A gymnasium is a type of school with a strong emphasis on academic learning, and providing advanced secondary education in some parts of Europe comparable to British grammar schools, sixth form colleges and US preparatory high schools. In its current meaning, it usually refers to secondary schools focused on preparing students to enter a university for advanced academic study. Before the 20th century, the system of gymnasiums was a widespread feature of educational system throughout many countries of central, north, eastern, and south Europe.
Historically, the German Gymnasium also included in its overall accelerated curriculum postsecondary education at college level and the degree awarded substituted for the bachelor's degree (Baccalaureat) previously awarded by a college or university so that universities in Germany became exclusively graduate schools. In the United States, the German Gymnasium curriculum was used at a number of prestigious universities, such as the University of Michigan, as a model for their undergraduate college programs. The word "γυμνάσιον" (gymnasion) was used in Ancient Greece, meaning a locality for both physical and intellectual education of young men. The latter meaning of a place of intellectual education persisted in German and other languages, whereas in English the meaning of a place for physical education was retained, more familiarly in the shortened form gym.
In the Polish educational system the gimnazjum is a middle school (junior high school) for pupils aged 13 to 16. The same applies in the Greek educational system, with the additional option of Εσπερινό Γυμνάσιο (evening gymnasium) for adults and working students aged 14 upwards.
The gymnasium is a secondary school which prepares the student for higher education at a university. They are thus meant for the more academically minded students, who are sifted out at about the age of 10–13. In addition to the usual curriculum, students of a gymnasium often study Latin and Ancient Greek.
Some gymnasiums provide general education, others have a specific focus. (This also differs from country to country.) The four traditional branches are:
Curricula differ from school to school, but generally include language, mathematics, informatics, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, art (as well as crafts and design), music, history, philosophy, civics / citizenship, social sciences, and several foreign languages.
Schools concentrate not only on academic subjects, but on producing well-rounded individuals, so physical education and religion or ethics are compulsory, even in non-denominational schools which are prevalent. For example, the German constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, so although religion or ethics classes are compulsory, students may choose to study a specific religion or none at all.
Today, a number of other areas of specialization exist, such as gymnasiums specializing in economics, technology or domestic sciences. In some countries, there is a notion of progymnasium, which is equivalent to beginning classes of the full gymnasium, with the rights to continue education in a gymnasium. Here, the prefix pro- is equivalent to pre-, indicating that this curriculum precedes normal gymnasium studies.
In the German-speaking, the Central-European, the Nordic, the Benelux (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg) and the Baltic countries, this meaning for "gymnasium", that is a secondary school preparing the student for higher education at a university, has been the same at least since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The term was derived from the classical Greek word "gymnasion", which was originally applied to an exercising ground in ancient Athens. Here teachers gathered and gave instruction between the hours devoted to physical exercises and sports, and thus the term became associated with and came to mean an institution of learning.
This use of the term did not prevail among the Romans, but was revived during the Renaissance in Italy, and from there passed into the Netherlands and Germany during the 15th century. In 1538, Johannes Sturm founded at Strasbourg the school which became the model of the modern German gymnasium. In 1812, a Prussian regulation ordered that all schools which had the right to send their students to the university should bear the name of gymnasia. By the 20th century, this practice was followed in almost the entire Austrian-Hungarian, German, and Russian Empires. In the modern era, many countries which have gymnasiums were once part of these three empires.
In Albania a gymnasium (Albanian Gjimnaz) education takes three years following a compulsory nine-year elementary education and ending with a final aptitude test called Matura Shtetërore. The final test is standardized at the state level and serves as an entrance qualification for universities.
These can be either public (state-run, tuition-free) or private (fee-paying). The subjects taught are mathematics, Albanian language, one to three foreign languages, history, geography, computer science, the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics), history of art, music, philosophy, logic, physical education and the social sciences (sociology, ethics, psychology, politics and economy).
