Differences between the American and English School Systems

The following is a guest post.

It still feels like summer in Massachusetts – the sun is shining, the sky is blue and the weather is lovely and warm. But back to school the kids must go. It always seems to come around too quickly.

My entire elementary (or primary) and secondary education was in England, but as my kids were born in America my only experience with them has been in the American – Massachusetts, to be precise – school system.

As my son and daughter progress through the system though, I am often left asking questions about how things work here. I find myself looking back at my own school years and realize they were different in many ways.

First of all, in England, the kids go to school for one year longer than in the US. I toddled off to reception class at age 4, would you believe? Today the pupils then go through years 1 through 13. Things have changed somewhat though from when my generation was at school in England.

We went to primary school until we were 11, then on to secondary school for first form to fifth form culminating with O’Levels (nationwide standardized exams) at the end of the fifth year. O’Levels no longer exist. My nephew informs me that they are now GCSE’s taken at the end of year 11. So confusing!

For those taking A’Levels we then went to the lower 6th and upper 6th. This is now year 12 and 13. For A’Levels we had reduced our course load down to three classes (French, German and economics for me!) I have to say that I like the fact that in the American system, the students don’t have to narrow down their subjects as soon as we did in England.

Until recently students could leave school after O’Levels and go out into the world aged 16! In 2008, a new law, that will take effect in 2015, was introduced in England stating all students must stay in some form of education or training until they are 18.


As my kids prepare for the first day of school, my 6th grade daughter is faced with the big decision of what to wear on this first day! Denim skirt, shorts, maybe the red capris? And which top will go with that, oh my! But for the majority of British school goers, back in my day and today, that stress was eliminated by school uniform.

Looking back I don’t think I minded the uniform. It was easy, navy blue skirt (length varying according the the style of the given year), white shirt and navy blue, v-neck sweater.

We also had a purple blazer with gold trim, which we avoided wearing as the aubergine color was not too flattering! My kids are always fascinated by all the children in England pouring out of schools at the end of the day dressed the same, like a pool of blue ink (many of the uniforms seem to be blue).

If we ever attend a school event here while my mother is visiting, she always laments the lack of uniform. “They would look so much smarter with uniforms on,” she says.

When my son started kindergarten, I was shocked at the lenth of the summer holiday. Eleven weeks! But after 9 years of those lovely, long summers I am very used to it. Like everyone else, I lament the end of the summer. Maybe it’s because the weather is usually better here, or just that feeling that we can all really switch off from school and activities for a good length of time.

Although I do sometimes wish there were more breaks during the year like in England with their 3 terms, each with a week of half term holiday. Most towns have 2 weeks around Christmas and again around Easter, but only about 6 weeks in the summer.

There are some traditions that are part of the America school system though that I wish we had had when I was at school. I have some photos from school, and the annual class picture, but I love seeing the yearbooks from my American friends. Now in the age of Facebook I have caught up with some friends from high school, but it would be great to have that official record of those high school years.

And what about prom and graduation? It still amazes me how huge graduation is here with the caps, gowns, big ceremony and lots of parties. Parties we did have, but nothing as fun and special as the graduation ceremony. School was basically done with your last A’Level, and that was it except for the excruciating wait for the results until August. And only then did we know if we had made it into our college of choice if our results were good enough! Quite stressfull actually.

In America by the time the kids finish the senior year they know exactly where they will be heading in September. We Brits had about two and half nail-biting months of wondering if we would be replanning our whole future come results day! At the end of the summer all your friends go their separate ways, but the lucky Americans have all their milestone reunions to look forward to in the future.

I think I have had one kind of semi-reunion, organized one Christmas break by a friend where we all got together in the pub in our hometown! I know some of my friends don’t relish the idea of reunions as much as others but it is great to have the opprtunity to get together with all those folks from high school again.

Much has changed in the UK since I left so I can’t even claim to be an authority about the current state of the school system in England. I do know that my secondary school is now a housing development! To bad. And as my son enters 10th grade I am starting to find out about SATs, all the different class options and of course the dreaded college application process. But that’s a whole other blog entry!

Lucinda Sears is a British expat living in Massachusetts. She and her friend Donna started a business selling British items called The Bees Knees British Imports. Read her guest posts here.


  1. Paul Parkinson says

    Here’s my 5p’s worth for what they are worth! My two sons have left school (last one this year) and are University-bound in the next week or three.

    Schools over here still have uniform requirements up until the end of the 5th form (Year 11), Most schools with Sixth Form (Lower and Upper Sixth, aka Years 12 and 13) relax the school uniform but insist on a suit and tie. Non-school based colleges which offer A-levels don’t have that requirement.

