As a native Brit (albeit one who travels to the US regularly) I often get frustrated when I read American articles which describe children according to which grade they are in. It seems standard to say, “a promising ninth-grader” or “a third grade class”. For us Brits, that’s as confusing as if I told you that my children are in the second-year juniors, keystage 3, and the Upper Sixth. (And what on earth is a Sophomore, or a Freshman?) Lest US readers are just as clueless when it comes to the UK education system, this article outlines how the British system operates.
British children can start pre-school from the age of 2½ (it’s free once they turn 3), and then start in the reception (kindergarten) class at Infant School in the September following their fourth birthday. The following year they enter “year 1”, and their education counts up in years much as with the US grade system. This system is relatively new here, however. Previously the numbering began again each time the children moved up to the next school.
The school year is divided into three terms, each punctuated by a week’s holiday (known as half-term) somewhere around the middle. After the Autumn term there is a two week break which coincides with Christmas and New Year, and after the Spring term the two week break usually falls over Easter. The Summer term runs through to the end of July. No “104 days of summer vacation” for British children – they usually get six weeks.
Almost all schools have a uniform. At Primary level (years R-6) it’s usually relatively simple. Black, grey or blue trousers, shorts or skirts, and a polo shirt and cardigan or jumper (sweater) with the school logo. In the summer, girls can often wear pretty gingham dresses in the school colours. Supermarkets sell school uniform relatively cheaply, and stock the appropriate colours for the schools in their community.
Unlike the US, religion is standard in (some) schools, especially Primary schools. There is a regular assembly during which hymns are sung and which may sometimes be led by leaders of local churches. In many schools children say or sing a rote prayer (often a short poem) to open and close each school day. (Editor’s note: it has been pointed out to us that this is not always the case and many schools are in fact secular.)
There are no yellow school buses in the UK. Parents are responsible for getting their children to and from school, although since the UK public transport system is good it’s not unusual for older children to take the bus.
In year 7 children move up to secondary, or senior, school. Here, the uniform is more formal and usually means a shirt, tie and blazer, even for the girls. In year 9 children take their “options”. Each child chooses which subjects to specialise in, and which to drop. All students have to do Maths, English and a science subject, and to that they add three or four subjects they enjoy and excel at.
Years 10 and11 are the serious study years, as the students work towards their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams. The importance of these cannot be overstated. Employers judge candidates on how many GCSEs they have, and at what grades. Anyone with fewer than four GCSEs probably faces life in a menial service industry job.
Students don’t “graduate” from school; there is no ceremony or event to mark the end of their time there. Prom is a relatively new import (there are no other school dances) but most schools now have them for their leaving year 11 students once exams are over, albeit with no corsages, no theme, no official photograph or Prom Queen. Yearbooks are also a new idea imported from the US, but as yet very few schools are doing them.
The next stage—years 12 and 13—is still generally known as Sixth Form (from the old numbering system), and is only now being made compulsory. Some senior schools have their own sixth-forms, but there are also sixth-form colleges. Here students study either A (advanced) levels or vocational courses for two years. Again, the grades they achieve help employers to judge them when it comes to applying for jobs. For those going to University, places are offered based on A level grades.
University is always called University, never “school” and rarely “college”, so it sounds strange to British ears when Americans talk about Harvard being “a good school” because school is for children. Most University courses are three years, and maximum tuition fees are set by the Government, currently £9,000 ($14,000) a year in England. The system of student loans is very good, with loans effectively interest-free, and they don’t have to be paid back until the student is earning a good salary in their chosen profession. There is no “choosing a major”. Students study a single course during those three years.
They finally get to graduate when they get their degrees at the end of University.
Proud Brit Anna Jones Buttimore is a blonde Essex girl who longs to move to America where people might actually appreciate her accent. She is the author of six novels, the mother of three daughters, and she speaks fluent Welsh. www.annajonesbuttimore.com