It often confuses me when english speaking people say something about their "school" and later I discover that what they meant is some kind of college. In Russian language, which I am a native speaker of, the direct translation of the word "school" means the facility with 11 grades, which most children start going to at the age of 6-7 and finish when they are 17 or 18. After that come different kinds of universities, institutes and colleges, and noone would call those with the russian word meaning "school".

I don't know a lot about how education on english speaking countries works, so I think that's one of the reasons of this confusion.

  • What you describe about Russia is very much the way school is used in Britain, and I am fairly sure in France and possibly other European countries. Americans are different here in that they describe Universities as Schools. It often seems a bit strange to us to hear about people aged over 18 going to 'school'. You sort of imagine them turning up for lectures with little caps and satchels, and Mr Men lunch boxes. Like the Americans, however, British Universities often refer to some of their departments as school, e.g. hypothetically University of Edinburgh, School of Applied Sciences.
    – WS2
    Mar 25, 2015 at 14:32
  • In the US it could be pretty much anything.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 26, 2015 at 20:29

2 Answers 2


On both sides of the pond, school as a noun can refer to an institution for educating children (e.g. primary school), a unit or faculty of a university (University of Cambridge School of Technology), or a specialized training institution (e.g. dance school).

On top of this, in North American English, any formal education can be referred to as school. While the pre-kindergarten level is called pre-school or, at early ages, nursery school, American parents might answer yes if asked if their toddler was in school (though they may specify well, preschool, not school school).

School also encompasses undergraduate and postgraduate degree programs. ODO marks this usage as "informal," but I find that to be an overstatement. To pick a few examples from Google searches, Stanford uses the term school year in an official release; the Ph.D. admissions FAQ for Wash U answers whether someone can "keep my current job and go to school at the same time"; but there are also countless official biographies and obituaries which refer to someone's achievements while in school or at school referring to their university and postgraduate years, not to mention idiomatic phrases like working your way through school or school spirit in the language.

Moreover, this usage has been around for a while; while it isn't the easiest thing to search for, I found in the May 11, 1868 Oneida Circular in Google Books

[We] bought a house in New Haven, that we might send others to school at Yale.

And if you object that the line refers to one of the schools at Yale, the 1899 Report of the federal Commissioner of Education refers to an instructor

schooled at Yale, Chautauqua and other summer schools

and if you object that this is a verbal usage, by 1909, the influential humor magazine Puck could offer this synopsis of a life:

The New England Conscience was born in the Back Bay, went to school at Harvard in the early days, lived in Concord, and died in the New Hampshire legislature.

In British English, school is not used to refer to universities or graduate instruction.

Similarly, Canadians and Americans use student for anyone enrolled in an educational institution, whereas on the other side of the pond, it is restricted to university students; those in primary and secondary schools would be pupils. See "Pupil" or "Student", what is the correct use? for coverage of that difference; pupil is far less common than student here.


Have a look at this very good dictionary definition:


a : an organized source of education or training: such as

(1) : an institution for the teaching of children : an elementary or secondary school

(2) : an institution for specialized higher education usually within a university

the school of medicine at the state university

(3) : college, university

the excellent east coast schools

(4) : an establishment for teaching a particular skill or group of skills

a school of design

a fencing school

b : a place where instruction is given:

(1) : a place where lectures are held; especially : a place for lectures in logic, metaphysics, and theology in the medieval period

(2) : a building or hall where examinations for degrees and honors are held at an English university

(3) : a building or group of buildings in which a school is conducted

the new school is very elaborate

the most beautiful school in the area

(4) : an area (as an enclosure or covered ring) where horses are schooled : a riding school

c : something that is a source of instruction

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary

(2) is equivalent with the Department of Medicine (the Faculty of Medicine in some European countries)

  • 1
    Nice, but doesn't really bring out the AmE/BE distinction which I think's what's troubling the OP. Mar 25, 2015 at 14:49

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