Schooling Around the Globe: GED, A-levels and More

Schooling Around the Globe: GED, A-levels and More

Schooling around the globe: GED, A-levels and more

Moving to a different country can be very stressful for parents who want to choose the right schools and education for their children. This is further complicated by the fact that there are so many types of schooling systems around the world. 

Rand Rescue takes you on a trip around the world’s educational systems. 

8 Nations in Review

Does education differ vastly across the globe? 

The short  answer is yes. While most countries in the world require students to study for a certain period of their lives (usually from the age of 6 to 18), the norms, curricula and educational structures are quite divergent. 

Some countries mandate preschool education or require that students enter formal schooling at a very young age. Some offer specialised studies from a young age or allow students to drop out at any time. Likewise, some countries allow children to complete their formal schooling far sooner, or accelerate their education to their liking. 

The greatest difference lies in the curricula as the standard of schooling and mandated subjects are quite divergent the world over. We are restricted in this article, given the length and scope of content, but will briefly look at 8 other nations. 


Like South Africa, US youths are required to attend school from the ages of six to 18 and also follow grades – from 1 to 12. 

While South Africa has introduced mandated preschool education (Grades R and RR), this is the kindergarten phase in the US and is not compulsory. Preschool in the US precedes preschool in SA and is generally what we call daycare or playgroup (up to the age of 3).

South Africa’s primary education stretches from grade 1 to 7, the US elementary education lasts until grade 6. Thereafter students enter middle school or junior high from grade 7 to 8. Secondary education or high school follows this – lasting from grade 9 to 12. In general, grade 9 is called Freshman year, grade 10 is called sophomore year, grade 11 is junior year and grade 12 is senior year. This isn’t equal everywhere, middle school is from grade 6 to 8 in some places or 7 to 9 in others. 

Unlike South Africa, US students can opt for a GED in lieu of a high school diploma. GED stands for General Educational Development (or diploma) and is considered equivalent to a high school diploma. Students can study for a range of tests which certify that they have the necessary aptitude and knowledge. A GED tests students in five subject areas: Language Arts – writing, Language Arts – reading, Social studies, Science and Mathematics. Students must be at least 16 years of age to do their GED – but this also means that they can enter tertiary education at a younger age if they complete the tests in one go. They can complete the GED over 3 years. 

US students can also attend community, city or technical college which generally lasts 2 years. 

The course content

People often wonder why US citizens don’t know much about the world. This is due to world history not being a required subject in many US schools – though it has been introduced in many schools which require at least 1 year of world history. While students do learn about US history, world history is an elective in most schools. 

Students can also choose to stagger or pause certain courses – while they need a certain number of credits to pass a subject, they don’t need to complete these credits in a set order. Course credits range from 5 to 20 with 5 credits generally equating to 1 year of study. English and Science require the highest number of credits  (20) in most schools. Subjects like Visual & Performing Arts, 21st Century life & careers, or world languages only require 5 credits each. You can choose when you want to complete these credits. 

While the US has a national curriculum, this curriculum isn’t mandatory and different states can opt-in to the curriculum (with just over half of US states following this curriculum). 


If you’re looking for discipline, accuracy and streamlined standards, Japan is it. If, however, you’re looking for a divergent, flexible and creative system of schooling – this is not for you. 

Japan is considered one of THE places for service which is punctual, according to brief, and executed without any liberties taken with the brief. 

While Japan has excelled remarkably through its commitment to strict regulation (most of which are maintained by cultural norms and not by actual legislative intervention), the country has an odd duality. The near obsessive focus on punctuality, process and courtesy provides for an incredibly wholesome experience and yet this also nurtures an environment where individuality, individual interconnectedness and creativity are stifled to the extreme. 

Japan is ranked the second-highest for education in maths and harmony, but ranks incredibly low for the transmutability of skills – mostly because schooling doesn’t enable children to enter a worldwide cultural playground. 

In a nutshell – Japan is one of the best places to educate a child, but such education predominantly focuses on growing an internal market and placing students within the country. 

The standards are among the highest in the world and students are encouraged to commit to their academic studies from an incredibly young age. 

Impossible vetting

While Japan has relaxed immigration protocols in the past few years, the country is still not open to embracing foreigners in the same ways we do in SA. Expats will also find that English and other foreign languages are not accommodated in most education and business arenas.

