When you think of secondary education, you likely think of the United States of America’s perspective on secondary learning.

This means understanding the American high school system and all of the educational opportunities that people have within it. However, secondary education is an internationally recognized term and varies in nature all around the world. Learn more about what the definition of secondary education is, why secondary education is a key part of a young person’s development, and how secondary education varies worldwide.

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What is secondary education?

Secondary education, in most countries, refers to the stage of education in which a young person goes through adolescence, developing rapidly physically, emotionally, and intellectually. At this stage, schools impose core values and attitudes on their students that they keep throughout their lives. UNESCO defines secondary education through a series of tiers, primarily to keep accurate statistics from countries worldwide. Despite this definition, different countries educate young people uniquely depending on their history and culture.

The importance of secondary education

Secondary education is one of the most important parts of young people’s development for a few reasons. The first is that modern society relies on people having a range of specialties and abilities that make them experts in their field. Secondary education is the very first step in creating these specialties. Students can delve further into fields they are interested in rather than sticking to a set curriculum.

Furthermore, secondary education is a significant marker in understanding who young person turns into when they’re older. At this stage, students pick up the values they hold dear in life and develop significantly. Effective secondary education means that they build the correct values and become a member of a better society, contributing significantly to the lives of people around them every day.

Features defining the transition to secondary education

A few features clearly define when someone transitions from primary education into secondary education. By going through this transition, students become more advanced in their relevant subject areas and develop specialties. Some of these features include:

Moving away from single-class-teacher

Primary education, or elementary school in the USA, mainly focuses on classes having only one teacher. This teacher will educate the entire class and stay with them for the year or, in some cases, throughout their school career. Schools choose their policies, which depends on the research that the school leadership has seen regarding which strategy is best for students. Starting secondary education is the end of this way of learning.

During secondary teaching, teachers tend to specialize in one subject. This includes having math teachers, science teachers, and teachers in more specific subjects such as political science. As elementary school provides the fundamental foundations of education, teachers can convey all of this information efficiently. This isn’t the case when students start secondary education, which is a more complex look at all subjects.

Greater teaching detail

One of the main parts of the transition from primary to secondary education is the increase in detail teachers offer their students. This is part of the reason for having specialist teachers, as young people in secondary education learn far more about their subjects than a generalist teacher might necessarily understand. Most schools hire teachers with degrees or other formal qualifications in their subjective choice, demonstrating a high level of knowledge and understanding.

A significant benefit of having specialist teachers is that students at this age start to develop at very different rates from one another. More specifically, this means that some students exceed a generalist’s knowledge in very little time. Specialists provide a more excellent ceiling for learning and support their students in reaching their potential, whether relatively low or incredibly high.

Dropping subjects

At this stage of education, students start to drop some of their subjects. This refers to situations where, for example, in the UK, young people decide on the areas that interest them and study these subjects to get specific qualifications. Dropping subjects also means that students have a more comprehensive range of subjects they can choose from. For example, in elementary school, every single student studies math, history, English, and other foundational subjects. In high school, students get to choose what they learn and focus on things they find more interesting to forge a career in the coming years.

Students dropping subjects is a necessity for effective secondary education. Having more time in the week means that students can focus more on the subjects of their choice rather than wasting time on subjects they don’t pay any attention to because they are part of a more comprehensive curriculum. In some countries, students only drop some optional subjects, with some topics such as math and English remaining mandatory to ensure that people have the skills necessary to get by in daily life.

Potentially voluntary

In some countries, secondary education is voluntary for students. Where the academic route is ideal for some people, this isn’t always the case, with others preferring to follow an employment-based route in their development. This includes taking on the challenge of internships or apprenticeships and securing a job sooner than those who would prefer to stay in education for longer. Society needs all kinds of people, with manual jobs primarily insisting on people who don’t go through all secondary education.

The United Kingdom is one country that makes education in some form mandatory up until the age of 18. However, there are opportunities for learning outside the classroom in these cases. Apprenticeships in the UK come with a qualification, which means that people actively learn and prove it by having a formal certificate to support their ability. Different countries take different approaches, as each nation has unique needs for its workforce.

Secondary education around the world

Different countries do different things when dealing with secondary education. Other countries using secondary education in unique ways include:

The United States of America

The USA has an education system in which high school is always considered a part of secondary education. This is because students have a series of core subjects and electives, a defining factor of a secondary education system. Most schools require graduation, achieving at least 30 credits across a selection of subjects to leave high school with a diploma.

In some cases, middle and junior high schools are considered a part of secondary education. Students get to choose some electives that are part of their specialization toward a career path. Still, there is significantly less independence than a high school student receives. As adolescence is a defining factor of secondary education, the age group that middle schools cover makes it difficult to define as some students will have started puberty and others will have not.

The United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, two forms of education could be considered secondary. The first of these is high school, which starts at 11 and goes until a student is 16 years old. From 14 to 16, students do their “options,” equivalent to electives in an American high school. UK students work towards qualifications on a class-by-class basis, with completing their GCSEs being the core goal of high school.

Due to UK education law, students go through some form of education up to 18. The first of these options is college, which covers the ages of 16 to 18 and takes students through a series of A-level qualifications. The alternative to this is completing an apprenticeship or internship in which the student learns on the job but still earns money as part of what they see as an opportunity for a future career.


The secondary education system in Spain currently consists of two cycles. This includes the ESO, a compulsory secondary education, and the “Bachillerato,” a non-compulsory stage of education for people with interest in increasing their specialization in a range of exciting subjects.

Spain’s historic secondary education system, however, is arguably more interesting. Primary education went until the 8th grade, with secondary education beyond this not being compulsory. This changed significantly after Francisco Franco’s reign over the country ended, with the Iberian country looking to modernize and develop significantly to catch up with the nation’s European nations, such as France and Germany. This is part of the reason that only 80% of the population have a secondary diploma in Spain.