International Schools in UK vs USA - Expat Education

By: Bonnie Rose

In the early nineties I attended a local primary school in England in lieu of attending the American school on base. For two years I got to experience the British school system before going back to the American DODDS schools. There are particular differences that I remember now between both education systems. Having moved back to England in 2011 and putting my sons in the education system here I have realized there are way more differences than my expectations had led me to believe. Especially as my sons get older and into the higher levels of schooling it gets a little more complicated. To be fair I have had the school system in Britain explained to me many times and I still have questions about it.

International Schools in UK vs USA
International Schools in UK vs USA

The break down by years (UK/USA)

The school systems are not exact to be compared year by year. For example children attend nursery and Reception before starting Year 1 which is the equivalent of Kindergarden in regards to age. The US high school years differ in the way the education is set up in the UK. While students in the USA start Grade 11, students in the UK no longer have compulsory education. They have the option at sixteen to continue their education into college for what would be Grade 11 and 12. After those two years they would go on to attend university.

Preschool = Nursery School
Primary School = Elementary School
Secondary School = Jr. High and High School
6th Form College = High School

Broken down in Key Stages for the UK education system
Key Stage 1 = 5-7 yrs in Year 1-2 (1st-2nd form infants)
Key Stage 2 = 7-11 yrs in Year 3-6 (1st-4th form juniors)
Key Stage 3 = 11-14 yrs in Year 7-9 (1st-3rd form secondary)
Key Stage 4 = 14-16 yrs in Year 10-11 (4th-5th form secondary)
Key Stage 5 = 16-18 yrs in Year 12-13 (6th form secondary, also known as College)

Comparing UK vs USA Education by Year
3-4 yrs = Nursery / Preschool
4-5 yrs = Reception / Preshool
5-6 yrs = Year 1 / Kindergarten
6-7 yrs = Year 2 (end of Key Stage 1) / 1st Grade
7-8 yrs = Year 3 (start of Key Stage 2) / 2nd Grade
8-9 yrs = Year 4 / 3rd Grade
9-10 yrs = Year 5 / 4th Grade
10-11 yrs = Year 6 (end of Key Stage 2 and final year of primary school) / 5th Grade
11-12 yrs = Year 7 (first year of secondary school, start of Key Stage 3) / 6th Grade
12-13 yrs = Year 8 / 7th Grade
13-14 yrs = Year 9 / 8th Grade
14-15 yrs = Year 10 / 9th Grade Freshman Year
15-16 yrs = Year 11 (last year of compulsory schooling in UK) / 10th Grade Sophomore Year
16-17 yrs = Year 12 (first year of 6th Form College) / 11th Grade Junior Year
17-18 yrs = Year 13 (end of Key Stage 5 and final year of College) / 12th Grade Senior Year

School Testing

Students in the UK start studying in Year 10 for their GSCE exams which they take in various subjects at the end of Year 11. GCSEs stand for General Certificate of Secondary Education. After a successful completion of GCSE courses, students go on to take their A-Levels, which stand for Advanced Level, at college. A-Levels are generally a two-year course, with AS levels begin obtained within the first year. Basically students can choose whether they continue their education after turning sixteen years of age by taking their A levels at 6th Form College, also known as a technical college.

  • Final Exams for Key Stage 4 are GCSEs
  • Final Exams for Key Stage 5 are A-Levels, AS-Levels, NVQs, and National Diplomas

National Vocational Qualifications are work based awards in the UK that are achieved through assessment and training. I have become more familiar with these having trained and licensed as a Cosmetologist in Hawaii and wanting to transfer that to be able to work in England. In the USA your training and license is determined by the state where you work and each has its own regulations. In England there is not an equivalent governing and licensing board for cosmetology. You train and take exams for different NVQ levels depending on the field of study. My cosmology license in Hawaii is roughly a NVQ level III in Hairdressing and a NVQ level III in Beauty Therapy with one exception. Beauty Therapists in this NVQ level would also be trained in body massage which in the USA would require going to massage school and getting a separate license. So although I have most of the skills required of a NVQ level III I can only get a job who will except a Beauty Therapist with a NVQ level II until I obtain the massage training. I have explained all that to further explain the difference in education from country to country.

The School Calendar
The school year calendar varies between country in the UK but contain around 39 weeks of education with 13 weeks of break. The breaks include two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, six weeks in the Summer, and then 3 one week half-term holidays. The school year in England is broken into three terms. September to New Years holidays, January to Easter holidays, and Easter holidays to July.

University Requirements
Every school may have its own requirements but there are general requirements that are looked at for admission into Universities in the UK. For the Universities I have looked into they expect applicants to have completed three A-Level exams in one sitting. If applicants re-sit or retake A Levels they may still be considered unless they are in the Medicine or Veterinary Medicine field. Since many degree programs expect you to have studied specific subjects at GSCEs and A-Levels, students need to know early on which field they want to study. In highly competitive subject areas this means the number of As achieved in GCSEs will be taken into account. That means a 16 year old in the UK will need to already be focused to what job they will want to have as an adult, especially if they want to be in the field of medicine. While in the US there are students in their twenties taking general education courses without a chosen major.

