Sunday, May 24, 2009

School's Out. (Well, almost!)

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!


  1. Something to be said for the British system is the speed with which we can get though it. When I arrived in the US aged 25 with newly minted PhD everyone was astonished by my youth. With typical 4 year degrees and 5-6 year graduate programs PhD graduates are closer to 30 over here.

    The specialization is a bit brutal though, I have a degree in Biochemistry, which in the UK means that I studied nothing but that for three years, no literature, languages or sociology, and before that spent 2 years studying only science at A level.

    I personally like the rigorous UK high school system, where the qualifications actually mean something (A GPA from one high school can't really be compared to one from another, it seems, but O level Maths is O level Maths, no matter where you went to school. I prefer the US college system, with its broader education. I'm hoping I can give my kids the best of both.

  2. I'm not speaking from in-depth knowledge here, but my perception, NFAH, is that the English GCSE's and A levels have moved considerably towards the American system. In my day, O levels and A levels were 100% exam-based. Nowadays, they have course work components, assessed by the school teachers, and you can retake sections to boost your overall grade. (In my day, if you did retakes, you retook the whole lot - it was a very serious business and hardly anyone did.)

    The Scottish system seems a good compromise between the two (although I have never quite understood the intricacies of it!)

    I think the broad education versus specialised education debate is one of those debates which you can have endlessly: pros and cons on each side. Yes, it's a shame for sixth formers to be studying only 3 subjects, but my husband (a university prof) would be more than happy to tell you how the ability of first year UK university students to think in depth about their own subjects, and also any other subject they choose to start, compares with the US college kids' abilities. I suppose part of it is what you are actually learning, and part of it is a training in how to approach learning. I think A levels do that pretty well (don't know about US High School).

  3. Actually Geeky, I remember when I did my "O" leels, there were seeral different exam boards and some were thought to be harder than others, so an O Level wasn't always the same. Not sure if it's still like that.
    And yes, my nephew has a lot of course work as a componant of his GCSE's now. It doesn't seem to be all about the exam as much as it used to be.
    I'm quite happy with the education my kids will receive here in the US, especially since the older two haven't a clue what they would like to "be" yet.

  4. "levels" and "several" - my "V" key is sticking!

  5. NFAH, I think you are right. English schools are baffling. From what you say, it would seem that it is more fair the American way, to go by regular yearly performance and not base everything on an exam which might not represent true ability. Many students do suffer from exam nerves & do not do well on examination day.

    Toni I think this is a good debate. The English children have the weight of their unknown exams hanging over them all summer. It would be good for them to know what was happening to them earlier like the Americans do.
    Two very different systems that I hadn't really thought about until now.

  6. Great debate! And educational as well; who knew the Brits don't elect a Prom King and Queen!

  7. I think I am even more confused about the UK high school experience than ever now...

  8. My son will be moving from kindergarten to grade one this summer. I'm told there is some sort of graduation that the parents are invited to.

    As the UK moved to increase the course work components of their exams, there were complaints that work was influenced by helpful parents and teachers coaching their pupils. Is that an issue in the US?

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Agh - another defective keyboard.
    Anyway, - I'm sure too many parents have far too much to do with their kids' course work. It's one thing to help edit a paper, but another thing entirely to feed them ideas and generally do the stuff yourself.
    Get ready for the annual Science Fair tho - where grade school kids present experiments, models of various things and replicas of whatever. It's glaringly obvious that most of them haven't touched the darn thing themselves.

  11. I think we owe NFAH a huge vote of thanks, my dear fellow-Brits.

    Despite being 'baffled' by our educational system (by which I suppose she doesn't understand it -- a weakness which she is courageous enough to ignore, and an ignorance which is born out by her article) she gives us the panacea! And it's the American one: wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!

    It's just this sort of incisive and informed approach which makes America so amazingly beloved by all the nations of the world. We just love people from the U.S. (the more arrogant and ignorant the better) telling us poor benighted nations how to conduct ourselves!

    It is interesting to note that NFAH's article is a lot based upon what she has written in he own blog. It is a shame, I feel, that she has not taken onboard the comments which were made there:

  12. Howard - Don't you "fellow Brit" me!

    This is what gives us Brits the wrong reputation overseas, in the same way you're trying to paint Americans actually. The snide, sarcastic comments which, on inspection, have no point or merit.
    When I first came to the States, I thought (like many ignorant Brits, I suspect) that no education system could possibly be as good as the Brits'. In case you've forgotten, the IB (I won't bother explaining, as you're sure to know of it) is more along the US lines and is becoming quite the thing in public (ie. fee-paying) schools in the UK. I wonder why?

    Having lived here for 19 years, (and having been a mother for 16), I am now quietly eating humble pie. American kids who stay in school, (and that's a whole nuther topic) have a much broader education than I ever did at 18. Moreover, they are not required to tie themselves up to a degree which they might not enjoy (like I did). Many colleges require them to continue studying arts, sciences, and English through their degree life (hence the four years). This doesn't mean I eschew the UK system, but I can see the merits of both sides.

    NFAH may well have taken other's comments on board, but that doesn't mean his/her opinion has changed.

    This blog is for civil-minded, articulate folk - intended to encourage debate and discussion about "pond" issues, so please, join in when you're ready.

  13. In South Africa we now have Outcomes Based Education which places a great deal of emphasis on coursework, as well as having end of year exams. I think this gives a better chance to all the different types of learners. Not all students are good at, or capable of, learning in a way that gives value to exams only grading, and those students are now able to come into their own and do remarkably well rather than struggle.