Gymnasium (Gjimnazi) is generally viewed as a destination for best performing students and as the type of school that serves primarily to prepare students for university, while other students go to technical/vocational schools. Therefore, gymnasiums often base their admittance criteria on an entrance exam, elementary school grades or some combination of the two.
In Austria the Gymnasium has two stages, from the age of 11 to 14, and from 15 to 18, concluding with Matura. Historically, three types existed. The Humanistisches Gymnasium focuses on Ancient Greek and Latin. The Neusprachliches Gymnasium puts its focus on actively spoken languages. The usual combination is English, French and Latin; sometimes French can be swapped with another foreign language (like Italian, Spanish or Russian). The Realgymnasium puts its focus on science. In the last couple of decades more autonomy was granted to schools and various types were developed, focusing on sports, music or economics, for example.
In the Czech Republic, gymnázium (also spelled gymnasium) is one type of schools that provide secondary education. There are three types of gymnázium distinguished by the length of study: eight-year, six-year and four-year types. It leads to the maturita exam.
German gymnasiums are selective schools. They offer the most academically promising youngsters a quality education that is free in all state-run schools (and generally not above 50 €/month cost in Church-run schools, though there are some expensive private schools). Gymnasiums may expel students who academically underperform their classmates or behave in a way that is seen as unacceptable.
Pupils study subjects like German, mathematics, physics, chemistry, geography, biology, arts, music, physical education, religion, history and civics/citizenship/social sciences and computer science. They are also required to study at least two foreign languages. The usual combinations are English and French or English and Latin, although many schools make it possible to combine English with another language, most often Spanish, Ancient Greek, or Russian. Religious education classes are a part of the curricula of all German schools, yet not compulsory; a student or their parents or guardians can conscientiously object taking them, in which case they (along with the confessionless pupils and those whose religion is not being taught in the school) can either elect to take an RE course of another confession or is taught ethics. In state schools, a student who is not baptised into either the Catholic or the Protestant faith is allowed to choose which of these classes to take. The only exception to this is the state of Berlin in which the subject ethics is mandatory for all students and classes and (Christian) religious studies can only be chosen additionally. A similar situation is to be found in Brandenburg where the subject life skills, ethics, and religious education (Lebensgestaltung, Ethik, Religionskunde – LER) is the primary subject but parents/guardians or students older than 13 can choose to replace it with (Christian) religious studies or take both. The intention behind LER is that students should get an objective insight on questions of personal development and ethics as well as on the major world religions.
For younger students nearly the entire curriculum of a Gymnasium is compulsory; in higher grades elective subjects are available and some of the formerly compulsory subjects can be dropped, but the choice is not as wide as in other school systems, like US high schools.
Although some specialist Gymnasiums have English or French as the language of instruction, at most Gymnasiums lessons (apart from foreign language courses) are conducted in Standard German.
The number of years of instruction at a Gymnasium differs between the states. It varies between six and seven years in Berlin and Brandenburg (primary school is six years in both as opposed to four years in the rest of Germany) and eight in Bavaria, Hesse and Baden-Württemberg among others. While in Saxony and Thuringia students have never been taught more than eight years in Gymnasium (by default), nearly all states now conduct the Abitur examinations, which complete the Gymnasium education, after 12 years of primary school and Gymnasium combined. In addition to that, some states still or again offer a 13-year curriculum leading to the Abitur. These final examinations are centrally drafted and controlled (Zentralabitur) in all German states except for Rhineland-Palatinate and provide a qualification to attend any German university.
In Italy originally the Ginnasio indicated a typology of five-year junior high school (age 11 to 16) and preparing to the three year Classical Lyceum (age 16 to 19), a high school focusing on classical studies and humanities. After the school reform that unified the junior high school system, the term Ginnasio stayed to indicate the first two year of Liceo Classico, now five years long. Oddly enough, an Italian high school student who enrolls in Liceo Classico follows this study path: Quarta Ginnasio (gymnasium fourth year, age 14), Quinta Ginnasio (gymnasium fifth year, age 15), Prima Liceo (Liceo first year, age 16), Seconda Liceo (Liceo second year, age 17) and Terza Liceo (Liceo third year, age 18). Some believe this still has some sense, since the two-year Ginnasio has a very different set of mind from the Liceo. Ginnasio students spend most of their time studying Greek and Latin grammar, laying the bases for the "higher" and more complicated set of studies of the Liceo, such as Greek and Latin literature and Philosophy.
