The UK Educational System and How it Differs From America

Updated on January 25, 2017
Nathanville profile image

My interest in social and cultural politics extends from my interest in genealogy and history, and how they project into today's Societies.

My son's University Graduation
My son's University Graduation

Understanding the USA System

When American's attempt to explain their educational system to me they forget that I am alien to their system and speak in terms that are unfamiliar to me; failing to give an adequate explanation (in simple terms) that a non America would understand.

Therefore, I would appreciate any constructive feedback in the Comments at the bottom.

Communication and Understanding

When chatting with Americans on social media about education, few (if any) fail to appreciate Britain isn’t the same as America. When I try to explain some of the differences the Americans I speak with try to view it in their image.

My perception is that Americans (in general) seem to:-

  • View progression through school by grade as being synonymous to the British system of progression by year.
  • Blur the boundaries between college and university, whereas in Britain they are distinctly different, and
  • Believe that funding for university fees in the UK is fundamentally the same as the USA.

The message doesn’t seem to sink in when I try to explain to Americans on social media that in the UK:-

  • Progression through school is by year, and related to age, not grades.
  • That there is a distinctive difference between college and university, and
  • The university fees system in the UK is fundamentally different to the system in the USA.

Therefore this article, with the aid of YouTube videos as a visual aid, aims to clarify those differences; and quite possibly highlight some of the similarities between Britain’s and America’s educational systems.

What People Think of Education Where They Live

How Good is the Educational System in Your Country?

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Overview of Britain's Educational System

Overview of the British Educational System

The Different Stages of Education

The type of education you’re given in the UK is age related; the main stages of education being:-

  • Pre-school education from 3 months old to the age of 5 (not compulsory)
  • Primary School from age 5 to 11.
  • Secondary school from age 11 to 16
  • College from age 17 to 18
  • University from the age of 18

Overview for Non UK Students

Pre-school

Pre-school education is not compulsory, and can be provided by one or more of four types of providers:-

  • Nursery schools, from the age of 3 years.
  • Day nurseries, from 3 months.
  • Playgroups, from the age of 2 years.
  • Childminders, from 3 months.

All pre-school providers have to be registered and government approved in order to operate; and are subject to inspection by the government.

Most types of providers charge a fee, day schools and day nurseries being the more expensive. However, regardless to the type of service provider, government funding is available to parents for all children aged between 3 and 4, to provide 15 hours a week free education; albeit State run nursery schools are free anyway.

How Pre-School Education works in England

From Primary School to College

Education in the UK is compulsory between the age of 5 and 16; but free from the age of 3 until the age of 18.

In primary school you learn the basics of education, often in a fun way; then from the age of 11 until 16 you start to learn the ‘Subjects’ in greater depth at Secondary school.

For the first three years at secondary school you’re taught a wide range of nationally set subjects (The National Curriculum). For the last two years you choose which subjects you want to specialise in and at the end of the two years take exams in them; the GCSEs.

The GCSEs are nationally recognised qualifications, so if at this stage you pass five or more GCSEs (including English and Maths) at grade ‘C’ or higher then you can get a reasonably good job.

However, if you don’t pass enough of the right exams, or you want to get further qualifications, you can opt to stay on at school in the sixth form, or go to college for a couple of years to study for your ‘A’ levels. Passing two ‘A’ levels opens up more job opportunities and gives you a ticket to university.

British vs American Schools

Majoring Not a UK Thing

Majoring isn’t done in the UK. From day one in British colleges and universities you’re studying your chosen subjects; with the intention of passing your exams in those subjects in the final year, which if successful gives you qualifications that can help to get you a job.

British Universities

In Britain universities are open to anyone of any age over the age of 18, but to gain entry you must have the right qualifications with the right grades; as specified by the university you’re applying to.

Generally, the required qualifications to get access to university include two ‘A’ levels or similar; obtained by two years study and end of course exams at college. Passing at grade ‘C’ may give you some opportunities but getting grade ‘A’ in your exams will widen your options.

Once you get into university you then spend the next three years studying your chosen subject, and if you pass all your coursework and the exams you graduate with your ‘Degree’.

Oxford and Cambridge are the most prestigious universities in the UK, and are the most difficult to get into because they set very high requirements. If you don’t get all ‘A’ in your ‘A’ levels at college for the subjects being asked for by these universities then you stand little chance of being selected.

All universities run a ‘clearing house’ which they use to fill any spare places following the selection process. So if you don’t quite have all the required qualifications and grades and you’re not selected in the first instance, you may get an opportunity to re-apply consideration; which is how my son got into university.

My Wife

When my son was old enough for Secondary School my wife, after years of looking after him, wanted to return to work. To get herself a good job she decided to take a Degree course as a mature student; but to get into university she first had to study at college for two years to pass a BTEC exam.

As she was aiming for a managerial office job she opted to take a ‘Business Administration’ course at college; and when she passed her exams applied to UWE (University of the west of England) in Bristol for a degree in Business Administration.