    Proms. Yes. We have them now. Not sure why but youngest son seemed to enjoy his so that must be why.

    Yearbook. Yes. The school didn’t organise it so it was left to the year group to organise it themselves.

    Half term holidays. These confuse the heck out of Americans. Basically they are a one-week holiday in the middle of a term. It’s good for the kids because they get a break mid term to recharge their batteries. If you take all three “half term” holidays and add them to the summer holiday you’re not far off the US summer break.

    Reunions. Very few schools do this. Most of the kids are happy to get out, never to come back. There is no real sense of “Alma Mater”, more “Alma GeddinOutOvEre”. Having said that, my old school does help when people want to organise a reunion and I have been to a few for my year group, 19ahem to 19cough at Bexley Grammar.

    Hope this helps and adds to a great article by Lucinda.

  2. smittenbybritain says

    I have never liked our long summer breaks here. I’ve always thought that our system should be more like the British one with a half term break. As you say, it gives them
    a chance to decompress and recharge. Having 2 months off at the summer time is too much and they spend the first three weeks of school re-learning what they forgot at the end of the previous year.

    I’ve never been to a single class reunion and I don’t intend to go in the future. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school and I have no interest in seeing anyone. If they were my true friends in high school then chances are I’m still in contact with them anyway.

  3. says

    Lucinda, I’m very much an “individual” and yet I am all in favor of school uniforms. I think they promote learning, and they eliminate a lot of pressure on kids (and their parents) who can’t afford the latest styles. The kids can “express themselves” through their clothing *after* school.

  4. says

    Thanks for the comments. I do feel I could have written so much more! It is an interesting comparison. I wish my kids had uniform for sure. I would love to through a half term break in at some point. At least here in Massachusetts we do get a week in February and a week in April, not just the March spring break!

  5. smittenbybritain says

    Feel free to write a follow up post if you wish Lucinda. We certainly enjoyed this one!

  6. says

    Lucinda, I enjoyed your post. I’m a Californian who’s spent a lot of time in Britain. My English friends are amazed when I tell them that my high school had a student newspaper, published weekly; 2 choirs, a marching band, and an orchestra; 3 football teams, 2 basketball teams, 2 baseball teams, plus track and field, golf, tennis, and wrestling; cheerleaders and song-girls; a student body government and 4 class governments, each with 4 elected officers; and a host of after-school clubs, including Future Teachers, Future Nurses, French, Latin, Art, Audio-Visual, Chess, Quill & Scroll (journalism), and various service organizations. This is probably why so many Americans attend class reunions: we spend more time socializing in high school. I think it’s also why we find it easier (according to my English friends) to walk up to strangers and start talking; what Clive James called our “astonishing social ease.” But I too wish that kids here wore uniforms. Cheers!

  7. Ruth says

    I’m a UK student studying AS level at lower 6th form, and all my school life I had to wear a uniform, and now in 6th form there is no uniform at all, there is a policy, but it’s very loose, basically nothing too revealing, nothing ripped etc etc, and I wish I still had my uniform to wear.

    We had a prom, and a yearbook, but the yearbook was left for us to compose, (I was on the yearbook committee). And these were nothing compared to the American ones!

    I am going to be taking three AS-level exams soon, and hopefully will continue these next year into A-level. I think the American system is better as pupils are more social at schools, personally I think Britain is very much you have your school friends, and your outside friends, and they don’t mix.

    my school offered clubs and such, but nothing to the extent of America, and that makes me slightly jealous! :P Americans get so many more extra-curricular opportunities! However I have come out of the English system with a lot of qualifications! I have (including BTECs) basically over 20 GCSE’s… all Grade A*-C…. so I am glad about that.

  8. Hala says

    I was searching around in the net to find the different between the american system and the british system and i end it up reading your blog :).

    I have 2 kids, both are in english school here in Kuwait, the eldest one (7 years- grade2) is doing fine but not really good , i like the school but it is too tough and i dont like the fact that they separate kids to groups depends on their abilities, and kids are noticing that, they are tooooooo young for that, and starting grade 6, we will have “A class” and “B class”. Is it like that in the british system?????
    I am investigating the differences between english school system and american system. i don’t know if it is true that the american system is encouraging creativity while english system is encouraging discipline, i am not happy with the rigid system in the english schools but i know nothing about american school system … Are they really encouraging creativity??? Are they really encouraging other skills like art and sport ????? Is it true that kids graduated from american system have more confident and better in presenting themselves than kids graduated from british system whom are maybe better academically… I have many questions, i know, but i am really confused….. Thanks