‘What are the differences between British vs American schools?’ is a question I receive often because I have written several advice posts on American expat life in London. For this reason, I thought it might be fun to highlight some of the biggest differences here on the blog.
While you might think a school is a school, I’ve definitely
learnt learned that’s not the case when comparing across the pond. And, yes, that strikethrough is there because it represents how British people spell the word, as opposed to American. That’s just the surface of the differences between British vs American schools, Sunny friends. Take a look…
British vs American Schools- Who has more Class?
When Americans belt out Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s out for summer!’, they really have a reason to celebrate. In America, schools generally give students around 10-12 weeks of vacation. They can release students anywhere from the end of May to mid August, or mid-June to the beginning of September.
British schools are quite different. They generally end their academic year in mid-July and begin the first week of September. This gives students about 6 weeks of a summer holiday.
However, British students receive much more time away from school during the academic year, in comparison to American students. Nearly all British schools have a half-term, one week break in October, February and May. They also receive at least two weeks holiday over both Christmas and Easter holidays.
British vs American Schools- Off to Gryffindor
I giggle every time I pass British kids on their way to or from school in London.
I always feel like the kids are spawns of wizards or muggles on their way to Hogwarts in their colourful uniforms. However, I keep my chuckles to myself, in the event one of them actually pulls out a wand and aims it in my general direction.
American kids can wear what they want to school. I remember days in Florida when I wore a bathing suit top under my t-shirt so I could fast track it to the beach when the last bell rang.
The British school uniform nearly always consists of a: blazer,
jumper sweater, dress shirt, trousers (with the option of a skirt for girls). Most schools have pupils students wear a tie, regardless of gender. Students must ask a teacher’s permission if they want to remove their blazer during class if they are too hot.
Uniforms are made in the school’s designated colors. Mr. Sunny’s uniform at Hill House School was gold, rust and grey. Prince Charles also attended this school, albeit much earlier than my British husband. Here’s a picture of the school and a very old picture of Mr Sunny in his uniform.
Mr. Sunny also went to the Parkside School, and at this boarding school the uniform was grey and purple.
British vs American Schools- Where’s the Bus?
There are no school buses in London. Students rely on public transportation or a ride from their parents each day. In London, they refer to this as the ‘school run.’ It’s definitely a time you want to avoid being on the road or on a London bus.
In America, our school bus system is fairly standard. Every student who attends a public school has the opportunity to take ‘the cheese’ to and from school. And guess who had the chance to hop on a bus for this ‘luxury’ valet service once…
(I know my outfit matches the seats. Hey, if you’re taking the bus, you at least have to look the part, right?)
The big yellow buses chauffeur kids to and from their educational destination each and every day that school is in session. Most kids work part time jobs in an effort to buy a car so that they can transport themselves to school and other places.
British vs American Schools- What’s the plan?
British students spend ages 5-10 in primary schools. Secondary schools have students ages 11-18. There are no middle schools, unlike America. Until recently, British schools were compulsory for kids until they were only sixteen years old.
In America, we say students are in ‘Seventh Grade.’ British students of the same age are in ‘Year 8’. They are labeled a higher number in comparison to the US because we call the first formal year of school ‘Kindergarten’, which is the equivalent to ‘Year 1’ in England.
British school years are further broken in to groups called Key Stages. For example, Years 7-9 are classified as Key Stage 3. Students ages 16-18 are in Key Stage 5, which is called Sixth Form.
When looking at study plans as differences between British and American schools, there is more unity in the British course of study. Schools (unless they are independent) must follow the National Curriculum. American school teachers experience a substantial amount of freedom in comparison to what they can teach and when against their British counterparts.
Instruction for British secondary students focuses on the GCSE subject exams and the A Levels. In America, the SAT and ACT are the only real standardized tests that students take at a national level.
The SAT is most popular and is taken on a Saturday morning, usually at the beginning of a student’s junior year. It is quite honestly- dreadful. It features three sections: math, critical reading and writing. For nearly four hours, students struggle to answer questions that seem to have no reflection on what they study in school each day. However, the results of this test have a substantial effect on a student’s ability to apply for a university.
Most American expat students in London tend to receive their education at International Baccalaureate schools because the work is transferable in all countries and universities.
At the end of a class period, British students must stand at their desks and wait for a teacher to say they are dismissed. In America, when the bell rings, you run. The end.
British vs American Schools- Food for Thought
I can’t tell you how many times British people have asked me to explain a ‘tater tot’. They find that food wildly entertaining. This is comical to me because every American associates a tater tot with a school cafeteria lunch. Tater tots are small, deep-fried grated potatoes and they’re always included on a cafeteria lunch tray, with chocolate milk, of course.