After three years at UWE she graduated with a BA in Business Administration (Hon.) Degree; then after applying for several jobs got a job in Administration at UWE.

The subjects she had to study, and pass in her exams, as part of the Business Administration course included:-

  • Economics
  • Business Accounts
  • Business Law
  • Statistics, and
  • English

Although she finished her degree in the last year before the Government finally abolished student grants, the university grant she had wasn’t enough to live on. So during her time at university she also took out a modest student loan; which she’s never been required to pay back. Even though she landed herself a good job, because she only wanted to work part time, her salary has never reached the threshold which triggers the requirement to start the student loan repayment. Therefore, as unpaid student loans are automatically written-off after 30 years (or at retirement age if sooner), like many in Britain, she’ll never be required to pay a penny.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
My wife with her parents and son on her graduation from university.My wife just after her graduation from university.
My wife with her parents and son on her graduation from university.
My wife with her parents and son on her graduation from university.
My wife just after her graduation from university.
My wife just after her graduation from university.

My Son

My son had more than enough qualifications for entry to university, except English; not being able to pass his English GCSE at school or college because of dyslexia. Nevertheless he was keen to get a degree in Broadcast Media because he had his sights on becoming a fully qualified professional freelance photographer.

For his subject of interest at UWE (University of the West of England, Bristol) the qualifying criteria for entry was two appropriate ‘A’ levels (or equivalent) and GCSEs in English and Maths.

He had two B-Techs and half a dozen GCSEs, including Maths. A B-Tech demonstrates a fairly comprehensive understanding in five subjects, and is equivalent to two ‘A’ Levels. Passing an ‘A’ level demonstrates a deep understanding of a single subject.

Therefore, because he didn’t have English he wasn’t initially accepted by the university, he reapplied during the clearing process and got an interview. At the interview they informed him that he would be accepted if he passed their own internal English exam; specifically designed to make allowances for dyslexia. He did this, passing their English entrance, and went on to spend the next three years studying for his Broadcast Media Degree, which he passed as a BA with Hons. Since then, for the past few years, he’s been building up his business as a successful freelance professional photographer.

My Son’s University Graduation and Party

Scotland vs UK

Scotland has its own Parliament which is ruled by a Socialist Government. Therefore universities are free for Scottish citizens and EU citizens who are not UK. UK citizens, who are not Scottish, have to pay the £9,000 fee, like the rest of Britain, while all non-EU citizens pay significantly more.

UK University Fees

This may be the biggest difference between Britain and America; even more so with Scotland.

Prior to 1995 not only was university education free for all, but you were also given non-means tested grant by the government to cover living expenses.

The Conservatives (Capitalist) Government changed all that when in the mid-1990s they introduced university fees. However, although at first glance it might sound costly, it’s not as expensive or as crippling as the fees system in the USA.

In Britain, university fees are capped at £9,000 ($11,000) per year; £27,000 ($33,000) total for a three year degree course. However you can take out a ‘Student Loan’ to cover the fees and living expenses, which you only start paying back when you’re earning above the average wage.

If you never get a high paid job then the loan (which is set at a low interest rate of just 4.6%) is automatically written off after 30 years.

Currently in Britain you only need to start paying a student loan back once you’re earning more than £21,000 ($26,000) a year; and then you only pay it back at 9% of your earnings above that amount e.g. if you earn £25,000 ($31,000) a year the loan repayment would be just £360 ($445) per year.

The Facts about University Fees and Student Loans in Britain

Open University

In 1969 the Socialist Labour Government established the ‘Open University’.

Initially it was run by BBC2 broadcasting the study modules overnight; these days it’s all done online through the Internet.

The purpose of the ‘Open University’ is to give an opportunity to anyone to get a degree, even if they’re in fulltime employment and wouldn’t have the time to attend university.

An ‘Open University’ Degree has the same value as a Degree obtained through going to university, so it’s a valuable qualification that can open up many job opportunities.

In recognition that if you’re in full time employment you’ll not have the time to do a full time course in three years, you can work at your own pace and spread your study out up to a maximum of 12 years.

With an ‘Open University’ degree course, you’re not on your own; when you sign up for the course you are assigned a tutor and can join in with the various on-line forums. Also, being done online it’s a lot cheaper, with the total cost (which is spread-out over the whole course period) being just £5,000 ($6,000).

An Insight into Open University

Questions & Answers

    Your Comments

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      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        21 months ago from The Caribbean

        Growing up in the Caribbean made me familiar with the British system of education which set the standard for our education. We used to say back then that British education was broader, because students were not allowed to specialize (zero in on select subjects) as early as they do in America. On the other hand, the British system of promotion according to ability instead of age, seemed severe for students who could not cope. Having been exposed to both systems, I think they're both appropriate for their worlds and graduates from both have the right to be proud. Thanks for pointing out some of the differences.

      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        21 months ago from Oklahoma

        People are always so down on our education system here in the U.S., but in my opinion our system is superior to most.

        These are very interesting read. Lord knows England has the better healthcare system.

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