University / College / School (was: College / university)

Damien Hall djh514 at YORK.AC.UK
Fri Jan 22 11:26:37 UTC 2010

One or two replies to what people said yesterday:

- 'Private school' at pre-university level means more-or-less the same
thing in the UK as it does in the US: a non-governmentally-funded school
(which therefore charges fees directly to its pupils' parents etc), which
probably administers nationally-recognised examinations (in the UK), but
otherwise is free to decide its own curriculum. It's 'public school' which
has opposite referents in our two systems. In the US, a 'public school' is,
more logically, a governmentally-funded school, as opposed to a 'private
school'. In the UK, we call governmentally-funded schools 'state schools'.
'Public school' and 'private school' are both, surprisingly, fee-paying,
though they sound like opposites. If there is a difference at all between
'public school' and 'private school' in the UK, it's that public schools
are the older private schools, the ones that have been established for
centuries and are renowned for educating future members of the
Establishment (Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Westminster, Fettes College, etc).
They are, by definition, also 'private schools' because they are
fee-paying. If a school is 'private' by this definition but is not usually
referred to as a 'public school', it's probably simply a matter of
longevity or presence in the public imagination. Not everyone recognises
this distinction, though.

- My sister's private school's website doesn't actually give the names of
all the years at the school, and on a quick search I couldn't find a
general source for the names of the years at private schools. In the UK,
though, my impression is that a 'kindergarten' is a private institution
outside the school system, so we have them, but you wouldn't use that as a
name for years at a school. I believe it's true that in law here children
have to be educated from the beginning of the term after their fourth
birthday (certainly, you enter the system at age 4). Common names for the
first two years of schooling seem to be 'Nursery (class)' (you may of
course not do a whole year of that if you are born late in the school year)
and then 'Reception'; after that, in the state system, you start Year 1 and
go on through to Year 13. These are the official names; YMMV at individual
schools, of course. If you're really interested, see

(NB the systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are probably more
similar than different to England's, but strictly-speaking they're
different, as education is an area of 'devolved' legislation (ie the
individual regional assemblies / parliaments have power in that area.)

- In BrE, 'school' refers strictly to education before 18 years old. If you
want to know where someone is being educated after 18, you ask where they
are at university. As a result, the AmE use of 'at school' for 'in
education (no matter what one's age)' causes many Brits to smile if the
referent is clearly over 18!

- There's also a BrE split in usage for the person in education before 18
and after it. Where the dividing-line is is fuzzy but, essentially, the
only unambiguous meaning of 'student' is someone in education over 18. For
people under 18 (people 'at school' in the BrE sense), 'pupil' can be used.
Schools may choose to refer to the older children there (say from 11 on up)
as 'students', in order to show them respect by using a less juvenile term,
but it would sound strange (to me at least) to refer to anyone under 11 as
a 'student'. Those are always 'pupils'.

- I've changed the title of this thread in order to mention a joke / funny
situation I once heard. Probably apocryphal, but: on many administrative
forms one has to put down one's place of education, and on some in the UK
the title of that line is 'University / College / School ............' (in
order to cover all the possibilities). I heard about someone who was
attending an establishment in London called University College School, so,
faced with that question, he just used to write 'Yes' ...

- I don't know whether it's still true that people rate Colleges at York by
the quality of the pinball machines. I think it's now more likely to be by
the perceived atmosphere of the bar, but I can ask!


Damien Hall

University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
YO10 5DD

Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
     (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673

The American Dialect Society -

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