Secondary British Schools vs American Schools

Whether the memories are good or bad, your secondary school experience is something you can discuss with any British or American person. That’s probably why the differences between British schools and American schools is one of my most popular blog topics and YouTube videos.

Everyone can connect- but few people have experience on both sides of the pond of being in a school as a teacher and/or student. Therefore, there aren’t many people who can articulate what happens in both secondary British school vs American high schools.

But- I can!

In the video below, I explain that I was a teacher and high school assistant principal in America and have experience in six London schools.

It’s part of my UK vs USA playlist and is the second video I’ve made on the topic. While the content of the first video is all still accurate, I have learned so much more since then and included it for you above. If you watch the first video below, please forgive the ridiculous graphics. It was several years ago and in the spirit of education, it’s fair to say I was in the beginning stages of learning video editing applications!

Before we dive in to all the new ideas, you might want to know that the topics below are covered in a different blog post on Differences between British and American Schools :

  • School Year and Holiday Calendar
  • What Students Wear to School
  • How Students Get to School
  • Year Groups, Grades and University Entrance Exams
  • School Food
  • Extra-curricular Activities
  • Teachers’ Schedules and Classes
  • Myths

Secondary British Schools vs American Schools- Course Structure

In British schools, courses are group together in a two year path. Year 10 and 11 are referred to as GCSE. During this time students ideally have the same teacher and are with the same other students for the entirety of the two years. At the end of the two year experience they take exams for the course. Currently this could be close to or more than 20 exams during the month of June of their Year 11. They receive study leave time, which means their last day of school is around mid May. However, the experience is still extremely high pressure.

Students return in August for what’s referred to as ‘Results Day’ and learn the outcome of these exams. These grades determine whether and where most of them can continue their last two years of secondary school.

Their next step is to take their ‘A levels’ or some may choose to take vocational equivalents. Again their Year 12 and 13 are grouped together in to a two year experience, culminating in exams at the end. However a major difference is that most are only taking three different courses, so they will only have around six exams at the end of the experience.

American students at this equivalent time would be in 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade. They are also referred to as their freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior year, respectively.

Courses at this time are at most one year in length. Some can be half year courses. These are commonly called electives and take place over a semester. Their school year includes four quarters and many courses have a final exam at the end that is either created by their specific teacher or an entire department. Rarely would this exam be the same as what students at high school in another district would take, much less the rest of the state or country.

Their grades are usually determined by a breakdown of 20% for each quarter and 20% for the final exam. So, this means their final grade represents a far more balanced picture of their caliber. In comparison, British students face nearly 70% of their grade being determine from their exam and maybe 30% from a project they did- referred to as non-exam assessment or course work.

Secondary British Schools vs American Schools- Curriculum

You may have already started thinking that in comparison, British schools are far more uniform in their offer to students. To me, this is most evident in the curriculum.

Teachers, or rather a Head of Department, chooses an Exam Board for their subject. Examples include AQA, OCR, Pearson Edexcel and WJEC. From this exam board, the teachers will follow a very prescribed list of what they teach. For example it will have a Specification that lists the novels and concepts students must cover in an English course.

If you teach GCSE English in one school and get a new job, it means it’s highly unlikely you could use your same lesson plans if the new school has chosen a different exam board.

In America, it’s far different. At least it was in the two states where I worked ten years ago. At the time, in Florida and New York teachers were really left to their own devices to choose what they taught. For example, some schools had all students read the same plays and novels in a freshmen English courses. And some schools let individual teachers choose whatever literature they wanted to use to meet benchmarks or learning criteria.

In this sense, if you’re British and go to America you are really going to feel like the curriculum is chaotic and varied in comparison to what you think a school experience should be.


Secondary British Schools vs American Schools- Student Work

However, lack of solid consistency in America does have some overall benefits, in my opinion. I would love your thoughts in the comments.

Since students in secondary British schools have such a solid outline of what they are to do, they rely heavily on models and examples for everything. Literally, they feel like they need to see previous examples of work and exam essays before they can even process how to begin a task.

There seems to be quite a bit of ‘follow this template’ on a daily basis.

In comparison, American students can launch a project or essay structured with a fairly low level of ‘hand-holding’. They don’t need a starter sentence for every paragraph and can function quite well with just a basic outline or idea, as a whole. Work seems to be far more inquiry based and in an entrepreneurial spirit.

Of course I understand that students with special needs don’t neatly fit in to this opinion on either side of the pond.

Secondary British Schools vs American Schools- Student Identity

Again the concept of prescribed curriculum and modeled work affects overall student identify when comparing British schools vs American schools at the secondary level.

Given British school students must wear uniforms and work to the same standard for their grades, there seems to be a squashing of their individual identity.

American school students have so many opportunities to be recognised for their unique personalities. Whether it’s running for student council or congress, decorating their locker, or reading the announcements over the PA system as a leader representative, they have so many chances to establish their individual style.

And no- I’ve never been in a London school that has morning announcements. I’m not even sure if they have a PA system in the buildings.

Secondary British Schools vs American Schools- Parents

In the new video I recognise that all parents in both secondary British schools and American schools care about their students. While primary schools on both sides always feature more involvement in comparison to the older students in secondary schools, there are still some other big differences.

Can you guess in which system I feel the ‘helicopter parent’ is more prominent?

I share my thoughts in the video and would love to know if you agree.

Secondary British Schools vs American Schools- What’s Next

I always try to end my blog posts with a final thought or summary statement. This time, I would like to know which topics that I haven’t covered in the first blog post and video or this blog post and current video that are still ones for which you are curious.

Would you like to know more about teacher interview differences between British schools vs American schools? Contracts and unions? Administration/Senior Leadership Responsibilities and Structure? Staff Meetings?

Anything else? I can’t wait to hear from you, Sunny friends.

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