In the Netherlands, gymnasium is the highest variant of secondary education, offering the academically most promising youngsters (top 5%) a quality education that is in most cases free (and in other cases at low cost). It consists of six years, after 8 years (including kindergarten) of primary school, in which pupils study the same subjects as their German counterparts, with the addition of compulsory Ancient Greek, Latin and Klassieke Culturele Vorming, Classical Cultural Education, history of the Ancient Greek and Roman culture and literature. Schools have some freedom in choosing their specific curriculum, with for example Spanish, Philosophy and "Technasium", a very technical and highly demanding course, being available as final exams. Usually schools will have all classes mandatory in switching combinations for the first three or so years (with the exception of Technasium which is a free choice from the second year onwards), after which students will choose their subjects in the directions of Economics and Society, Culture and Society, Nature and Health, Nature and Technology or Technology. The equivalent without classical languages is called Atheneum, and gives access to the same university studies (although some extra classes are needed when starting a degree in classical languages or theology). All are government-funded. See VWO for the full article on Dutch "preparatory scientific education".
In Denmark, Estonia, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Latvia, Norway and Sweden gymnasium consists of three years, usually starting at the year the students are turning 16 years old after nine or ten years of primary school. In Iceland and Lithuania the gymnasium usually consists of four years of schooling starting at the age of 15-16, the last year roughly corresponding to the first year of college.
In the Nordic countries, education is meant to be free. This includes not only primary school, but most gymnasiums and universities as well. Furthermore, to help decrease the heritage of historic social injustice, all countries except Iceland have universal grants for students. However, entrance is competitive and based on merit.
In Denmark, there are four kinds of gymnasiums: STX (Regular Examination Programme), HHX (Higher Business Examination Programme), HTX (Higher Technical Examination Programme) and HF (Higher Preparatory Examination Programme). HF is only two years, instead of the three required for STX, HHX, and HTX. All four type of gymnasiums theoretically gives the same eligibility for university. However, because of different subjects offered, students may be better qualified in an area of further study. E.g. HHX students have subjects that make them more eligible for studies such as business studies or economy at university. There is also EUX, which takes four years and ends with both the STX exam and status as a journeyman of a craft. 
In the Faroe Islands, there are also four kinds of gymnasiums, which are equivalents to the Danish educations: Studentaskúli (equivalent to STX), Handilsskúli (HHX), Tekniski skúli (HTX) and HF (HF). Studentaskúli and HF are usually located at the same institutions as can be seen in the name of the institute in Eysturoy: Studentaskúlin og HF-skeiðið í Eysturoy.
In Greenland, there is a single kind of gymnasium, "Den Gymnasiale Uddannelse" (Ilinniarnertuunngorniarneq), that replaced the earlier Greenlandic Secondary Education Programme (GU), the Greenland Higher Commercial Examination Programme (HHX) and the Greenland education to Higher Technical Examination Programme (HTX), which were based on the Danish system. This programme allows a more flexible Greenland gymnasium, where students based on a common foundation course can choose between different fields of study that meets the individual student's abilities and interests. The course is offered in Aasiaat, Nuuk, Sisimiut and Qaqortoq, with one in Ilulissat to be opened in 2015, latest in 2016 if approved by Inatsisartut.
In Finland, the admissions to gymnasiums are competitive, the accepted people comprising 51% of the age group. The gymnasiums concludes with the matriculation examination, an exam whose grades are the main criteria for university admissions.
