From Kindergarten to Collège — Names for International Education

Monday, May 164 min read

From the age students enter the classroom to what each level of education is called, there are many differences in education around the world, but also some interesting similarities. For example, a 12-year-old French student attends collège, but in America, a recent high school graduate enters college. Let’s compare some international schooling terms with their American counterparts, from early childhood education to higher learning and everything in between.

Early Childhood Education

Kindergarten and preschool are worldwide traditions, but the practices vary from country to country. In the U.S., the word “kindergarten” comes from the German phrase kinder-garten, which literally translates to “garden of children.” It was coined in the mid-1800s by German educator Friedrich Fröbel to refer to his method of education for young children. Most U.S. children begin kindergarten between the ages of four and six and some attend preschool even earlier.

Most countries have their own versions of kindergarten, and many use the same name, including India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Singapore, and South Africa. Other countries have their own words for the schooling young children receive.

The home country of the word “kindergarten” also uses the term for school for children ages three to six, but there are additional levels in Germany. Kinderkrippe is nursery school for children from nine months to two years. The collective term for all types of childcare is kindertagesstätte, which is often shortened to kita.

The French use the term école maternelle, which translates to “nursery school,” to describe their non-compulsory schools for students ages two through five.

“Reception” comes before Year 1 in U.K. schools, just as kindergarten comes before first grade in the United States. “Nursery school” is used as their equivalent of preschool. In Welsh, dosbarth derbyn is a rough translation of “reception.” It follows the same guidelines as its English counterpart, but is followed by “Primary 2,” rather than “Year 1.”

Scuola Materna is school in Italy for children ages three to six, after which, they begin first grade. Similar to the French, scuola materna translates to “nursery school.”

It’s up to each Canadian province to decide what kindergarten looks like for students. In Ontario, junior and senior kindergarten systems (JK and SK) are provided, but non-compulsory. French-speaking Québec follows the lead of the European French and calls junior kindergarten prématernelle and senior kindergarten la maternelle.

Primary and Secondary Education

The majority of countries around the world follow either a two- or three-stage education system. The two-stage system consists of primary school and secondary school. The education system in the United States follows a three-stage system: elementary school, middle school (sometimes called junior high school), and high school. While some of these systems share similarities, the terms vary by language.

Europe: Lyceum = High School

Several European countries (including Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Malta, Poland, Turkey, and France) use the word lyceum (or variations of it) to describe secondary school (what the U.S. calls high school). The term lyceum comes from the Lyceum, an ancient Greek school founded by Aristotle in 335 BCE.

Sweden: Gymnasium = High School

Years 10 through 12 (beginning around age 16) are referred to as gymnasium in the Swedish education system. This level of schooling prepares students for higher education at a university. Unlike the U.S., these grade levels are non-compulsory and a student must be accepted to attend. This term (or variations of it) is used in other European countries to describe the same type of schooling. The word comes from ancient Greece where gymnasium was used to describe not only physical but also academic arenas (Aristotle in particular was known for walking around the grove of the Lyceum as he lectured).

France: Collège = Middle School

In France, a preteen attends collège. Although it looks similar to the English word “college,” It refers to the grade levels of students ages 11 to 15, similar to middle school (junior high) in America. Collège comes from Latin collegium, which means “community.” While the words refer to different levels of schooling, France follows the same three-tier education system as the U.S. École elementaire is “elementary school,” and lycée (from lyceum) is “high school.”

Norway: Barneskole = Elementary School

The word barneskole translates to “children school” in English. It describes primary school for Norwegian children ages six through 13. Lower secondary school is called ungdomsskole (“youth school”) and upper secondary school is videregående skole, which means “high school.”

Higher Education

In most of the world, “college” is not the same as “university,” but in the U.S., the two terms are often used interchangeably.


In the United States, many students decide to attend college after graduating from high school, but that isn’t true for the rest of the world. In the U.K., “college” is a vocational school for 16- to 18-year-olds to help them prepare for university, called “uni” for short.


Most of the world uses the word “college” in relation to types of secondary schools for teenagers, and reserves variations of “university” for higher education. The word, which comes from Latin universus meaning “whole, entire,” has been used to describe institutions of higher learning since around 1300 CE.

University students in the U.S. and Europe may be able to go on exchange programs and the educational systems are roughly equivalent, but the words for the degrees are named differently. In Europe, an undergraduate degree (bachelor’s) is called a “first-cycle degree,” a graduate degree (master’s) is called a “second-cycle degree,” and a doctoral degree (Ph.D) is called a “third cycle degree.”

Featured image credit: TARIK KIZILKAYA/ iStock

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