Education Systems in the UK and the USA
Published on December 10, 2019 / Updated on September 5, 2023
The education systems can’t be that different, right? In fact, the difference between sending your child to school in the UK vs. in the US is a lot more than them looking forward to their holiday or their vacation. Or getting into trouble for smoking in the toilets vs. the restroom. Because, while the two countries have a lot in common, their education systems differ quite substantially.
The main similarity in the British schooling system vs. the American is the language of instruction. In both countries, lessons are taught in English and exams are taken in this language too. Education is also provided to all citizens and residents for free. In the UK, funds come from the central government. In the US, money comes mainly from state budgets.
The subjects studied are broadly similar. English, maths and the sciences are all compulsory through most of the education system. In high school in the US and after the age of 14 in the UK, students get more of a choice in what they study. They might take geography classes but no history, or concentrate on modern languages or business studies.
Shockingly for most residents of non-English speaking countries, learning a foreign language is not compulsory for students in the UK or the US. However, in the US most high schools do require a language to be studied. Spanish is a popular foreign language to learn in both countries.
This is a cause of constant confusion even between native English speakers. In the UK, government-managed schools are called state schools and the schools to which parents pay for their children to attend are public schools. In the US, public schools are the government-funded ones, while private schools require payment from parents. No, I have no idea why we had to make it so complicated.
Students in the US almost always attend three different schools: elementary, middle and high school. In the UK, a lot of students only attend two schools: primary and secondary. Between the ages of 16 and 18, students in the UK can choose whether to continue in their secondary school or go to a sixth-form college for the final two years.
School attendance is compulsory in the UK for children aged between 5 and 16. In the US, education is compulsory from 6 to 18. This is actually more in line with most European nations.
In the UK, each year in school is denoted by a number. Reception is for children aged 4 – 5 and then students progress from year 1 to 13 if they choose to stay at school until they are 18. In the US, the years are counted in grades. A child who is 6 – 7 is in the first grade and the final year of high school is twelfth grade. In US high schools the years are called freshman, sophomore, junior and senior for grades 9 to 12. Just to make it more confusing, the years and grades don’t match up: students aged 14 would be in year 9 in the UK but eighth grade in the US.
A big yes in the UK. All schools have uniforms and each school’s uniform is different. This is to help students of a school feel a sense of unity and to promote inclusion. It also looks really, really sweet on the teeny tiny 4 and 5-year-olds. Uniforms are not a thing in the US, aside from in some private schools. Students can generally wear whatever they want to school, though there have been debates in recent years over clothing considered inappropriate for lessons.
Students in the UK attend P.E. classes, while their American counterparts head to gym class. There is a big focus on high school sport in the US (this might come as a surprise given the statistics on obesity over there). In the US, the most popular sports are American football, basketball and track and field. In the UK, students tend to play football and rugby.
Despite the terrible reputation of British food, school meals in the UK are pretty good. In the past fifteen years, a huge campaign has made sure that food served at school is fresh and healthy. The campaign doesn’t seem to have reached the US yet, where school lunches are unhealthy and not very tasty by most accounts. School students in the UK are also forbidden from drinking sugary drinks and only water and fruit juice are available – again, not the case in the US.
It’s really hard to say. The educational system of the UK is ranked higher by the OECD – 6th place to the US’s 14th place. However, children are more likely to finish school and not drop out in the US. The US is also praised for teaching a “can-do” attitude in its schools. Class sizes are smaller in the US, but UK schools are better funded.
I guess the choice might actually come down to the holiday – vacation, toilet–restroom preference.