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I grew up in British Columbia, Canada. In the area where I grew up (Greater Vancouver), the school system was generally separated into elementary and high school, with elementary starting at kindergarten and ending with grade seven and high school from grades eight to twelve. To my knowledge, this is not the case in much of the rest of British Columbia or Canada, where there is elementary, middle/junior high, and high school.

From my childhood until now, there was always an inconsistency between official and practical terminology for "high school." In my experience, day-to-day speech nearly always referred to high school simply as "high school" while almost all official documents used the term "secondary school." The only person I ever heard using the term "secondary school" in daily speech was a teacher who presumably grew up from outside Canada (likely Hong Kong, based on her accent and last name).

An interesting case can be seen from a local high school. In Vancouver, there is a high school named after Lord Julian Byng, the first Viscount Byng of Vimy. A quick google search will show that the high school's official name is "Lord Byng Secondary school." However, the sign hanging atop the school's main entrance shows "LORD BYNG HIGH SCHOOL."

To my knowledge, high schools in other provinces are known as either "high schools" or "secondary schools." B.C., however, seems to strictly use "secondary school." The Canadian Encyclopedia (as of this post) lists both terms, with "secondary school" considered an alternative.

I have two questions. First, what is the history of these two terms in Canada and in British Columbia? (Wikipedia seems to imply that "high school" is a North American term.) Second, did the B.C. government change official terminology at some point in time? The second question arises from the inconsistency of usage in day-to-day versus official scenarios in my experience and from the Lord Byng Secondary School case.

I've looked through some of the acts in B.C.'s history that are related to education but couldn't find much there.

Any insight is appreciated.

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  • "High school" is the American term for a school for grades 8-12. I believe "secondary school" is British. Since Canadian English often contains a mix of BrE and AmE elements, the inconsistency doesn't surprise me.
    – alphabet
    Commented Mar 23, 2023 at 22:50
  • In the U.S. there is no consistency, even from town to town. It used to be 8 years of grammar school and 4 years of high school. Then kindergarten started, before first grade, and "high school" (meaning specialized teachers for math, science, English, etc.) expanded to "junior high school", starting in various places at grades 5, 6, or 7, with high school starting at grade 10, usually. Just about every variation can be found. Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 2:29
  • @alphabet: Where I'm from, high school is a four-year, 9–12 proposition. We have freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. What do you call your eighth graders? Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 3:04
  • @TinfoilHat Sorry, typo. I meant 9-12.
    – alphabet
    Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 3:10
  • @alphabet The UK is just as inconsistent, too. We have secondary schools, grammar schools, and high schools.
    – Kimbi
    Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 8:12

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A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (1967) has the following entry for "high school":

high school a secondary school having four or five grades, the number of grades and the nature of the curriculum varying from province to province. Cp. collegiate institute ["in Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, a secondary school that meets certain provincial requirements with regard to curriculum, facilities, and specialist staff over and above those required in a high school, q.v."] [Cited examples:] 1849 Journal of Education for U[pper] C[anada] I 47: The proposition we understand, to purchase two lots from the Odd Fellows, was entertained, by the Council, and a High School is to be erected thereon immediately. 1889 Withrow, Our Own Country 344: The Educational system of Ontario is one of the best in theworld. It consists of Public Schools, High Schools and the University, an organic whole, each part fused into the other. 1955 Western Star (Corner Brook, N[ewfoundland]) 10 Mar. 4/2: Even this year there are young Corner Brook ladies, graduates from High School, who have had to go elsewhere for training in secretarial work. 1962 Globe and Mail (Toronto) 26 Sep. 7/3: It is true that some high schools of good quality are now being called "Secondary Schools," but this indicates that they have technical and commercial subjects under the same roof as those in academic (now called arts and science) subjects.

Although this coverage is rather spotty, it is leagues better than the treatment of high school and secondary school in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998), which consists of the following entries:

high school n. 1 N Amer., Scot., Austral., & NZ a secondary school. 2 Brit. a grammar school. | high-school adj.

...

secondary school n. a school offering secondary education.

The dictionary provides no entry for "secondary education."


My experience with the terminology in question is limited to Calgary, Alberta, in the early 1970s, where I attended William Aberhart High School, and my sister attended Senator Patrick Burns Junior High School. Like all of the other high schools in Calgary at that time, Aberhart was a three-year institution (grades 10 through 12). I never heard anyone refer to it, or to any other high school in Calgary, as a secondary school rather than as a high school.

It is quite possible that terminology has changed. That is certainly the case with the emergence of "middle school" as an alternative to "junior high school" in various parts of the United States where I have lived. Similarly four-tear high schools are much more common today across the United States than they were when I was in school, with middle school still typically a three year affair,but starting at grade six instead of grade seven. In any event, Canadian usage evidently differs considerably from province to province.

One distinction that was widely observed in Calgary during the two years that I lived there was between "university" (typically with reference either to the University of Calgary or to the University of Alberta in Edmonton) and "tech" (typically, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, a post-secondary vocational school in Calgary). Aberhart students would commonly talk about their plans to "go to university" (UC or UA) or "go to tech" (SAIT). But as I recall, Aberhart High School had only a few class offerings in "technical and commercial subjects" (as the Toronto Globe and Mail characterizes them) for students who were planning to take the SAIT route—and I am not aware of any high school in the Calgary public school system (or the parallel Catholic private school system) that served as a magnet school for students on the tech track.


With regard to your first question, it appears from the entry for "high school" in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary that the term is in use in North America, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand in the "late-stage secondary school" sense. But the term also exists in Britain as a synonym for "grammar school"—and instances of this usage go back quite far. For example, from an obituary for Lord Nelson in the Sydney [New South Wales] Gazette (June 8, 1806):

At the rectory house of his father's living [at Barnham Thorpe] he first saw the light on the 29th of September 1758, and received the first part of his education at the high school at Norwich, from whence he was removed to North Waltham, at which place his literary pursuits terminated.

According to Wikipedia, the term "high school" originated in Scotland:

The first institution labeled as a "high school" was Edinburgh's Royal High School in Scotland, which was founded in 1128. The Royal High School was used as a model for the first public high school in the United States, Boston Latin School, founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1635.

The linkage between Scotland and North America seems stronger in this case than the linkage between England and North America, but it is frustratingly difficult to determine whether the "high school" alluded to in these early instances is a primary school, a secondary school, or both.

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