American mom in the UK school system: what it looks like

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  • As an American raising children in England. I have grown to love school uniforms.
  • Everything has a different meaning: public schools are not free. College is not higher education.
  • Because the program is so different, I also feel like I’m back in school.

As an American raising children in England, a lot is lost in the translation, even though I don’t speak a foreign language.

Getting to know the education system here has been a particular challenge: the English-style button-up uniforms and boarding schools couldn’t be more different from my super-liberal school experience in New York.

Public schools are not free and college is not higher education

It doesn’t help that the vocabulary here is the same, but the meanings of the words are so different. I come from a place where public schools are open to everyone. Here, they are usually the oldest, most expensive and chicest boarding schools in the country. Thus, in the United Kingdom, public schools are private schools. This is the fanciest type of private school you can get, and it usually has a boarding component.

“College” is another word that means something completely different depending on what country you are in. In the UK, it’s a reference to sixth-grade college – the last two years of “high school” and the A-level exams that prepare you for college (what Americans would call college). You can also get 100% professional and non-university higher education.

Even kindergarten has a different name in the UK: welcome, followed by first grade, second grade, etc. While you could assume this is grade one, grade two, etc. in the US, that would be way too easy. Children start school earlier in the UK, so an 11-year-old here and a 10-year-old in the US could be three years apart, depending on what time of year their birthdays fall.

Public versus private education is a hot topic in the UK, with frequent debates over whether private schools should be abolished or taxed more heavily, and what percentage of students educated by the The state should be represented in leading universities. High schools are also contentious. These are highly selective academic schools that admit students on the basis of arduous testing at age 11 – they are simply the top performing schools in local and national rankings, and most importantly, they are free.

To sum up: public school is free, high school is free for smart kids, and private school costs money. Religious schools are also completely free.

In London, competition for the best schools is fierce. Parents must register babies “from birth” if they want to have a chance to enter. There are also around 500 boarding schools in the UK, and some accept children as young as 7 years old.

As single-sex schools become less popular, they still seem quite ubiquitous in the private sector. Most of the secondary schools in my patch of London are not coeducational.

Most children wear uniforms

Even school uniforms have become politicized here. The question of whether they are “repressive” has recently been debated in the House of Lords. They are certainly expensive, averaging 213 pounds per child each year, and over 90% of English schools are thought to have uniforms.

Repressive or not, they make children look like attractive extras in a period film: breeches, culottes, straw boaters, pinafore dresses, ties, hats and kilts have all been spotted on private students. The uniforms change from season to season, and children have separate uniforms for physical education and any specific sports they play.

My children are happy, enthusiastic, and appreciate school for its social and academic benefits. I even almost got used to the annual tradition of seeing them tied up like innkeepers, stars and sheep as they perform in the annual Christmas Nativity play – something that happens in every school here, denominational or not.

As the curriculum is so different here, from topics covered in history and geography to the authors they read in English, I almost feel like I’m in school again, discovering and learning with them.


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