When I moved to the USA, I got a job in an elementary school, partly because I wanted the time off (don’t get me started on the lack of the USA ‘vacation days’) and because I had already had previous experience from working in a special education school in the UK, it seemed like the perfect option! I was recently contacted by a fellow expat who wanted to know what some of the differences are between the American school system vs UK!
(May vary across towns and States in both countries…this is based on my experiences in Public Schools in Iowa USA and Essex UK)
The Differences Between the American School System Compared to English
The American school system compared to the English is quite a bit different! Find out the differences between the grade levels, term times and school breaks, uniforms, what school supplies are required, how American and British kids get to school, after school clubs and activities, school field trips and more!
UK vs USA Schools – Grade Levels
UK Grade Levels
Starting at age:
3 yrs old – Nursery (5 days a week, attend a morning or an afternoon session)
4 yrs old – Reception (5 days a week, all day, NO NAPS!)
5 yrs old – Year 1
6 yrs old – Year 2
7 yrs old – Year 3
8 yrs old – Year 4
9 yrs old – Year 5
10 yrs old – Year 6
11 yrs old – Year 7
12 yrs old – Year 8
13 yrs old – Year 9
14 yrs old – Year 10
15 yrs old – Year 11
(Finish at 16 yrs old)
16 yrs old – 18 yrs old (I took a 2 year course and finished at 18, some courses last for 3 years). College is free in the UK as long as you are 18 and under…adult courses are available too for a fee. It was optional when I was school age, now people are encouraged to carry on education until 18 to help solve unemployment, technically you could have gone out to work once you ‘graduated’ High School at 16).
= Lots and lots of money.
USA Grade Levels
(Yearly ‘Book Fee’ to be able to attend)
Starting at age:
4 yrs old (some start at 3) – Pre Kindergarten (4 full days…3 days are free, the 4th day has a monthly fee, students have a nap in the middle of the day)
5 yrs old – Kindergarten (5 full days, recently changed from having a nap all year to stopping naps after the first term)
6 yrs old – First Grade
7 yrs old – 2nd Grade
8 yrs old – 3rd Grade
9 yrs old – 4th Grade
10 yrs old – 5th Grade
11 yrs old – 6th Grade
12 yrs old – 7th Grade
13 yrs old – 8th Grade
14 yrs old – 9th Grade
15 yrs old – 10th Grade
16 yrs old – 11th Grade
17 yrs old – 12th Grade
(Finish at 18 yrs old)
= Money – Earning ‘free’ scholarships through being good in sports etc is a HUGE thing which many people aim for.
= Ridiculous amount of money
UK vs USA Schools – Term Time & Breaks
In the UK, schools get a 6 week summer break that starts at the end of July and finishes at the beginning of September. There then tends to be a 1 week break in October, 2 weeks at Christmas, 1 week off in February, 2 weeks for Easter somewhere around March/April and a 1 week break for ‘Whitsun’ at the end of May.
Students are expected to be in school every day. Vacations MUST be taken in the school breaks. If they are taken during term time, the parents receive a fine. Staff have to take their time off during the school breaks too.
My school in the USA has 11 WEEKS off in the summer which covers the whole of June, July and for most of August. During the rest of the year, there is a 1 week break for Thanksgiving at the end of November, another week and a half for Christmas just a few weeks later, a long weekend (Spring Break) around the beginning of April and then just a couple of non pupil days scattered throughout the school. Believe me, Christmas until the end of May is a longggggg time!
In the USA kids, especially in elementary, always seem to be pulled out of school for trips. Staff are also given 2 paid ‘personal days’ off each school year too. They also have nearly 2 weeks off of paid sick days and even a couple of paid ‘family sick days’ (for example, I used one when my other half had to go and have an operation). There is no maternity pay…you’re expected to ‘rollover’ your sick days each year and then you can use those.
UK vs USA Schools – Uniform
All schools in the UK have a uniform. Lower schools are more relaxed, such as polo shirts, sweatshirts, black trousers (pants) or shorts. Regardless of the age, you always get changed for PE too. The dress code is stricter in High School. Blazers (that you can’t take off unless you get permission), buttoned shirts, clip on ties, black trousers and leather look shoes…and yes, some private schools even make the kids wear straw or bowler hats.
Ties temporarily disappeared during my High School years and came back after I left. They were awful, people would think it was funny to ‘peanut’ someone by pulled their tie really tight, one girl in my year went blue and had to get the tie cut off. The ‘popular’ kids would have their tie so it was fat and only about 3 inches long and they looked ridiculous. This is when the ‘real’ ties ended up being switched for clip on ties.
