Atlantic Disparities: The Difference Between British and American Education Systems

It’s that time of year for students across the United States to start school again. With all of this ‘Back to School’ madness, comparisons are inevitably conjured up between the schooling systems of the U.S. and the UK. It’s clear that both countries approach education fairly differently, with many interesting characteristics differing greatly depending which side of the Atlantic Ocean you happen to be on.

I first met my dear British friend just as he was finishing Sixth Form in England. Being from the United States, I found it to be quite astonishing that English students typically graduate from high school at age 15-16 – although there is now an option to remain in high school until you are 17 or 18. Here in the States, you’re really only just getting comfortable in high school at those ages, and the thought of leaving at such a young age is pretty terrifying.

High school in the United States is categorized into four different grades: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior. Going to college isn’t typically an option for those who aren’t in their final year of high school – however, if students are in their senior year, they qualify for dual credit courses to get them ahead of the game for when they set off for either community college or university. Dual credit courses are most commonly English Literature and Speech classes which allow students to get both a high school credit to go towards their diploma and a college credit to go towards their degree. In England however, you don’t start working on your degree until you actually get to university, nor do you have ‘credits’ to work towards – your future path is almost wholly dependent on either your GCSE or your A-Level grades, depending on whether you want to go to University or start an apprenticeship.

Another very important aspect about the differing schooling systems is the case of school uniforms: in England, all students are required to wear uniforms up until they’re in college and university. In the United States, we wear what we please as long as it’s within the guidelines of the dress code. The varying dress code for each school district states what is deemed appropriate for the classroom environment – this however, has caused a fair bit of fuss amongst both students and their parents as you can probably imagine.

At first, I was annoyed at the idea of limiting children from expressing themselves and forcing them all into matching outfits. When I asked a teacher from within the UK about why this was, she explained that by having school uniforms, it prevented children from bullying one another based upon social class through making judgements on their clothing with regards to style and brand. Thinking back to what we refer to as ‘Elementary School’ and ‘Junior High’ here in the USA – I remember how much it mattered to all of my peers (including myself) to have the best of clothing and how degrading this attitude could be towards those who weren’t as privileged. As high school came around at the ages of 14 and 15, that judgement wasn’t as harsh, although it was still there.

I feel that despite what others may say – and it is a very controversial topic in the US -, appearance is definitely a distraction in the classroom. I think we should follow in England’s footsteps and adopt uniforms at least until students are in high school as I feel that judgement amongst classmates is the most aggressive from Elementary throughout Junior High. Children will be able to better focus on their studies rather than their social status gained from wearing a certain type clothing. This will also give parents a sigh of relief who don’t have the financial means to clothe their children in the latest trends/brands. Allowing American students to wear what they so desire throughout high school seems more feasible because they are then at least given the opportunity to be employed and earn their own money.

Moving on, to a not-so-minuscule concern for those who attend college within the UK. Going through college isn’t only an exciting experience for students but also an absolutely nerve-racking one due to what feels like endless testing and the agonising wait to find out which university you’ll be accepted into. As I just recently read all of the results day posts on social media, it made me reflect back to anxious feelings about ACT testing here in the U.S. which happened when I was 17. The ACT is a test every U.S. high school student will take to determine what universities they will qualify for – similar to the UK’s A Level exams.

As I think back to all of the negative feelings testing brought me in high school, I can’t help but relate and even feel bad for those who are receiving their A Level results in the UK currently. I think that too much emphasis is placed on testing in both the U.S. and UK. Not everyone tests well: I’ll be the first to admit that I’m one of those people, but that doesn’t make me, or any other student incompetent. It would be fairer if both systems were to shy away from so much testing to focus on a more hands-on, team building type of study, because that’s what every individual will need to know throughout their entire working lives.

Regardless of the relative flaws within each schooling system, both the USA and UK have amazingly intelligent pupils and changing some negative factors within each school might result in an even more positive outcome. I hope that everyone getting back into school this year does so with ease and excellence! Good luck to all.

Words by Brianna Humes

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