In Slovakia, gymnázium is one type of schools that provide secondary education. There are two types of gymnázium distinguished by the length of study: eight-year and four-year types (more common). Other types are bilingual (usually Slovak/French or Slovak/English) and private gymnáziums. All of them lead to the maturita exam.
In Switzerland, gymnasia (Gymnasien, gymnases) are selective schools that provide a three- or four-year course of advanced secondary education intended to prepare students to attend university. They conclude with a nationally standardized exam, the maturité or Maturität, often shortened to "Matura", which if passed allows students to attend a Swiss university. The gymnasia are operated by the cantons of Switzerland, and accordingly in many cantons they are called Kantonsschule (cantonal school).
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia, a gymnasium education takes four years following a compulsory eight or nine-year elementary education and ending with a final aptitude test called Matura. In these countries the final test is standardized at the state level and can serve as an entrance qualification for universities.
There are both public (state-run and tuition-free) and private (fee-paying) gymnasium schools in these countries.
The subjects taught are mathematics, the native language, one to three foreign languages, history, geography, informatics (computers), the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics), history of art, music, philosophy, logic, physical education and the social sciences (sociology, ethics or religious education, psychology, politics and economy). Religious studies are optional. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia, Latin is also a mandatory subject in all gymnasiums, just as Ancient Greek is, with Latin, in a certain type of gymnasiums called Classical Gymnasiums (klasična gimnazija).
In all of the countries, the gymnasium (Gimnazija/Gjimnazi) is generally viewed as a destination for best-performing students and as the type of school that serves primarily to prepare students for university studies, while other students go to technical/vocational schools. Therefore, gymnasiums often base their admittance criteria on an entrance exam, elementary school grades or a combination of the two.
Depending on country, the final degree (if any) is called Abitur, Artium, Diploma, Matura, Maturita or Student and it usually opens the way to professional schools directly. However, depending on which country the issuing school is located in, these degrees are occasionally not fully accredited internationally, and students willing to attend foreign university often have to submit to further exams to be permitted access to them. The final two or three years at a gymnasium can be seen as an equivalent to the first two years at college in the United States.
In countries like Canada or Austria, most university faculties only accept students from secondary schools that last four years (rather than three). This includes all Gymnasium students but only a part of vocational high schools, in effect making Gymnasium the preferred choice for all pupils aiming for university diplomas.
In Germany, other types of secondary school are called Realschule, Hauptschule and Gesamtschule. These are attended by about two-thirds of the students and the first two are practically unknown in other parts of the world. A Gesamtschule largely corresponds to a British or American high school. However, it offers the same school leaving certificates as the other three types of German secondary schools—the Hauptschulabschluss (school leaving certificate of a Hauptschule after 9th Grade or in Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia after 10th Grade), the Realschulabschluss, also called Mittlere Reife (school leaving certificate of a Realschule after 10th Grade), and Abitur, also called Hochschulreife, after 12th Grade. Students who graduate from Hauptschule or Realschule may continue their schooling at a vocational school until they have full job qualifications. It is also possible to get an erweiterter Realschulabschluss after 10th grade that allows the students to continue their education at the Oberstufe of a gymnasium and get an Abitur. There are two types of vocational school in Germany. The Berufsschule, a part-time vocational school and a part of Germany's dual education system, and the Berufsfachschule, a full-time vocational school outside the dual education system. Both types of school are also part of Germany's secondary school system. Students who graduate from a vocational school and students who graduate with a good grade point average from a Realschule can continue their schooling at another type of German secondary school, the Fachoberschule, a vocational high school. The school leaving exam of this type of school, the Fachhochschulreife, enables the graduate to start studying at a Fachhochschule (polytechnic), and in Hesse also at a university within the state. Students who have graduated from vocational school and have been working in a job for at least three years can go to Berufsoberschule to get either a "Fachabitur" (meaning they may go to university, but they can only study the subjects belonging to the "branch" (economical, technical, social) they studied in at Berufschule.) after one year, or the normal "Abitur" (after two years), which gives them complete access to universities.