    It is also fair to say that not many 17/18 year olds really know what they want to do for the rest of their lives and giving them a broader base of interests at least gives them more options! I had no idea what I wanted to do when I had to choose my A'levels, and I chose very badly, then when I left school, I did completely the wrong thing and am now, aged 31, in the final year of my degree in the right field! If I had had to take a broader range of subjects I may have had more choices!

    I think the narrow minded, and patronising comment above is a sad reminder that there are still many people out there who are not progressive and are blind to the benefits of learning from other's successes.

  14. Howard just can not seem to be able to pass up a row with NFAH. It is sad really, he has to contradict everything she says.

  15. > In case you've forgotten, the IB (I won't bother explaining, as you're sure to know of it)

    In that case perhaps you could explain 'IB' for the benefit of others who read this blog?

  16. I really hope the awful US style graduation balls dont catch on over here - if you are worried about kids being stressed, this is just about the worst thing you could introduce. Who has a date, who hasnt, who has been able to afford an expensive ($1000s+ in some cases)dress, professional makeup application, photos, who does and who doesnt get invited to before and after parties, limo hire (I kid you not).....the list is endless. It costs a fortune, discriminates against poorer or less popular kids, and serves no good purpose at all except conspicuous consumption.
    The british education system is becoming more americanised, with coursework and projects becoming more important and exams less so (and less stringent). The result of this is that universities are finding it more difficult to recognise good candidates under the new 'everyone a winner' system. They are now having to give remedial coaching in some subjects and are considering lengthening degree courses from 3 to 4 years as in the american system.Results are hard to judge because of outside (sometimes paid for) and parental help. In the old days of strict O and A levels this would never have happened. NFAH is ignorant of most of this background and most people who follow her on a regular basis know that she heartily dislikes Britain and the British, and her jaundiced and unbalanced remarks on the educational systems reflect this. She also heavily censors the comments on her blog.

  17. rimfire: I couldn't agree with you more about the "Prom Culture" surrounding a US high school graduation. Granted, it is a major milestone in a young person's life but the whole prom thing is way out of proportion. I didn't go to mine; I was, as you point out, one of the "too poor and not popuar" kids. But even if I could have gone, I like to think I would have boycotted it on principle.

  18. Rimfire: I think to accuse NFAH of disliking the British and Britain is extremely ignorant of you. I have actually met NFAH in person and I know she does NOT hate Britain or the British people. However I have a feeling that YOU hate most Americans and American culture. Most of your comments that I have read have been snide and very biased.

    As for NFAH censoring her page it is probably because she receives messages with helpful hints like "Go Home" and calling her names. Personally I would delete them as well. I am not going to have someone come to my place and take a piss at me.

  19. Rimfire, did you READ the post properly? Think about it. When, other than school and the cursed driving exam, are people ever forced to sit in tense, timed conditions and get down on paper everything they know? When I did my law degree we had to memorise case names (many of which were identical except for the date) and weren't allowed any legal reference books in the exams. When do lawyers have to do that? And what does it prove other than you might have a good memory? It certainly didn't add to one's understanding of the legal points involved.
    Similarly, for most people, exams prove little more than you can write fast. In fact, most people probably do worse in exams than in any other condition.
    And please - by all means join in the discussion, but if comments descend to a baseless slanging match, they will be deleted.
    Thank you.

  20. The Tomlinson report had a lot of interesting and useful ideas in it in terms of reform of the system, most importantly the production of a transcript instead of a set of a few letters representing exam scores. What will be very interesting in coming years is the extent to which some of these ideas are adopted, especially in light of the current confusion over diplomas (which I chose to ignore here, as being yet another set of independent qualifications that are too new to be well-established!)

    Thanks to Kat and Expatmum for their comments, I'm starting to believe some people read my thoughts with a single-minded goal of looking for something to be offended by, and thus miss the point entirely!

  21. In the US there is always an agenda. I found it is impossible to get broad, impartial education for my children. Wherever you go someone is trying to bang their heads against a bible or a flag, or using money to wield power over the way kids are raised. Children are told what they must believe about life before they are able to figure things out and form judgment for themselves. It's a very immature approach to educating children, and can only thrive in isolation.

  22. We find that British parents are often sure that their children will be ahead when they move to the US educational system. We always tell them that the children will be ahead in some areas and behind in other, and generally everything works out one way or the other. Five year olds are fairly adaptable creatures! For older the children the IB really does seem to be a great answer.

  23. Apples versus oranges.

    I believe the following truths to be self-evident: I know something about apples, but am baffled by oranges -- my ignorance is a shield of strength. I have never tried an orange. I know very little about orange cultivation. This gives me the unalienable right to say, without fear of contradiction, that apples are better than oranges. Orange-eaters are wrong! Orange-growers are wrong! Moreover I assert the right of apple-eaters and apple-growers to take over the lands where oranges are grown, educate the local populace and/or stuff apples in their mouths, and say, "God Bless the United States of Apple Growers! Ame

  24. > Howard - Don't you "fellow Brit" me!

    I've no problem with not calling you what you don't want to be called, Toni.

    In your recent broadcast you said that your living among Americans was a little like being surrounded by three hundred million labrador puppies. Is there some kind of name we could construct out of that?

  25. I feel just as confused by British expats in my expat country, and I'm a teacher!

    Expat 21

  26. Howard - Ha ha very funny and very true!

  27. > How about Cruella!?

    LOL!!!! Labradors *and* dalmatians better watch out! :-)


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