The Study in Japan Global Network Project (GNP) has worked quite tirelessly to facilitate educational entry for foreign students into the country. Unfortunately it’s far harder for parents with children of school-going age to immigrate to the region as a family unit. Quite often work visas are only offered to individuals with tourist visas extended to members of their families. 

On the bright side, some Japanese universities have sought alternatives by adding foreign studies as requirements for certain study programmes, which allows new streams of entry for foreigners while also encouraging their own citizens to engage with international learning platforms. 


France, like many other nations, doesn’t have a school year structured according to a calendar term (January to December), so school starts after the summer holidays. 

While many European nations entice parents to stay home with their children, the opposite is true in France. Day mothers provide care for infants from a young age, but they are restricted to 3 babies in general. Many children start ‘maternelle’ from 2 years of age and the government funds schooling from such early age. The rationale is that parents should remain economically active and not ‘rest on their laurels’. 

School generally starts at 09:00 and closes at 16:00 each day, save for Wednesdays where children get the afternoon off. 

A great advantage of French schooling is the quality of their subsidised school lunches – unlike some other countries the meals served at the school canteen are focused on optimal nutrition. Kids can choose to eat at home should they want to skip the canteen meal, provided they return for their afternoon school sessions. 

While countries like South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the USA focus quite a lot on sporting activities, these aren’t big in France. Children who want to participate in sports are encouraged to do so by joining clubs and these achievements aren’t roped into school awards to the extent that we do in SA. 

Curriculum and progression

Students generally pursue a pre-defined career path from a young age and tertiary schooling is included in this career path. A Bac+3 or Bac+4 indicates that a student has completed their high school with an additional 3 or 4 years of study thereafter. This is not the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in SA, as studies are highly specialised. A Bac+4 is essentially the equivalent of a Masters degree in SA terms. This is mostly due to a ‘late term’ specialisation as students generally study a full scope of subjects and only choose specialised fields near the end of their studies. An agricultural specialist could essentially hold the same knowledge as a veterinarian or engineer in other countries should the coursework be compared. 

There are anomalies, though. Certain fields don’t consider elementary and secondary school marks at all, and entry into such fields are wholly based on a standardised entry exam. 

Another big distinction from other countries is that it’s mostly about where you qualify in France, not necessarily what you study. Universities are highly specialised and students are pretty much guaranteed work in a certain field if they qualify from certain institutions. 

Should you acquire a degree from a certain institution there’s also no need for a curriculum vitae as the qualification speaks for itself. 

The oddity of this specialised ‘funnelling’ of career paths is that France is not that open to entrepreneurial pursuits or changing career paths – children are encouraged to choose a field and apply themselves to work in a certain career for life. 


Education in Brazil is quite similar to SA’s education in some respects. 

Education is divided into three stages: 

 – Early childhood education (up to 5 years)
 – Primary education( 6 – 14 years)
 – Secondary education (15 – 17 years)

Much like South Africa, academic quality and commitment is also not on par with many developed nations. 

School is compulsory between the ages of 7 and 17, and yet 3 out of 5 Brazilians only have 4 years of schooling or less. Similarly, there are regions of Brazil where education is more advanced. The North, Northeast and Central-West areas of Brazil tends to have a lower quality of schooling due to regional budget constraints.

Low enrolment rates are driven by poverty since many children are compelled to gain an income to support their families. 

That said, interest and commitment to education has drastically increased in the past two decades. As with South Africa, many students who wish to pursue higher education are encouraged to enrol in private educational institutions to ensure an optimal standard of elementary and secondary education. 

The best higher education institutions in Brazil are:

 – Universidade de São Paulo
 – Universidade Estadual de Campinas
 – Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro
 – Universidade Federal de Rio Grande do Sul
 – Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
 – Universidade Estadual Paulista
 – Universidade Federal de São Paulo
 – Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina
 – Universidade de Brasília
 – Universidade Federal do ABC (UFABC)

South Korea

Much like the US, South Korea’s education is divided into three parts – primary school (6 years), middle school (3 years) and high school (3 years). 

While most schools in South Africa are co-ed schools, many schools in South Korea are not co-educational or still split classes up by gender even if they do offer schooling to boys and girls. 

A tertiary education is pretty much a requirement in South Korea as students who don’t obtain a degree are considered second-class citizens. To enter tertiary education, students must take the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT), which is an 8-hour test completed on the second Tuesday of November. CSAT tests the student’s knowledge of Korean, English, maths, Korean history, a 2nd foreign language or Chinese characters as well as two additional electives. 

