This week's guest blogger is Not From Around Here, an American who moved to the UK for work reasons.
It's that time of year again; US high school students are preparing to graduate, party and move on, while comparably aged students in Britain are taking exams, the results of which won't be known until mid-August. High school graduation is a monumental right of passage in America. Imagine my shock when I arrived in the UK and found that there was no local equivalent! As an outsider, the system of secondary school in Britain is baffling, to say the least. There are a set of exams at age 16 (“GCSE’s ”) that form the historical end of uniform secondary education; (in the near future students will have to stay on till age 18). Although they’re called “General Certificates of Education “there is nothing general about them. Students take a series of exams of their own choosing, both in terms of number of subjects taken and the topics, thus ensuring that there is no uniform qualification on finishing school—there is nothing equivalent to a US high school diploma. The time that Americans would call 11th and 12th grades is here “Sixth form” and sometimes students switch to different schools (“sixth form colleges”). At this point there is an early specialization that would stun American 18 year olds; only a few subjects are studied in sixth form. Again the end is marked with a series of exams (“A-levels” for Advanced Level) that determine college entrance, along with an in-person interview (only possible or practical due to the relatively small size of the country, I suppose). Ironic that in a land of exams there is no equivalent to the US general aptitude college entrance tests (SATs or ACTs).
My biggest beef with the UK system is probably what a Brit would claim as its greatest strength, the importance of single exams in determining outcomes. I admit it, I'm from an American education system where exams might count for some of your grade, but so did projects, essays, presentations, group work, and other things that are more representative of the things you encounter for the rest of your life. The mark of performance in the states is your Grade Point Average (GPA), representing your marks in a whole bunch of subjects averaged over a whole bunch of years. One bad day does not scar you for life in the GPA system. And once you leave your education behind, exams are probably a thing of your past, so how is an “education” system that emphasizes being a good test-taker preparing people for the real world? Of course, my British colleagues would probably suggest that's not the point of education.
There has been a move towards adoption of American-style traditions in the UK. Borrowing from our “Class of XXXX” sweatshirts with the names of all students in the year printed in tiny type, it's now common to see similar shirts in the UK. Except they say “Leavers” and the year. Just doesn't have the same ring as “Graduates” does it? If you google the subject (as one does) you will find some in the UK calling for graduation ceremonies. It's always amusing to this expat to find the rare instance of “There are lessons to be learnt from the United States” written in black and white on the BBC website, but for this subject, it actually does appear to be true. I've even caught wind of something like a GPA catching on over here, but I'm not holding my breath.
British employers seem obsessed with GCSE and A level exam results, and it's a common gripe of expats that they have a hard time getting jobs because they don't have any of these results to put on their CVs. Overall, my feeling is that most people think the system they came through is far superior, and that the other country has it totally wrong. So of course, as an American I'm baffled by the UK system, don't think there should be such overwhelming emphasis on exams and exam results, and think there should not be such early specialization, certainly not before University. I feel bad for the UK students who don't get a rite of passage (with accompanying party and gifts) in early June and who spend so much time stressing over their exam scores. Mostly, I think fondly of my own halcyon days as a high school student—free of the fear that a few exam scores would follow me around for the rest of my life—and I will vigorously defend my American education.
I’ve said it before – if there’s one thing that will make you feel like en expat here, it’s the education system. As NFAH has clearly explained, the high school approaches are nothing alike, although as the mother of a student about to embark on the ACT/Sat path, it seems as stressful as any GCSE and A level experience I had. Perhaps this is made worse because students here quite often apply to more than ten colleges, visiting many of them for long weekends. And remember, this country is BIG, so that can be expensive.
My confusion is compounded by the names the students are given. A first year student (note, not “Pupil”) in High School, equivalent to Year 10 is a Freshman. OK, I get that. The Second year in High School (Year 11) is your Sophomore Year. Hmm. Lower and Upper Sixth formers respectively are Juniors and Seniors. Seniors I get, but shouldn’t Juniors be the new kids on the block? Fortunately this terminology is also used at college.
In defenc(s)e of the English system, given that most universities look for a range of GCSE’s (English, Maths, a language, a science and sometimes an art subject), taking more than 7 gives you a fairly balanced education. I agree that it’s alarming to have to winnow your education down to a few subjects at seventeen, but we started school a good year earlier than most Americans, so again, it’s perhaps not as drastic. When I did my A levels, it was common to take three to secure a place at university, but kids these days are taking a few more, which presumably means their education remains a little broader. Specializing before college however, does mean that there’s no room for error or dilly dallying. If you’re halfway through you’re a A level syllabus and you realize that you should have done physics instead of economics, you can’t really switch. My nephew is currently taking his GCSE’s and has already had to choose his A level subjects, even though he has no idea what his GCSE results will be. To help select his A levels, not only did he have to think about what he wanted to study at university, but also about his eventual choice of profession. He wants to be a pilot, - a fairly specialized career with a lot of competition so you really have to make sure you have the right academic background for the course and the job.
I agree that British kids miss out on some great end of year activities, and it seems far nicer to end school knowing where you’re going to college, rather than dangling in paranoia for most of the summer. High school graduation and proms in the US are fun, and the UK should recognize the efforts of its high school graduates with a little more celebration. But please, no corsages and no cheesy Prom Kings and Queens!
22 hours ago