade—i.e., more or less advanced. However, there are no exams in the US comparable to the GCSE or A-Levels.

In the US, math and science are taught sequentially rather than simultaneously. For instance, a student in Grade 9 can study physics one year, followed by a year of chemistry in Grade 10. Likewise, students progress from algebra to geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and so on.

At the end of high school, US students apply for college education based on a number of elements: their grades in all four years of high school averaged as GPA (Grade Point Average), results from various exams, teachers’ references, and personal achievements and extracurricular/volunteer activities.

SAT and ACT

Colleges in the United States, however, often expect more information about prospective students than what the GPA and high school diploma offer. Therefore, many students choose to take the SAT (also known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (the American College Test), both of which are nationally recognized tests taken at the end of high school.

"Almost all highly-rated US universities require applicants to submit results from one of the US admission tests—SAT or ACT," says Jon Tabbert, head of recruiting at consulting firm Dukes Education and Jon Tabbert Associates. "A good test score is critical to a successful application."

ACT is another standardized test for high school students wishing to study at universities or colleges in the US. Like the SAT, it assesses the general academic aptitude of high school students and the ability to study at the college level. The tests are multiple-choice and cover four areas: English, math, reading, and science. They also include an optional written test that measures the student's short essay skills.

International students can take the ACT and SAT from outside the US to gain access to American universities and colleges.

Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement (AP) is another teaching and assessment program designed to help US higher education institutions assess students for admission. It’s developed and administered by the College Board, the organization responsible for SAT testing.

AP is specifically designed to be closely related to the first year of a child’s study in the US, so students typically take the program to demonstrate an interest in a field or subject they hope to pursue at the college level.

According to the Fulbright Commission, AP is more rigorous and in-depth than standard high school courses offered in US schools and compares favourably with A-Levels and International Baccalaureate (IB), both of which are considered the highest standard of qualification for university admission.

While AP is not necessary to enter an American university, students can demonstrate a commitment to the field they hope to study by taking AP courses. And especially for the most competitive universities, successfully completing these courses may improve students’ chances for admission.

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