The country takes CSATs so seriously, that most businesses open later on the day of the test to ensure that students can get to the test location on time. Students who get stuck in traffic can get a police escort to take them to their test. Some areas even clear air traffic to guarantee complete silence and allow students to concentrate. 

The incredible focus on academic achievement has presented the country with a bit of a catch-22 as most of their population is overqualified for their jobs. In order

Becoming a teacher is considered one of the highest honours in Korean society, and teachers are widely regarded as authority figures. This makes it quite challenging to obtain a teacher’s licence, since there is fierce competition and only the highest achievers snag this coveted position. 

The course content

There are 9 mandatory subjects in the primary curriculum:

 – moral education
 – Korean language
 – social studies
 – science
 – mathematics
 – physical education
 – music
 – fine arts
 – practical arts

Students also start learning English in 3rd grade. Once a student reaches middle school, they have 12 mandatory subjects. Students can choose whether they want to continue to a vocational high school or academic high school. 

The calendar

South Korea has two semesters, the first running from March to July and the second from September to February. 

Unlike South Africa, classes in South Korea run from around 08:00 until 16:00, after which all students are required to clean their classrooms. Students can eat their dinner at home or at school and return to their school libraries or tutoring lessons until at least 22:00 (or even 24:00)


While the UK has a general national curriculum, it differs quite vastly from other nations and between participating nations. They have seen significant educational reform in the past two decades (such as the Early Years Foundation Stage regulatory framework). 

Like Australia, the UK calls their grades ‘years’, but unlike Australia this isn’t linked to age and is instead linked to the Stages. 

 – Key Stage 1 (Year 1 – 2): age 5 – 7
 – Key Stage 2 (Year 3 – 6): age 8 – 11
 – Key Stage 3 (Year 7 – 9): age 12 – 14
 – Key Stage 4 (Year 10 – 11): age 15 – 16
 – Key Stage 5 (Year 12 – 13): age 17 – 18

Further education (FE) and higher education (HE) follow these studies, though you can generally only enter higher education if you’ve completed year 13. (See curriculum for more)

Mandatory enrolment starts at age 5 (or 4 for Northern Ireland), also called ‘reception age’ and ends at age 16 at the end of secondary education. Students who want to enrol for higher education need to complete their GCE A levels (or equivalent). Years are named differently in Scotland, where grades take an ‘S’ (such as S1 or S4). 

A-Levels are Advanced Level qualifications offered to students over the age of 16. These qualifications are generally completed over a period of two years and offer students access to higher education institutions both in the UK and abroad. Students usually need to complete a minimum of three subjects via their As-Levels to gain access to higher education institutions. 

While A-Levels are mostly used in the UK, many other countries around the world have chosen to ‘piggyback’ on this system since it streamlines standardisation of studies across the globe, making it easier to vet students’ suitability to enter an institution.  A Levels and IB are often called ‘Sixth Form’ in the UK, but this varies depending on the region. 

Children between the ages of 3 and 4 are entitled to 15 hours of free ‘nursery’ schooling for 38 weeks per year in England. In Wales, children are offered free education from age 3 to 5. Scotland requires local authorities to seek part-time funded placement for children from age 3, and Northern Ireland has a mix of regulations which incorporate both UK and Irish rules and structures. 

Northern Ireland is the most strict of all territories – requiring 5 compulsory years of post-primary education as well as 2 additional years for students who wish to pursue post GCSE courses.  

Curriculum…of sorts

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the equivalent is Standard Grades in Scotland where National Qualifications (NQs) and Standard Grades (2-year courses with an exam after 4 years) are maintained for the most part. GCSE’s are written at Year 11 (age 16) and the exam covers 8 – 10 subjects. 

Advanced Level (AL) exams require that students generally specialise in 2 subjects and write exams after 2 years of specialisation, but they may do additional subjects for one year at Advanced Subsidiary (AS) level. . 

The HCM Projects Scholarship Scheme is a programme focused on higher education and is generally considered a norm for independent schools given the high standard of tutelage and excellence. 

In Scotland, students take a minimum of 5 subjects at Higher Level which can be reduced to 3 for Advanced Higher courses. 

In order to standardise education, many institutions and individuals lean towards the International Baccalaureate (IB) accreditation which is generally considered equivalent to A Levels. As with Australia, the IB and A Levels offer highly-regarded standards internationally, and open many doors for students and job-seekers. 

