Iran, Islamic Rep. of

Shahrnaz Bakhshalizadeh
Abdol’azim Karimi
Research Institute for Education
National Study Center for TIMSS & PIRLS

Overview of Education System

The education system in Iran is a social and cultural institution that serves as the most important organization for the edification, dissemination, and transfer of culture in Iranian society, helping students to lay appropriate foundations and develop appropriate values.1 According to Article 3 of Iran’s constitution, the Iranian government is responsible for providing free education and strengthening the spirit of inquiry and investigation in all areas of science, technology, culture, and Islamic studies through secondary school. Religious minority groups, including Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, are free to teach and practice their own religion.

The Ministry of Education is composed of several deputy ministries, organizations, and centers with specific administrative responsibilities, including developing goals and strategies, conducting and supervising educational activities, developing curricula and textbooks, publishing and distributing educational materials, planning and conducting professional development for teachers, as well as teacher education, carrying out student assessment and examinations, and defining human resource policies within the Ministry (see Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1: Divisions in the Ministry of Education2

Deputy Ministries Organizations Centers Offices
Primary Education Educational Research and Planning Human Resources and Information Technology Planning Secretariat of the Central Recruitment Committee
Secondary Education Renovating and Equipping Schools Talented and Gifted Students and Young Researchers Performance Evaluation and Responding to Complaints
Educational and Cultural Affairs Private Schools and Public Participation Department of International Affairs and Schools Abroad Veterans Affairs
Health and Physical Education Students with Special Needs Assessment and Evaluation
Legal Affairs and Parliament Literacy Movement
Development and Management Support Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults

The Supreme Educational Council, an autonomous legislative body, is responsible for adopting and communicating executive policies; designing mechanisms for achieving policy objectives; improving relevant structures and processes; updating, amending, and coordinating policies and programs; and monitoring the implementation of programs pertaining to the strategic reform of education. The council is required to submit an annual progress report on the implementation of the fundamental reform plan and the performance of the Ministry of Education to the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution.

At the tertiary level, the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology oversees universities offering nonmedical degrees; the Ministry of Health and Medical Education oversees medical schools and paramedical degrees; and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs oversees nonformal vocational education.

The ultimate goals of education in Iran are grouped into cultural and ethical goals; scientific and instructional goals; social, environmental, and life goals; and economic goals.

The structure of Iran’s education through the upper secondary level is highly centralized. The Ministry of Education administers and finances schools at the primary and secondary levels (Grades 1 to 12). The formal education system in Iran includes six years of primary education. At age 12, children begin three years of lower secondary education, followed by three years of upper secondary education (see Exhibit 2). A high school diploma is required to enter university.

Exhibit 2: Education System in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Level of Schooling Ages Grades Number of Years Number of Sessions per Week
Preprimary (not formal) 4–5 Not yet mandatory 2 years Varies by institute
Primary (comprising 2 periods of 3 years each) 6–8
6 years 25 (45 minutes each)
Lower Secondary 12–14 7–9 3 years 30 (50 minutes each)
Upper Secondary 15–17 10–12 3 years 35 (50 minutes each)
Vocational 15–17 10–12 3 years 40 (50 minutes each)

The preprimary year prepares children for the formal primary stage of education. A one month course in Farsi is required in bilingual areas of the country where Farsi is not the primary language spoken. In these communities, Farsi is taught in addition to regular preprimary activities. The Organization for Educational Research and Planning and the Welfare Organization are responsible for the supervision and educational preparation of preschool centers. Preschools may be public or private and may cater to only boys or girls, although many admit both. The main objectives of preprimary education comprise the following:

  • Contribute to the physical, mental, emotional, and social growth of children
  • Promote children’s socio-emotional development, self-confidence, sense of environmental conditions, and sense of aesthetics
  • Provide children with opportunities to enjoy and be interested in group activities
  • Strengthen religious and ethical values and national identity
  • Promote desired social and individual behavior in children
  • Promote oral language development and communication skills

Primary education, the first stage of formal education, lasts six years (Grades 1 to 6) for students ages 6 to11. The main objectives of this stage are to:

  • Create an atmosphere for moral development
  • Develop literacy and numeracy skills
  • Develop social skills
  • Teach students about personal hygiene
  • Develop students’ talents, abilities, and physical strength

The subjects taught in primary school include Holy Quran, Farsi (reading, writing, and dictation), mathematics, science, religious education, social studies (social studies, history, and geography), art, and physical education. In addition to the above subjects, Thinking and Inquiry, Technology, and Occupations also are taught in sixth grade. Typically, one teacher is responsible for teaching all subjects except religion, art, and physical education in Grades 1 to 3. In Grades 4 to 6, mathematics and science are taught by specialist teachers in most schools.

The lower secondary stage of education lasts three years (Grades 7 to 9) for students ages 12 to 14. At this stage, students become familiar with various subjects in the physical and social sciences, as well as humanities and art. The main goals of the lower secondary stage comprise the following:

  • Develop moral and intellectual abilities
  • Increase general knowledge
  • Strengthen academic discipline and scientific imagination
  • Identify individual preferences and talents in order to direct students toward suitable programs of study

In addition to the subjects taught at the primary level, students in lower secondary school receive second language instruction in a language of their choice (English, French, or German), vocational education, and defense education (boys only).

Upper secondary education lasts three years (Grades 10 to 12) for students ages 15 to 17. At this stage, students choose among academic (theoretical), technical and vocational, and Kar-Danesh (skill-knowledge) tracks of study. These programs have different objectives and are intended for students with different abilities and interests. Academic programs prepare students to enter university, and students who select these programs focus on mathematics, natural science, or social science, based on their education and career interests. Both technical and vocational and Kar-Danesh programs prepare students for participation in the labor market after finishing high school, and lead to either a post-diploma degree or a skill certificate, respectively. Students who complete either of these programs have the opportunity to continue their education at a vocational college, where they may choose a program based on their capabilities and interests, or take a university entrance examination after completing vocational college.

In Iran, there are public and private schools at all levels, from elementary school through university. Approximately 7 percent of primary schools, 10 percent of lower secondary schools, 18 percent of upper secondary schools, and 18 percent of technical and vocational institutions are private.3. These schools must conform to the regulations of the Ministry of Education, though they are financed primarily through tuition fees received from students. Public schools in Iran are free to all citizens.4

Languages of Instruction

Article 15 of the Iranian constitution states “the official language (of Iran)… is Persian [Farsi] …[and]…the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian.”  The population of Iran is approximately 78.4 million5 with a literacy rate of 83 percent. Persian is the mother tongue of at least 65 percent of the population and is spoken by a large proportion of the remaining 35 percent.6 Iran is a diverse country with a population comprising many ethnic backgrounds, including Persians (53 percent), Azerbaijanis (16 percent), Kurds (10 percent), Lurs (7 percent), Arabs (2 percent), Baluchis (2 percent), Turkmens (1 percent), and Turkic tribal groups, such as the Mazandarani and Gilaki (7 percent). There is a one month program offered to children entering first grade who speak a different language at home than the national language (Farsi).