I'm an American who's been in the UK school system for 8 years - I'm still confused about it all

I'm an American who's been in the UK school system for 8 years - I'm still confused about it all
·4 min read
Kid riding a scooter wearing a school uniform
One of the author's children riding a scooter in their uniform. Courtesy of Jennifer Barton
  • As an American raising kids in England. I've learned to love school uniforms.

  • Everything has a different meaning: Public schools aren't free. College isn't higher education.

  • Because the curriculum is so different, I feel like I'm back in school as well.

As an American raising children in England, a lot of things get lost in translation - even though I'm not speaking a foreign language.

Getting to grips with the educational system here has been a particular challenge: The buttoned-up English-style uniforms and boarding schools couldn't feel more different from my super-liberal New York City school experience.

Public schools aren't free, and college isn't higher education

It doesn't help that the vocabulary here is the same, but the meaning of words is so different. I come from a place where public schools are open to all. Here, they're typically the oldest, priciest, and most posh boarding schools in the country. So in the UK, public schools are private schools. It's the fanciest kind of private school you can get, and it usually has a boarding-school component.

"College" is another word that means something completely different depending on which country you're in. In the UK, it's a reference to sixth-form college - the final two years of "high school" and A-level exams that prepare you for university (what Americans would call college). You can also get higher education that is vocational and 100% not university.

Even kindergarten has a different name in the UK: reception, followed by year one, year two, etc. While you'd assume this corresponds to first grade, second grade, etc., in the US - that would be far too easy. Kids start school earlier in the UK, so an 11-year-old here and a 10-year-old in the US could be three grades apart, depending on when in the year their birthdays fall.

State education versus private education is a heated topic in the UK, with frequent debates about whether private schools should be abolished or taxed more heavily, and what percentage of state-educated students should be represented at top-tier universities. Grammar schools are also contentious. These are highly selective academic schools that admit students based on arduous tests at age 11 - they just happen to be the highest-performing schools in local and national league tables, and crucially, they're free of charge.

To break it down: State school is free, grammar school is free for smart kids, and private school costs money. Religious schools are also completely free.

In London, competition for the top schools is fierce. Parents need to sign babies up "from birth" if they want a shot at getting in. There are also about 500 boarding schools in the UK, and some accept children as young as 7.

While single-sex schools are becoming less popular, they still seem pretty ubiquitous in the private sector. Most of the secondary schools in my London patch aren't coed.

Most kids wear uniforms

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

Repressive or not, they do make children look appealingly like extras in a period movie: Knee breeches, culottes, straw boater hats, pinafore dresses, cravats, bobble hats, and kilts have all been spotted on privately educated students. Uniforms change from one season to the next, and kids have separate uniforms for physical education and any specific sports they play.

My kids are happy, enthusiastic, and enjoying school for its social and academic benefits. I've even almost gotten used to the annual tradition of seeing them trussed up like innkeepers, stars, and sheep as they perform in the annual Christmas Nativity play - something that happens in all schools here, faith-based or not.

Since the curriculum is so different here, from the topics covered in history and geography to the authors they read in English, it almost feels like I'm in school again, discovering and learning right along with them.

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