Back to School from Around the World

Back to school fever has officially hit the United States! Over the next few weeks, children across the country will be heading off to school for the start of another exciting academic year. Days will be filled with courses in English, math, science, and history among many others, where students will prepare themselves for life beyond the classroom walls. The same holds true for countries around the globe. While the structure, schedules and styles may differ, one thing that remains constant is the importance of a child’s opportunity to learn. Organizations worldwide including the United Nations Children Fund , the Global Campaign for Education, and the Global Women’s Fund, among countless others are working hard to ensure this right to education remains available to all children around the world.

To provide a better understanding of how students learn in other parts of the world, we’ve pulled some fun and interesting facts from places as close as Mexico and as far away as South Korea. They have been grouped by geographic region for your convenience.


Map courtesy of National Geographic

The education system found in many European countries is perhaps most similar to what we follow here in the United States. Academic years begin in the fall, with start dates ranging from mid-August to late-September depending on the country. Students typically begin their day between 8am and 9am, and can go as late as 5pm. Most European countries place a strong emphasis on testing. For example, students in France are required to take and pass the extensive three part Baccalaureate exam to attend a university. Additionally, in Poland, students are required to complete an external exam once they have finished one of their many schooling levels (primary, lower secondary, etc.).

Additional facts about education in Europe:

  • In France, schools are traditionally closed on Wednesday, with required half day classes offered on Saturdays.

  • In Finland, school days are actually shorter than here in the United States, and students receive a 75 minute break for recess each day. Further, students are not subject to rigorous exams and rarely receive more than an hour worth of homework each night.

  • In Germany, vocational training carries the same significance as university studies. Through a dual educational system, vocational students are able to work as apprentices and receive hands on training related to their studies. Following graduation, these positions may result in full-time job opportunities.

  • In Poland, students choose their final educational path prior to graduation. These vary from three year vocational studies to a three year upper secondary school path, or both.


Map courtesy of National Geographic

Back to school time in Asia varies depending on the country. South Korea and Japan, for example, start their year in the spring, whereas China, Hong Kong and Russia begin in September. The structure and style of teaching in Asia also differs across the region. East Asian schools like those in South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong are known for their strict education and extensive testing culture. Alternatively, Russia follows a system closer to that of its European neighbors and requires testing as part of the admission requirement for a university education.

Additional facts about education in Asia:

  • In Hong Kong, class sizes can be large, with as many as 42 kids in each classroom. Some teachers must use microphones to ensure their lessons are heard. This makes one-on-one and small group time between teachers and students difficult.

  • In Japan, it is normal for parents to pay for their children to attend after school tutoring sessions, or Juku. These “Cram Schools” are rigorous, and are intended to either complement a student’s classroom instruction, or prepare them for the extensive testing needed to enter private school, high school or even university.

  • In Russia, there are roughly 16 students in each classroom, and the students remain in the same class over the course of their education which ends at grade ten. Students have the option of completing their eleventh and twelfth grades through vocational studies to learn trade skills, or take the time to prepare for their university entrance exams.

  • In South Korea, testing is so prominent, cities and towns literally come to a standstill on testing days. In fact, traffic is stopped and planes are diverted in some places to minimize noise.

Middle East and Africa

Map courtesy of National Geographic

The Middle East and Africa encompass two hemispheres, resulting in a number of different school years and educational systems. Nigeria and South Africa follow a twelve-month schedule beginning in January, while Iran follows a similar calendar to that found in the United States. Schools in this region also differ in terms of courses taught and the quality of resources provided. Conflict and poverty in many of these regions have made it difficult for children to receive a quality education. Limited resources, lack of schools, and a declining number of qualified teachers have had a major impact on the quality of education provided.

Additional facts about education in the Middle East and Africa:

  • In Nigeria, traditional classes (language studies, math, etc.) are coupled with courses on religion, agriculture and economics. This is done over the course of three terms with month long holidays at each break.

  • In Iran, students are required to pass an exam each year in order to move to the next grade level. Additionally, girls and boys are educated separately up until they enter university.

  • In South Africa, education is required for students up to, and including grade nine. Grades 10-12 are available to those who wish to continue with upper secondary school and prepare for their university entrance exams. Students also have an option of following a vocational track.

The Americas

Map courtesy of National Geographic

Schools systems throughout North, Central and South America differ in terms of size, length of school year, and quality of education. Canada is vastly similar to the United States, in their schooling structure and schedules. Greater differences occur as you move south into Central and South America, especially where resources have become strained. In Mexico for example, classrooms are overcrowded, and students are often times expected to share computers and other classroom resources. Even in parts of Brazil, financial strain has forced some schools to eliminate elective courses (art, music, etc.) from their curriculum.

Additional facts about education in the North, Central and South America:

  • In Costa Rica, the school year runs from February through December. Students are required to complete nine years of formal education, with college beginning at age fifteen.

  • In Mexico, the school year runs from September through June. The school week lasts Monday through Friday, with elective classes on Saturday.

  • In Brazil, a typical school day runs from 7am until noon, at which time students head home to share lunch with their family.