Reader's Guide: Education System Charts

Differences in the structure of countries' education systems
often make international comparisons difficult. To improve the comparability of education indicators, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) created an internationally comparable method for describing levels of education across countries called the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). This classification system was revised in 1997, and is referred to as ISCED97. Using the ISCED97 classifications as a starting point, NCES worked with education professionals in the G-8 countries to create an overview of each country's education system.

There are differences within the education systems of some G-8 countries because responsibilities and oversight for education take place at the regional or local level. However, the charts and accompanying text in this appendix are intended to give the reader a general overview of the education system of each G-8 country, from the preprimary to the doctoral level.

As indicated in the source note for each country chart, the information summarizing each country's education system comes largely from the previous Comparative Indicators report (Miller et al. 2009). However, some modifications were made based on updated online resources and comments received from international reviewers.

The reader is encouraged to seek out additional resources to gain a fuller and deeper understanding of each country's education system. A list of websites with additional information is provided at the end of this Reader's Guide, and additional sources are cited after each country's education system is presented.

How to read the charts

Each of the charts on the following pages is a broad representation of the education system of a G-8 country. The charts are not intended to show all possible pathways that a student can take or the many configurations of grades that may be found within the same school. Rather, each chart is intended to provide a general description that is useful for comparison across the G-8 countries.

The colors on each chart correspond to ISCED97 levels (see next section). The ISCED97 term for each level of education is written within each block. The terms in italics in each block are a country's designation for that particular level (e.g., high school for upper secondary school). The left side of each chart is labeled with the typical ages corresponding to each level of education. The age labels represent the typical age at which a student begins the corresponding year of schooling; often, students are 1 year older at the end of the school year. Ages in bold text are the ages at which enrollment is universal, defined here as an enrollment rate of more than 90 percent. The rectangular box encasing some ages represents the range of ages at which enrollment is compulsory, or required by law. (See also indicator 2 for information on the age range at which more than 90 percent of the population is enrolled in formal education and the ending age of compulsory education.) The expected duration of a first university degree program, a bachelor's degree program in the United States, is listed in the note below each chart. On the right side of each chart are the years of schooling ("grade," in the United States) corresponding to each level of education. The first year of schooling corresponds to the first year of compulsory education. The ages and years listed assume normal progress through the education system.

ISCED97 levels

The ISCED97 is a classification framework that allows for the alignment of the content of education systems using multiple classification criteria. The ISCED97 levels address the intent (e.g., to study basic subjects or prepare students for university) of each year of a particular education system, but do not indicate the depth or rigor of study in that year. Thus, the ISCED97 is useful when comparing the age range of students in upper secondary schools across nations; however, it does not indicate whether the curriculum and standards are equivalent within the same year of schooling across nations. The ISCED97 allows researchers to compile statistics on education internationally. The ISCED97 levels are as follows:

  • ISCED97 level 0 is classified as preprimary education. This is defined as the initial stage of organized instruction, designed primarily to introduce very young children to a school-type environment. ISCED97 level 0 programs can either be center or school based. Preschool and kindergarten programs in the United States fall into the level 0 category, although kindergarten is typically considered an elementary grade in the United States.
  • ISCED97 level 1 consists of primary education, which usually lasts 4 to 6 years. ISCED97 level 1 typically begins between ages 5 and 7, and is the stage where students begin to study basic subjects, such as reading, writing, and mathematics. In the United States, elementary school (grades 1 through 6) is classified as level 1.
  • At ISCED97 level 2, or lower secondary education, students continue to learn the basic subjects taught in level 1, but this level is typically more subject specific than level 1 and may be taught by specialized teachers. ISCED97 level 2 usually lasts between 2 and 6 years, and begins around the age of 11. Middle school and junior high (grades 7 through 9) in the United States are classified as level 2.
  • At ISCED97 level 3, or upper secondary education, student
    coursework is generally subject specific and often taught by
    specialized teachers. Students often enter upper secondary
    education at the age of 15 or 16 and attend anywhere from
    2 to 5 years. ISCED97 level 3 can prepare students for university, further schooling, or the labor force. Senior high school (grades 10 through 12) is considered level 3 in the United States.
  • ISCED97 level 4 programs consist of postsecondary nontertiary programs. Postsecondary nontertiary programs are primarily vocational and are taken after the completion of secondary school, though the content is not more advanced than the content of secondary school courses. Although not included in the charts, postsecondary nontertiary programs are described in the text. ISCED97 level 4 programs in the United States are often in the form of 1-year certificate programs.
  • Tertiary programs1 are divided into ISCED97 levels 5A, 5B, and 6. ISCED97 level 5A refers to academic higher education below the doctoral level. Level 5A programs are intended to provide sufficient qualifications to gain entry into advanced research programs and professions with high skill requirements. The international classification includes programs of medium length that last less than 5 years and long programs that last 5 to 7 years. In the United States, bachelor's, master's, and first professional degree programs are classified as ISCED97 level
    5A. ISCED97 level 5B refers to vocational higher education. Level 5B programs provide a higher level of career and technical education and are designed to prepare students for the labor market. In the international classification, these programs last 2 to 4 years. In the United States, associate's degree programs are classified at this level. ISCED97 level 6 refers to the doctoral level of academic higher education. Level 6 programs usually require the completion of a research thesis or dissertation.

Text Format

The text accompanying each chart is meant to give the reader more detail on each country's education system. The bulleted format is designed to make quick comparisons more convenient, and the text is divided into sections corresponding to the ISCED97 levels. The "NOTE" heading in each section presents information that is important, but that may not be included in either the chart or the bulleted text, including within-country variations or features of the education system that are unique to a particular country.

Websites with additional information

Canada: htm (see appendix 1)





Russian Federation:

United Kingdom:

England, Wales, and Northern Ireland:


United States:

1 In the international classification, more advanced postsecondary education (such as attending a 4-year college or university) is referred to as "tertiary education." In the current report, the term "higher education" is used because this term is more familiar to American readers.