I recently looked up my old High School’s uniform policy. No nail varnish is allowed, no make up in Year 7 or 8…Year 9 – 11 CAN but if it’s too much they’ll be asked to take it off. Boys can’t have hair that’s shorter than a ‘2’. The idea is if everyone is dressed the same it takes away a distraction and the possibility of bullying for not having the ‘coolest’ brands.
In the USA schools don’t have a uniform. I find myself as a staff member wearing more ‘school district branded clothing’ because I don’t like wearing my ‘everyday’ clothes as work clothes! It took a while for me to get used to seeing no uniforms! It often comes up in the news and on social media that students have got sent home for wearing inappropriate clothing to school. My school doesn’t seem to be too bad for it but you often get students turn up in flip flops despite them being told to wear sandals rather than flip flops.
Elementary students also don’t get changed for PE.
UK vs USA Schools – School Supplies
Here’s an example of the ‘supply list’ needed for 4th Grade (9yr old) students in my USA elementary school. These lists are even displayed in the major shops such as Walmart!
- Colored pencils – 12 count
- Crayons – 24 maximum
- Large pack of pencil top erasers
- 2 sets of Expo dry-erase low odor markers – set of 4
- 4 oz. bottle of glue
- 2 Hi-lighters
- 1 black permanent marker (Sharpie)
- 1 pack of colored (lined) index cards – 3” x 5”
- 1 pkg. Loose-leaf paper (wide-lined)
- 24 yellow wooden #2 pencils (sharpened) NO MECHANICAL OR DECORATIVE PENCILS
- 2 red pens
- 2 Black pens
- A 3 pk of Post-it notes 3” x 3”
- Ruler (inches and centimeters)
- Scissors (pointed)
- 2 -spiral notebook-1 Yellow and 1 Red, wide lined
- 1 Composition notebook
- 1 1/2 inch binder with pockets
- Pencil bag
- Book bag
- 3 hole punched pocket folders (1 red, 1 yellow, 1 green) for the binder (NO Prongs)
- 1 Durable Plastic folder to use as a Take Home folder
- 1 set of personal earbuds or headphones (cost — $3.00-$5.00 area)
- Old sock
- 2 large boxes of Kleenex
- 1 roll of paper towels
- *** NO TRAPPER KEEPERS or 3-ring binders (Students do not have room in their desks.)*Supplies need to be replenished throughout the year.
Now at 9 years old, I don’t remember ever needing to buy that much equipment for school. Even the lower grades have a huge list similar to this. To be fair in a British school we do have the uniform costs but most equipment is supplied, such as: our notebooks, pens and pencils, scissors, glue, erasers, rulers. We’d never have been asked to bring something like disinfectant wipes (on the lower grade’s lists).
We could take our own pencil cases and our backpacks certainly didn’t need to be a full sized backpack, which is a requirement for even the Pre-K’s! At that age we’d have literally a velcro folder with a little carrying handle that was big enough for a reading book. It was only when we got to High School we’d be asked to bring things like a maths compass and protractor set or a scientific calculator…still no notebooks, paper or scissors!
UK vs USA Schools – Getting to School
Shock horror! We walked. If you didn’t walk, you were given a lift in a car and just had to find a side street to park up. My Junior School was literally just around the corner but I used to walk around 40 minutes to High School carrying all my subject notebooks, my giant art book, ingredients for food tech, PE kit etc etc. We didn’t have lockers and we were expected to take our books home for homework.
In the USA, the majority of people in Middle School and below, get on the iconic bright yellow school buses. The annual bus fare is quite steep and the kids are packed on like sardines.
In High School, ‘rural’ students can even apply to start driving really young with the restriction that the car is only used to get to and from school (in the UK we can’t start properly learning until 17). The rural students that went to my High School in the UK were able to get on a bus but I think they were trying to stop it due to budget cuts.
One concerning difference I find is the lack of ‘road crossing’ safety in America. In the UK we were taught from a young age how to cross roads safely, we took lessons on it at school and there were even adverts on the TV. In the USA, the school buses have the power to stop the traffic in BOTH directions.
I find a lot of the time that kids just run across the road without even looking because they know in theory that the cars SHOULD have stopped. Yes I live in a small town but I find that people don’t even look when crossing the streets normally, they just step off the curb. I know there’s not MUCH traffic but to not even stop and look?
