Upper secondary education

Programmes at ISCED level 3, or upper secondary education, are typically designed to complete secondary education in preparation for tertiary education or provide skills relevant to employment, or both.

Programmes at this level offer students more varied, specialised and in-depth instruction than programmes at ISCED level 2. They are more differentiated, with an increased range of options and streams available. Upper secondary school teachers are often highly qualified in the subjects or fields of specialisation they teach, particularly in the higher grades.

ISCED level 3 begins after 8 to 11 years of education since the beginning of ISCED level 1. Pupils enter this level typically between ages 14 and 16. ISCED level 3 programmes usually end 12 or 13 years after the beginning of ISCED level 1 (or around age 17 or 18), with 12 years being the most widespread cumulative duration. However, exit from upper secondary education may range across education systems from usually 11 to 13 years of education since the beginning of ISCED level 1.

Programmes classified at ISCED level 3 may be referred to in many ways, for example: secondary school (stage two/upper grades), senior secondary school, or (senior) high school. For international comparability purposes the term ‘upper secondary education’ is used to label ISCED level 3.

Classification criteria

For the definition of upper secondary education, the following criteria are relevant:

  • Main criteria
    • a) Second/final stage of general and vocational secondary education;
    • b) Entry requirements; and
    • c) Cumulative duration since the beginning of ISCED level 1.
  • Subsidiary criteria
    • a) More differentiated programmes, with an increased range of options and streams; and
    • b) Teacher qualifications

Programmes which form the second/final stage of secondary education may be either general or vocational ISCED level 3 programmes. Some of these programmes allow direct access to ISCED level 4, and/or level 5, 6 or 7. When identifying transition points between ISCED levels, correspondence between general and vocational pathways should be ensured.

ISCED level 3 requires the completion of lower secondary education (ISCED level 2) or the ability to handle ISCED level 3 content through a combination of prior education as well as life and work experiences. A specific ISCED level 2 qualification or a specific level of achievement may be required for entering some or all ISCED level 3 programmes.

The transition from ISCED level 2 to ISCED level 3 coincides with the transition point in an education system at which programmes offer students more varied, specialised and in-depth instruction in specific subjects or fields. Typically, programmes are more differentiated, and an increased range of options and streams are available.

Standards for teacher qualifications may be different at ISCED level 3 compared to ISCED level 2. In addition to pedagogical training, teachers may be more qualified with respect to the subject matter they teach.

Other programmes included in ISCED level 3

ISCED level 3 includes programmes suited to individuals with special needs that are equivalent in complexity of content to programmes already classified at ISCED level 3.

This level can include some second-cycle vocational programmes in cases where the transition points at the end of the second cycle correspond to transition points between levels in other, mainly general, pathways offered in the system.

This level also includes upper secondary-level second chance or re-integration programmes. Such education programmes usually target individuals who:

  • left school before completing upper secondary education, allowing them to re-enter the education system and complete upper secondary education; or
  • completed upper secondary education but wish to enter a programme or occupation for which they are not yet qualified. Participants are typically older than the target age group for ISCED level 3.

This level also includes adult education programmes equivalent in complexity of content to the education given in programmes already classified at this level.

Complementary dimensions

Two dimensions differentiate education programmes at ISCED level 3:

  • • Programme orientation; and
  • • Level completion and access to higher ISCED level.

Programme orientation

The following two orientation categories are defined:

  • • General education; and
  • • Vocational education.

Level completion and access to higher ISCED levels

The following four level completion and access sub-categories are defined for ISCED level 3:

  • No completion of ISCED level 3 (and thus without direct access to first tertiary programmes at ISCED level 5, 6 or 7): short, terminal programmes (or sequence of programmes) with a duration of less than two years at ISCED level 3 or that end after less than 11 years of cumulative duration since the beginning of ISCED level 1. These programmes do not give direct access to ISCED level 5, 6 or 7. Successful completion of such programmes does not count as completion of ISCED level 3. Note also that these programmes do not give direct access to ISCED level 4 either.
  • Partial completion of ISCED level 3 without direct access to first tertiary programmes at ISCED level 5, 6 or 7: programmes representing at least 2 years at ISCED level 3 and a cumulative duration of at least 11 years since the beginning of ISCED level 1, and which are part of a sequence of programmes at ISCED level 3 but are not the last programme in the sequence at this level. These programmes do not give direct access to ISCED level 5, 6 or 7. Successful completion of such programmes is considered as partial completion of the level only (as only the final programme in the sequence is likely to give access to tertiary education at ISCED level 5, 6 or 7). Note also that these programmes do not give direct access to ISCED level 4 either.
  • Completion of ISCED level 3 without direct access to first tertiary programmes at ISCED level 5, 6 or 7: programmes with a duration of at least two years at ISCED level 3 and that end after at least 11 years of cumulative duration since the beginning of ISCED level 1. These programmes may be terminal or give direct access to ISCED level 4. Successful completion of such programmes qualifies for completion of ISCED level 3.
  • Completion of ISCED level 3 with direct access to first tertiary programmes at ISCED level 5, 6 or 7: any programmes that give direct access to first tertiary programmes at ISCED level 5, 6 or 7 regardless of their duration at level 3 or their cumulative duration since the start of ISCED level 1. These programmes may also give direct access to ISCED level 4.
Last updated on October 28, 2022

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