American school cafeterias are not pleasant places. For lunch, kids wait in a line to be served a piece of soggy cardboard with two thick slices of pseudo-pepperoni, a thick red paste and chewy cheese that was probably manufactured from particles in the bottom of a bin in a science class weeks before. Next to their pizza is a watery, dull yellow substance called ‘Apple sauce.’ Finally, there’s a scoop of fruit salad. It’s usually hard to tell what fruits are featured because they’re all a greenish grey color and are very squishy.
British students call their lunchroom a ‘Canteen’. A random week at a British boarding school features Main Course lunch selections such as:
– Ratatouille with Mediterranean Herb Couscous
– Vegetable Moussaka
– Vegetarian Sausage Cassoulet
– Asparagus, Sunblush Tomato and Mozzarella Risotto
– Pea and Asparagus Girasole with a Cream and Chive Sauce with Fresh Parmesan Flakes
School children in England are absolutely forbidden to eat food in class. They are also only allowed to drink fruit juices or water. A
fizzy drink soda is banned from a classroom. American kids enjoy Red Bull or Mountain Dew with a hefty bag of Cheetos for breakfast in a first period class.
British vs American Schools- Who gets more?
Extra-curricular activities take place on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. However, in America, we tower above what the British offer. American students can choose from an array of sports like football, soccer, la crosse, hockey, swimming, tennis, track and field, baseball and basketball.
We also have events like pep rallies, where the entire school gathers in the sports gym instead of going to class. This is for the purpose of seeing the football players, basketball players, cheerleaders, dance team, majorettes and band display school spirit in support of a big upcoming game.
Further, students can belong to clubs like Art, Science Olympiad, Photography, DECA, FFA (Future Farmers of America), National Honor Society, Marching Band, Chemistry Club, Chess Club, Frisbee Club, French Club, Latin Club, Interact, Model UN, Debate Club, Ping Pong Club, Video Gaming Club, and Shrimp Club.
Ok. That last ‘club’ was an Ode to Forest Gump joke. I think. But…you never know. 😉
In America, if kids can convince the school that their club idea is worthy, there’s room in the extra-curricular budget, and they have a faculty advisor, then they can form their group. I guess it’s likely that there could be a group of marine biology students in Florida who start a Shrimp Club, right?
British vs American Schools- To Level or not to Level?
American schools offer classes that are usually either general or advanced. That’s it. Students mostly pick which type of class they’d like to take. Those that want the higher level need a teacher’s recommendation to register.
This is not the case in British schools. Students are separated in to numerous ability levels and can be changed and regrouped throughout the year. Therefore, it is clear to everyone what type of progress a student is or is not making.
British vs American Schools- Time and Tables
An educator’s schedule in a secondary British school is referred to as a ‘Timetable.’ Some schools offer them by one week, some by two weeks. They change daily and it’s rare for them to see the same class at the same time each day. British teachers could teach English to Year 7, Year 8, Year 9, Year 10 and Year 11 within a five day week.
In comparison, American schools basically have kids take the same classes in the same order nearly every day of the week, with the exception of gym. Teachers call their workload ‘Preps’ and rarely have more than three a year. For example, a teacher with three preps would teach 9th Grade English, 10th Grade English, and 11th Grade English. That’s it.
Teachers in America must apply for teaching certification in every state they wish to work. The requirements and process for each state is complicated and long. It also costs money for each certificate. They often need to be renewed every several years.
British teachers apply for Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) after they have trained and worked for a period of time. This enables them to teach any subject for which a school feels they are suited. Therefore, a teacher could teach English, Dance, Geography or Maths while working in one position at a school. However, it’s highly unlikely that would occur.
British vs American Schools- It’s no Musical!
Finally, British kids have the perception that American schools are like those they have seen in High School Musical and Mean Girls.
Thanks to Hollywood, American students are perceived to be very segregated by popularity groups like cheerleaders, football players and band geeks. So, I have to ask my American friends, do you think this is the case in American schools?
What other differences between British vs American schools can you add?
UPDATE: February 2, 2017
* After more time in London, and regular interest from readers, I created a YouTube video addressing many more differences between the school systems. Please add your comments/questions there too and share it on your social networks as well!
You can read more about the expat experience on the blog. If you’re American, don’t miss the Sunny tips for Harry Potter Things to Do in London, afternoon tea etiquette, and riding the Underground on YouTube!