I emphasize “quick” in the title so you do not expect an exhaustive explanation of the British school system in the event you’re moving to London with a family. Rather, to follow up on a recent post on relocating to London with children, I just want to touch on some basic differences in case you’re already doing some cursory research and confused with some of the acronyms and other references. The British education system is a complex one that I still struggle to wrap my mind around, quite honestly.
Belinda has already written a helpful post about the private versus state school, so be sure to read that: “Relocating to London: The Great Public vs. State School Debate.” A British citizen who grew up in London, she can surely speak to this topic with more sophistication than I can, but, as a former teacher in the States, I thought I’d share some of what I learned from the brief time I spent substitute teaching here (which they call “supply teaching”) and point you in the direction of some resources that might aid your research.
In understanding the types of schools available here, you might consult this link to the UK’s Directgov site, as well as the Good Schools Guide (highly recommended). If you’re relocating to London from the U.S., then you might want to look into the American School of London for continuity in your child’s American curriculum. This is unfortunately the only American school in the city itself, but in the event you’re able to settle elsewhere in England, the ACS International Schools and TASIS (The American School in England) sites are a good start.
School uniforms are the norm here (whether public or private), and what we often call “elementary” or “grade” schools in the States are just called “primary schools” here, whereas “secondary school” encompasses both middle school and high school grades in England. As an American high school teacher, you can bet I was thrown for a loop when I was suddenly having to teach 12 and 13-year-olds—there’s a BIG difference in age at this critical adolescent stage, and I just couldn’t believe that 12-year-olds were walking the same halls as 18-year-olds! Some schools do divide the younger students from the older, however; that’s probably the norm. I was also quite surprised to encounter that classes were not necessarily scheduled during the same period each day; in fact, at the school I taught at, every single day was different, so I religiously followed my printout of the course schedule. Further, they don’t say “9th grade,” “10th grade,” etc., much less use the titles “Freshman,” “Sophomore,” “Junior,” or “Senior”; instead, it’s “Year 9,” “Year 10,” and so forth (you get a hint of this difference in nomenclature when you’re flipping channels on the telly and see the quiz show “Are You Smarter Than a 10 Year Old?” versus the U.S. game show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” ).
In addition to students, sometimes even adults enrolling in a course or seeking employment in London might stumble on “GCSE” or “A-level” requirements, which would understandably have you scratching your head and wondering if you qualify if you’re not from these here parts. GCSE stands for “General Certificate of Secondary Education,” and basically these are exams British students take at age 16 (the U.S. sophomore year equivalent) in different subjects to determine their achievement at that stage and whether they’ll move on to vocational training or A-levels (which is for college-bound kids) during what we Americans would consider their “upperclassmen” years. A-levels, then, determine if students get into university. American standardized tests (ACT, SAT) aren’t really the same thing, but you could probably provide one of those scores along with your high school GPA if asked for such…though I doubt an ACT has any more meaning here than it does in the States after you’re already in college.
So there’s a primer, if you will, on some basic elements of school here in the UK so that your childrens’ education can flourish—which it will by virtue of your London move alone!