What Expat parents should know about schools in England
These are the top three things we have experienced with having children in schools in the UK that I feel other expats would benefit from knowing before they move to the UK.

  1. Which School?
    The school your child/ren will attend is based off of many factors and can vary due to circumstances. You can put them in the state schools (free), prep and public schools (cost fees and require entrance exams), or you can home educate. To clarify public schools in England are what private schools are in the US. If you choose the free education, which school your child will go to is determined by the catchment area. The closer you live to a school the better chances of getting into that school. There are many different types of schools in this category which can be church schools, single sex or mixed schools. However, the schools will have cap sizes on how many students they let in for certain years. We live right next to the school in our town, but due to class sizes they were both accepted into different schools. I have one son in a school in the next town over and my other son in a school much further away. There are no school buses like there are in the USA. As we do not have a car the school system was able to set up taxi services to get both my boys to their appointed schools and put them on waiting lists for the closer schools in the area. You should also know that you have the right to appeal the school selection process.
  2. Uniforms.
    As far as I am aware, all schools have some sort of uniform required. Depending on if you choose the state school or the prep school will determine how extensive their uniform needs will be per school. Typically for both schools there will be a Autumn/Winter uniform for the colder months and a Spring/Summer uniform for the warmer months. For boys this may mean the difference of trousers and shorts and sleeve lengths in shirts. For girls many schools require a summer dress that is usually in a gingham fabric. The prep school my sons attended required specific hats for both seasons that were required to be worn to and from school along with their school blazer. Extra items like these that may have only been worn for mere minutes before and after school ended up bringing the cost up when looking at the total items needed to stay in uniform regulations. They also required a sports kit for physical activities and sports, a book bag with the school crest, and specific items to which 'house' they belonged too. If you are familiar with the Harry Potter series, this is equivalent to being sorted into a house and the same colours of red, blue, yellow, and green are normally used. I will say that despite the cost I love uniforms. It makes getting my kids ready for school in the morning that much easier and that it takes off the importance of what clothes a child wears to school in regard to their peers.
  3. Classwork and Homework.
    I have experienced three different schools in the US with my boys and two different schools in the UK. While my sons are still in primary school, I can say that so far the differences have really varied between schools and not so much between the USA and the UK. My sons did extensive daily homework that included accelerated maths with their charter school in the US, nightly homework at their prep school in the UK, and weekly homework at their state school in the UK. As far as I can tell so far there are minor differences like math in the US is called maths in the UK. While you learn cursive in the USA, you learn joined up writing in the UK. While it is similar, the two forms of writing are not exactly the same. Of course while in the US your students will learn the pledge of allegiance an US History, in the UK they will learn the words to 'God Save the Queen' and the history of the United Kingdom. I think the quality of the education can be found varying by school and by how involved the parents are with their children. The schools seem more competitive in regard to class system in the UK especially as students get into the secondary stage of their education.

I know that I have a lot more to research and understand when it comes to the education of my sons. If anything I am now more stressed out by my research than I was when I was ignorant to the complicated nature of education in England. I hope this look into the education system in England is helpful and can help other parents when planing a move with their family to the UK.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingBonnie Rose is an American expat living in England. Blog description: Blog about my life as an expat, a Third Culture Kid (TCK), and world traveler. I grew up in Europe on military bases until I was seventeen and now I am married to an American living in England with our family. Documenting our life abroad.
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Contest Comments » There are 4 comments

Bonnie Rose wrote 10 years ago:

I bet Heather! Hopefully this and having it explained by someone else can help out. I know I will need it spelled out for me many more times too. x

Heather wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks for this explanation. It will take me some time to absorb it. We're Americans living in Central Asia and are seriously considering sending our boys to a British boarding school in a neighboring country. It's hard to wrap my head around all the differences.

Melyssa wrote 10 years ago:

This is really interesting, Bonnie! When I first started working as an American teacher in Japan, I didn't realize how vastly different the school systems were. I've definitely found things I like and dislike from each. In Japan, generally all English teachers teach American English (accent, spelling, etc) which is interesting to me since we also have Canadian and British teachers (and plenty of other nationalities around the country). I've always wondered what their experience is like teaching their language, but modified. I honestly didn't know very much about schools in the UK, so this post gave me some great insight! I found the part about ending high school at 16 and continuing to a type of college thereafter really interesting. The years of schooling is different in Japan, too, and I've always thought it was interesting what a different dynamic it creates in their school system. Anyways, thank you for this insightful post - I enjoyed it! xoxo Melyssa

Janneke @DrieCulturen wrote 10 years ago:

It does sound quite complicated. This education thing is so important. I did GCSE O and A levels in Zimbabwe but here in the Netherlands it's all different and i needed to an extra Physics course to do the course I wantend at university. Things change with time too. Hope you questions will be answered!

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