Much like SA, the UK encourages extracurricular activities – and achievements in these are also incorporated into awards and vetting criteria. Their extracurricular activities extend far beyond our local scope, however, as students are encouraged to participate in a wide scope of activities, from visiting theatres and attending art exhibitions to participating in historical reenactments and approaching scientific communities. 

A pricey affair

There’s a reason the world raves about Ivy League schools which has more to do with exclusivity than quality – it’s pricey!

Higher education in the UK is highly rewarding and beneficial, but incredibly expensive unless you have a benefactor or marks to offer honorary entry . 

As noted by HCM projects: expats need to consider the average cost of living of around £10 000 per year and add around £20 000 per annum additionally for their studies (which excludes all other costs) – these costs equate to more than R600 000 per year if you enter the educational system at tertiary level. Since studies at these institutions mostly require on-campus and/or full-time engagement, the chances of funding such costs without a stable income are slim to none. 

Parents who consider the UK should ideally immigrate before their children reach tertiary schooling age OR negotiate academic/educational study incentives and schemes with their employers and immigration agents upfront. 


While education in Qatar is considered a high standard, the options are limited for those who don’t speak Arabic. 

As is the norm around the world, the education system is divided into two groups: public schools and private schools. Government funded schools are generally restricted to Qataris and teach only in Arabic, though the prevalence of non-state funded schools have increased dramatically in the past decade. 

The traditional early education is known as ‘katateeb’ which has no formal curriculum. There is no universal curriculum in Qatar, but schools must meet strict criteria set by the Supreme Education Council to qualify as government-funded schools (Ministry or Independent schools). Girls and boys may not attend the same schools and are to be kept separate. 

Private schools are also held to a strict standard, although they offer greater autonomy. These schools are vetted by the Qatar National School Accreditation. While schools catering to international students can provide schooling in other languages and a greater diversity of subjects, the curricula are also vetted to ensure that it aligns with government standards. Only children of expats who work for the government can generally attend ‘public’ schools. 

Since preschool education isn’t mandatory, there are various options to choose from. The downside is that schools aimed at expats are generally unregulated and can come under fire if they don’t honour certain rules. 

Education is only compulsory between the ages of 6 and 12, and any subsequent education is the choice of parents. 

Qatar also offers great opportunities for South African or other foreign teachers as the country is keen to nurture their community for worldwide opportunities. Additionally, several international educational institutions have branches in Qatar which offer opportunities for those who wish to follow international teaching standards. 

The curriculum

Expat parents may find the curricula quite difficult given the strong focus on religious orientation as well as gender divide. 

For the compulsory school years there is a great focus on literacy and numeracy skills and subjects generally taught in other world regions aren’t catered for. The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) notes that the curriculum is prone to enticing religious and cultural intolerance. 

For secondary and tertiary education, certain subjects only cater for male students – such as engineering. 

That said, Qatar is one of the most tolerant and progressive in their region – alongside the UAE – when it comes to international standards and gender equality. In 2021, Qatari women outnumbered men at local universities – both in numbers and achievement. Qatar has been on the frontline of Gulf and Middle-Eastern nations seeking better rights and opportunities for women and marginalised groups. The country has been widely outspoken about their disdain for Taliban restriction on girls’ education in neighbouring regions. 

There is, however, far greater opportunity for women who seek employment outside the country borders following completion of their studies.  


If there’s one great difference between South African and Australian education, it’s the cost! While it is not a confirmed rationale, the Australian government tends to argue that children should be nurtured by parents until they enter formal schooling. Enrolling a child in a preschool is therefore quite costly and such schooling is not funded or encouraged by the government for the most part. 

Many highly educated parents are often compelled to forego work in order to care for their children as the income they would acquire doesn’t rationalise the expense of daycare or preschool care. 

The curriculum is quite strictly regulated across territories which means that educational standards are quite universal within the country’s borders. 

Australia calls each grade a ‘year’ – based on the age of the children at enrolment – and formal schooling only starts at year 6 or 7. Secondary school runs from years 7 or 8 to 10, and senior secondary school runs from year 11 to 12. 

While some schools offer bilingual programs, Australia offers only English as main language of instruction in public schools. 

The curriculum

The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) is far stricter than many other countries. 

They are very accommodating to international students, but the vetting criteria is strict – one shouldn’t assume that one’s qualification in SA would equate to an equal qualification in Australia. 

The key for expats who wish to immigrate to Australia is to ensure that your child’s education is aligned to AQF. Luckily, Australian qualifications are so highly regarded that children who work through the Australian educational system are likely to find work and enter international education worldwide quite easily. 

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