Business English Vocabulary: Education

The education sector is a rich source of employment, and if you’d like to make a career working in a school or university, we’ve put together some education vocabulary to ensure you are top of the class! This topic can be particularly tricky because American and British speakers have very different terms, and sometimes even use the same word to mean very different things.

If education isn’t for you, consider checking out our English Accounting Vocabulary or English Hospitality Vocabulary posts.

Hand-picked related content: ORDERING AT A RESTAURANT, UK VS. US ENGLISH 

Terms that are the same in both American and British English:


A document formally proving your ability to do something. Many teaching positions require you to be a certified teacher to ensure that you are educating students correctly.


A list or plan of materials that will be studied throughout a particular course


As a verb, "graduate" (pronounced grad-u-ate) means to complete all levels of a stage of schooling, sometimes accompanied by a certificate ceremony. As a noun, "graduate" (pronounced grad-u-it) can also be used to describe someone who has graduated.


Something that demonstrates you are able to do a particular role. You can have the right qualifications for a job by receiving a related degree and having work experience in that area, for example.


The topic that is being studied in a lesson, such as history, art, English, etc.


Specialized training aimed at teaching a student a particular occupation or skill in preparation for a specific trade

Terms that are different between the US and UK

Preschool / playschool

American and British: Non-compulsory learning for children aged 2-5. The sessions usually last a few hours and are a convenient place for working parents to leave their children.


American: the first year of mandatory education for children, usually around the age of 5

British: another term for preschool

Children enjoying Kindergarten.


Elementary school

American: the first stage of mandatory schooling for students, generally going from ages 5-11. Elementary school starts with a year of kindergarten, and the next year is called “first grade.” After first grade comes second grade, third grade, etc., through fifth grade.

British: not used

Infant & primary school

American: Infant school is not used; primary school is a less common different name for elementary school.

British: The first two years of mandatory schooling in the UK are referred to as “infant school” (although you’re no longer an infant at age 5!). Each year of schooling is counted with a number: year 1, year 2, etc. At year 3, students start primary school, which goes through year 6 (age 11).

Grammar school

American: another term for elementary school

British: more prestigious state-funded schools beginning at age 11. Students must take an exam called an 11-plus, and will be admitted if they score highly enough.

Middle School / junior high school

American: These are both terms for the second stage of mandatory schooling in the US. Although exact ages very by region, middle school often goes from sixth grade through eighth grade, when students are around 11 through 13 years old.

British: not used; students go straight from primary school to secondary school

High school / secondary school

American: High school is the third stage of mandatory schooling, which students usually enter around 13 years old. There are four years of high school: the first year is the freshman year or ninth grade, followed by sophomore (tenth grade), junior (eleventh grade), and finally senior (twelfth grade). It is required by law to go to school until you are 16 years old, and students usually graduate at 18. “Secondary school” is used to refer to this stage of learning in general, but is not a commonly used term in everyday speech.

British: Secondary school is the stage of school for ages 11+, years 7 through 13. Students usually finish at age 18, but in England you can legally leave school at 16 to go to a college, start an apprenticeship, or work.

Big difference between a US High School to Secondary School in the UK is in America school uniforms are not a requirement.
One difference between a US high school and a secondary school in the UK is that in America school uniforms are often not a requirement.



American: a school after high school where students can get a degree in one or more subjects. Although there are slight technical differences between a college and a university, they are essentially the same thing and Americans saying they are going “to college” whether it’s a college or a university. It usually takes 4 years to get a bachelor’s degree from a college in the US. In college, numbered grades are no longer used: only freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior.

British: At age 16, students in the UK can choose to leave school and study a trade at college instead. College and university are very different in the UK.

Students graduating from college.



American: a specific type of degree-granting institution, essentially interchangeable with “college”

British: further education that allows students to get a certification in a subject, usually lasting three years for a bachelor’s degree. British students use “at university” or more commonly “at uni” the way Americans would say “at college”

Higher learning / tertiary education

American: “Higher learning” refers to any type of schooling after the high school level. Tertiary education, like secondary education, is a term used in general but not often in everyday uses.

British: "Tertiary education" is the most common term for higher learning

Public school

American: schools funded by the government through taxes and therefore free for students to attend.

British: very exclusive set of non-government funded schools where expensive fees are required of each student

Public school children in America often take yellow school buses to school.


State school

American: schools owned and operated by the state, often less expensive (the term is only used for higher education institutions)

British: government-funded schools at any level, free for students to attend

Private school

American: schools funded by the students through yearly tuition. Because they are not funded by the government, these schools have the right to select their students.

British: although technically called “independent schools,” schools not funded by the government are commonly referred to as “private schools”

Principal / head teacher

American: The principal is responsible for the day-to-day running of the school (be sure not to confuse it with the word “principle”). The principal does not actually teach but sometimes has experience as a teacher before becoming principal. “Head teacher” is not used.

British: Instead of “principal,” British speakers use “head teacher.” The head teacher has experience as a teacher, and it’s possible they will teach a small number of classes while serving as head teacher, although it’s not common.

Of all of the job sectors, education may present the most confusing new words, especially because the education system differs from country to country, but it's also one of the most rewarding!

If you are interested in furthering your education, find out how you can learn English at one of our Kaplan schools in the US or the UK

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