British Studies Web Pages



Investigating Educational Terms

Like everything in the UK - nothing is ever quite what it seems - take care

This should be read in conjunction with Education in Britain

Basic principles

Educational terminology is dominated by terms which are defined in each country as a consequence of the law and are thus nationally-specific e.g. a liceum no longer has the definition in Poland it had five years ago (does it have the same meaning?). Many terms do not exist outside such a framework. As such it is one of a large group that includes health, employment, the legal and political system itself, the civil service (or equivalent) and local government, transport regulation and so on. Meanings are always historically and nationally specific. Dictionaries have an impossible task here and do the best they can within a limited space.

This is a large area of vocabulary - terms used in the UK may well not exist for example the US, or Ireland or Jamaica and so on. In addition the same term maybe used in all these countries but with quite distinct definitions (or even meanings) in each case.

Another group of terms are those which develop through custom e.g. klasówka, this makes little sense in the UK and therefore its equivalent does not exist. Equally there are terms in English which, because of their existence by custom in Britain, have no meaning when used for other educational systems (and would be redundant in EIL). Such terms can be understood intellectually but without the ‘feel’, the emotional response of their home country.

Cultural transference, imagining that what happens in one country must be the same elsewhere - projecting your own cultural practices onto another country, is an error to be avoided. It is an error learners are often happy to make however because avoiding it means extra reflection and work! If difference is expected then the learner will be encouraged to question and look further automatically, and then perhaps be surprised by similarity. An expectation of similarity blinds the learner who simply feels that no book/ website is good enough to give the demanded ‘answers’, hunting vocabulary which does not exist.

Background information

Some important general points which need to be kept in mind by teachers and learners for interpreting UK educational terms when you come across them:

·         A large number of terms in Polish will have no equivalent in English

·         There is no relation between education in the UK and the USA - they are as far from each other as from Poland e.g. in England (but not Scotland) never use ‘public’ for a state school

·         93 % of UK children go to state schools - only about 7 % to public or private schools


The UK does not have a single centralised system of state education like Poland:

·         Scotland has (and has always had) a completely independent education system

·         Northern Ireland has a system which has developed since partition and is complicated by religion

·         England and Wales have a common system (though in Wales, Welsh is compulsory to the age of 16)

·         Every county and most cities have their own Local Education Authority (LEA) with considerable powers

·         Sixth Form Colleges and Further Education (FE) Colleges are approximately equivalent to a Liceum and a Technikum

Sixth form is post-compulsory schooling, either resitting GCSEs or doing A Levels (it is almost impossible to get to university without these and not certain with them). FE Colleges specialise in vocational-type education leading to GNVQs (General National Vocational Qualification) though it is possible to get to university through them. 16-18/ 19 is the age group. Education beyond this is Higher Education.

·         Finally individual schools increasingly have control of their own destinies!


The consequence of this is that you should expect to find variation on very many aspects of school life within the UK - a fact in one area will not be in another! The only response is to use such expressions as ‘probably’ or ‘as far as can be seen’ and so on.

The best way of getting the feel of the language used in education in the UK is to visit some school websites e.g. the site of a sixth-form college. See what you can work out.

To illustrate this issue - click here for the problems that occur with the naming of schools in the UK. 


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