UK vs USA Schools – Extra Curricular Activities
During UK Junior School, for one term each year we’d be taken to the local pool for swimming lessons during school hours. The Special Education school I worked at took the students swimming every week all year.
A highlight of every British kids Junior School PE lesson was the ‘apparatus’ weeks where the hall was transformed into what resembled an assault course, with the big fold out climbing ‘cages’, balance beams, stalls to jump off, ‘crash mats’, it was brilliant.
You joined after school clubs for a bit of fun and usually they were over by 5pm. Sometimes you’d be taken to another school nearby to play against them but no one ever came to watch.
Homecoming doesn’t exist and I still don’t understand what it is.
The Marching Band During a USA High School Football Game
In America, the clubs are taken SERIOUSLY. Scarily serious for a bunch of kids. Even in Middle School you have to try out for the team, you have to wear that sports exact uniform rather than just your PE kit, practises go on until late, tournaments sometimes take place at weekends, that are sometimes over an hour away and you’re responsible for driving there and may even have to pay to stay in a hotel for the night. If the games are at the school you even have to PAY to go and watch them!
UK vs USA Schools – School Field Trips
School trips were the highlight of school! There’d be several a year from going to places like the Tower of London, reenactments where everyone would dress up and pretend they were Victorians (Braintree Museum) or Tudors (Kentwell Hall), we went to see Cats The Musical in the West End (London), overnight ‘camps’ that focused on team building and outdoor activities.
High School trips often went to theme parks (even to Disneyland Paris in France), I went on a history trip to Belgium to see the World War trenches and graveyards…bear in mind I was 15/16 in my last year of High School so was still quite young. There would be reward trips if you had good grades in certain subjects too.
My College trips were the biggest (still USA High School age…). I went to Poland on a FREE foreign exchange trip, Italy and on a safari in Kenya. We even got to take a tour of a cruise ship that was docked in the Port of Southampton.
For the most part, they did cost money though and I was lucky that I was in a position that my parents could afford to send me on them.
Speaking from a USA Elementary perspective, the trips are often free and covered by fund raising but then they aren’t as ‘big’…but then that could be that we’re in the middle of nowhere and it’d take the whole school day to actually get anywhere. The trips are to places like orchards or pumpkin patches. Last year we went to see a puppet theatre group which crazily enough I saw the SAME show when the Canadian company were doing a European tour while I was working at the school in the UK!
The Middle School have camping overnights similar to the UK but I’m unsure of exactly what field trips the High School students are offered, however I know this year there was a hiking trip in Colorado and next year it’s in Utah.
UK vs USA Schools – Graduation
For UK students, graduation only happens at University and to be honest, I think that’s the way it should be done. You’ve paid a ton of money, you’ve worked your butt off, you should have a special ceremony for it, you shouldn’t have to ‘graduate’ every establishment because by the time to get to University it’s not going to be as special.
When you finish High School and college, there is a designated ‘Results Day’ in the summer where you can turn up at any point over the space of a few hours and you are handed an envelope that has a list of your grades. The official certificates come through the post a little later. The only time you go in for a ceremony is if you are ‘Student of the Year’ (ahem like me in Travel & Tourism at college) or if you got the most A’s or the best grade in a certain subject.
High School graduations in America are huge…just like they are in the movies. Everyone wears the gowns and caps, there are limits to how many family members you can invite, if you are late and there are no seats left you have to stand outside and watch it on a TV, you walk in to a graduation march, everyone has parties where they get given cards and gifts, the yearbook costs $60 (!!!!), it’s CRAZY.
UK vs USA Schools – Final Words
Schools in the USA shut for all sorts of strange reasons! I’ve had days off for snow, ice, freezing rain, fog and heat! If it doesn’t warrant a full day closure, the school will open 2 hours late (to give the roads a chance to be cleared) or shut 2 hours early (if snow suddenly comes in). In the UK we made had a snow day once every year or 2. In my whole 15 years at school (plus working in a school for 3 years) the only other time we closed was once, due to the heating not working during the winter!
I’m not sure how it is in the UK anymore, but in the USA the professional school photos are airbrushed. Parents can even pay extra for the kid to be photoshopped if they have a graze on their face or a spot that can be seen. You can pay extra for different backgrounds that work via a green screen too.
I’m sure it happens in all of the schools, but in Elementary, they say the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag every morning. I’m not sure how exactly this would go down in UK schools as they are told they have to be ‘inclusive’ to all nationalities so can’t do anything that makes people feel uncomfortable.
What do you think of the differences between the American school system compared to the English?