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From public schools to university, British schools offer only the best in education

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Eton. Oxford. Cambridge. St. Andrews. The names all conjure up images of the British upper class: playing on the polo team, long walks amid ivy-covered buildings, late-night poetry readings and cavorting with royalty. Yes, there's just something about the British schools that has a cachet Canadians schools just can't capture.

While many of our Canadian institutions like Parliament and our judicial system are steeped in British history, our education system is one area where we're not really that much like the Brits after all. What's the difference between the British school system and the Canadian one? Here's a primer on the British school system, and what sets it apart from our Canadian counterpart.

Public versus private: In Canada, when you hear the words "public school," it immediately conjures up images of a local school funded by the government that all the neighbourhood kids attend. If you want a tony, private education, you've got to attend a private school. In Britain, public school has a bit of a different meaning. "Public" is often a term used for private or independent schools in Britain. Eton College, for one, is probably the most famous of the British "public" schools. Publically-funded schools, on the other hand, are generally known as state schools.

Getting started: British law requires all children between the ages of 5-16 to be formally educated. (That differs slightly from most Canadian provinces, which actually don't require children to be educated until the age of 6, or grade one.) Most British children start kindergarten at the age of five, although, as in Canada, homeschool is allowed.

Take a holiday: The British school calendar is similar to that in Canada in that kids start school in September. Their school year, however, runs until July, giving British students six weeks of summer vacation instead of the eight weeks Canadian kids gets. But British kids do get a few extra holidays during the school year, including two weeks at Christmas and in the spring, and one week at the end of October, in mid-February and at the end of May.

High school confidential: High school (grades nine to 12) is a rite of passage for Canadian teenagers aged 14-18. Not so for their British counterparts, who technically move on from elementary school to secondary school at the age of 11. Then, from the ages of 15-17, students in England study General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), taking exams at the end of the period. Once those exams are done, students can either leave school and get jobs or go on to further studies.

Higher education: After students are done their GCSE, those wishing to go on to a U.K. university will need Advanced Levels, also known as "A Levels." To get into a top school, students need three to four good A Level grades, although some study as many as five subjects, including science, medicine, engineering, math, physics, humanities, law, economics, literature and psychology.

By Alison Dunn

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