I’ve talked about parts of this all over the forum, this is really just assembling it all into one place.
What do we know about the education system of Equestria?
We know that Ponyville has a one-room schoolhouse that appears to only have one class and teacher. No other schools or teachers are referred to within Ponyville. The expectation seems to be that foals will start school before gaining their cutie-mark, but will gain it at some point while in school. Lessons include regular reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as general history and other subjects that seem geared towards giving the students opportunities to find their special talents.
We know that Twilight attended a special school: Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, for which she had to pass an entrance exam, and was apparently still attending in some way when she was sent to Ponyville by Celestia in the first episode. It was during the exam that she gained her cutie-mark, and Twilight specifically said that she was late in getting a cutie-mark. This gives us a vague time-frame for this advanced school. Out-of-show, the various creative staff have mentioned that both Trixie and Sunset Shimmer were at one point students at this same school, but all three were in different ‘years’ so as to not encounter Twilight directly at any point.
We know of the Wonderbolts Academy which is attended by full adults, which gives the impression of a military training facility. I really handled that one back in the third part of my first worldbuilding essay here. In summary, in order for the Wonderbolts and their Academy to really be the Equestrian equivalent to the Blue Angels, Red Arrows, or Snowbirds (three different military stunt teams), then the weatherponies, including Rainbow Dash, are likely members of the Equestrian equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers.
What can we do with this?
The foundation here is the one-room school. This follows a similar model as the rural one-room schoolhouses found in America in the mid 1800’s. This works quite differently than modern schools, which debuted in the early 1900’s, so it might be a bit puzzling for people. At that time, the ‘class’ wasn’t divided by age. All students would get the same lessons, but the older students would be expected to complete more elaborate versions of the same exercises and assist the younger students. For example, a common textbook in poorer districts would be an almanac, a compilation of weather predictions, informative articles on farming, as well as ‘important’ historical and literary excerpts. (As school supplies were purchased locally, there would be high variation from region to region depending on the funds being made available to the school.) A lesson would be reading a section of the almanac. Young students would be concentrated on simply identifying letters, slightly older students would be reading the words themselves, while the older students would be attempting to understand the concepts and finding uses for the ‘lessons’.
Ponyville gives the impression of being a wealthy rural district with a significant sized town, so they’re not as limited and have many more resources available. However, the idea is the same in that the class is not divided by age. These schools would only have the students for four to six years, depending on how quickly the individual student moved through the lessons, and then they would go on to further education depending on their parent’s personal means.
The poorest students would simply be released to be laborers. Those with some money or connections would become apprentices for skilled laborers, such as carpenters, smiths, and the like. At this point the apprentice system was highly regulated, with ‘masters’ needing to be certified by their guild-equivalent before being allowed to take on apprentices.
If however the student had serious funding or better connections, they would move to a more advanced school. Usually a boarding school in a big city. These would have actual classes separated by entrance year, and cover more esoteric lessons like comportment, rhetoric, literature, music, history, and the like. These could be called ‘secondary’, ‘high’, ‘finishing’ schools, or a variety of other names. This schooling would normally last another six or so years, and the graduates of this would go on to apprenticeship in more white-collar jobs like business, medical, law, government, etc. Or go on to the final pass at a College or a University (which at the time were collections of Colleges that were sharing resources), which was considered to be a superior substitute to the advanced apprenticeship system as you would be exposed to a wider range of opportunities than if you were tied to a single master.
This is why the advanced degree in modern universities is called a ‘Master’ degree. At one point that was the minimum requirement for a person to call themselves a Master and take on apprentices/students in those subjects.
Anyway, Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns very much resembles one of these secondary schools, going directly into a College. Twilight will have actually been in a primary school prior to taking the exam, and was either truly late in getting her cutie-mark, or was precocious/annoying enough that her parents brought her to the entrance exam early. Or both. The episode gives the impression that if Twilight hadn’t experienced that magic surge that she wouldn’t have gotten into the school. However, the test of hatching the egg was more like the various interview questions high-tech industries used to give, where they don’t expect you to know the answer. They’re more interested in how you approach the question. They probably didn’t expect her to actually hatch the egg, they just wanted to see what she would do when *trying*.
Rarity likely attended a Finishing School as well in Canterlot, which is why her accent doesn’t match her parents or Sweetie Bell. Students of secondary education at this time usually were taught ‘comportment’ which includes etiquette, speech patterns, and so on. In England, students ended up with what’s called Received Pronunciation accents. In America, it was ‘Mid-Atlantic’ accents which is what happens when Received Pronunciation moves across the water to America and is blended with the normal East Coast accents. Rarity’s accent goes away when she’s really stressed, at least in earlier seasons. She seems to be getting more proficient and not losing it as often now.
A final note on this, it’s interesting that Twilight, upon arriving at Ponyville moved directly into the library and became the official librarian with no fuss or bother. It’s not even mentioned what happened to the prior librarian. It’s possible that the library system is considered part of the education system in Equestria. Royalty tends to have personal projects that they have official and immediate control over. Celestia appears to take a personal interest in the education system (having her own schools, and having personal students), so likely she exercised that immediate power to appoint Twilight as Ponyville librarian without having to go through the regular ‘I’m the Princess’ hoopla that must follow her everywhere else.