Schooling in the UK versus the USA

Schooling in the UK versus the USA

Despite both being English-speaking, western countries, there are several differences between the UK and the USA. One of them is how schools are organized. It is surprising that two countries that should be so similar, could diverge so thoroughly.

To celebrate the United States’ 244th independence day, let’s review some of the differences.

One of the most obvious differences is how years [US English: grades] are numbered.

Year/grade numbering:

Child age*UK post-1990 Year numberUK pre-1990 Year numberUK CommentsUS grade
4Registration1Some counties have children start at 4, others at 5.Kindergarten (K2)
512The first year of ‘primary’ or ‘infant’ school.Kindergarten (K3)
731The first year of ‘middle’ or ‘junior’ school.2
(Middle school)
1171st FormThe first year of ‘secondary’ or ‘senior’ school.6
(Middle school)
1282nd Form7
(Middle school)
1393rd Form8
(Middle school)
14104th FormThe first year of studying for GCSEsFreshman (High school)
15115th FormThe last year of studying for GCSEsSophomore
(High school)
16Lower 6th FormLower 6th FormThe first year of “College” studying for A-levels, NVQs or other exams.Junior
(High school)
17Upper 6th FormUpper 6th FormThe year we complete A-levels, NVQs etc.Senior
(High school)
The age of children at the beginning of each school year [grade]

Summary differences

The main differences, then, are that school starts one year later for children in the United States, and that the ages children transition from school to school differ.

There are some other differences, too, though. In US schools, the children have more liberty about their timetable (see the final years, below) and this seems to reduce the familiarity of students, especially in a large school. In British schools, your cohort is consistent, only changing for those few optional classes, but otherwise consisting of the same 30 or so children.


Attending a college in England was optional until relatively recently (Source). In the UK, “college” means a school for 16 – 19 year-olds, or a school for university age children that does not issue degrees.

At the end of year 9, English students select which GCSEs they are going to study. Some of them are mandatory like English and Maths [US English: Math], and some are optional like Economics, Geography, History and Psychology. What is optional and what is mandatory changes over time. When I went to school, for example, a foreign language was mandatory for years 10 and 11, but I know that my niece did not have to do that more recently.

The final years

In US High Schools, every kid [UK English: child] chooses a number of ‘classes’ they are going to complete over the next few weeks. There are mandatory classes that they have to complete by the end of school, but they do not have to be done in any particular order. When they have achieved sufficient ‘credits’ they can ‘graduate’. Each class lasts a set number of weeks and when it is complete, you are graded and move onto another set of classes.

This is not how it works in England. In England, you select two or more optional courses, and then you study those in a rigid timetable for the whole two years. This allows the courses to build on prior knowledge in a much more predictable way, but also places a lot more emphasis on nine final exams.

There is a similar difference between British and American universities, but that deserves its own post.

One thought on “Schooling in the UK versus the USA

  1. Interesting comparison! I was mentally comparing both systems to New Zealand’s which is most similar to England’s but with some small differences. We call the years Kindergarten and then Year 1 to 13 (very straightforward). Only maths and English are mandatory, and the three optional subjects are chosen on an annual basis. Our qualification is “NCEA” rather than “GCSE” and the less said about it, the better.

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