The specific features of the educational systems in UK and USA and their differences are quite a common topic. The two countries belong to the most developed nations and offer wide opportunities as to high quality advanced training in many specialties. Nevertheless, despite obvious language and cultural similarity, the educational systems in UK and USA have important peculiarities. The reasons are multiple and include various historical and societal factors whose analysis would be a complex endeavor going far beyond this review. In addition, we are offering a brief description of the main features of the two national educational system with a focus of the existing differences.
An important point in this context is that there are numerous purely term differences between the two educational systems. That is, essentially similar things have different names or essentially similar periods of study are differently divided and called (which results in an apparently different structure). For example, what is called “college” (“sixth form college”) in England is almost equal to the third and fourth high school years in the USA, while ‘university’ in England is barely equivalent to the third and fourth years of US university. And, in USA, “college” is just a synonym of “university”.
Let us begin with the pre-university level, where one may find a few differences in the two national educational patterns. The very first educational stages usually referred to as primary education are very much alike with only minor differences.
Pre-school education is basically similar, though differently called: “nursery” in UK and “kindergarten” in USA.
In UK, children start school at 5 (in Nothern Ireland even at 4) and are required to attend school until they are 16 (so called “compulsory school age”, CSA). This educational stage is provided by free state schools, paid independent school, or via home-schooling. In the USA, much depends on the state. Thus, in some states, students are allowed to leave school (with parents’ permission) between 14–17. In other states, on the contrary, school attendance is required until the age of 18. In USA, free education is common for the initial educational stage – from kindergarten to grade 12 (so called “K-12”).
In UK, at the age of 16, students may decide on their further studies. If they continue, they attend what is called “college” or “sixth form college” (different from the higher education “college” as constituent part of a university). A sixth form college represents a two-year preparatory and qualification course before the university education. As early as at the beginning of that stage, students have to make a decisive choice determining their specialization. From that moment on, they will be taught quite a narrow list of subjects in the selected field, which they will continue to study in the university (if accepted). The courses in the sixth form college are close to their future university specialty. In the end of the college stage, students have to take standardized A-level tests. After that, they are welcome to choose a university to apply. Their acceptance to the university depends on the scores they get at A-level tests.
In the American system, students usually enter what is called “high school” at 14, and then study four years until graduation at the age of 18. At this point, secondary education ends, and students may either apply to a university or end their studies and seek for a job.
Unlike in UK (at 16 or 17), it is only at this point (or even later), when American students actually decide on their specialty. During the last two years in the high school, students take a nationwide test, of which the most common are ACT (American College Testing) and SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test). Those tests are functionally analogous to the British A-level in that their scores are considered for university acceptance. They include tasks on science, reading, math and writing. You may take either or both or some other less common test. All depends on the university to which you are applying. The universities make their acceptance decision based on the test score and the students’ high school average grades.
There is a considerable difference in the university structure. Actually, a British university serves as an umbrella over several nearly completely independent and autonomous colleges. American universities too may be divided into “schools” (like “School of Arts”). But those schools are much less independent than British colleges. A meaningful fact is that, when you apply for high education in USA, you have to send application documents to the university admission department. While, in UK, you either apply directly to the college where you wish to study, or, for undergraduate programs, you may apply to a centralized system, which allows you to send application documents to multiple colleges at once.
One of the main differences (which can even explain some other differences) is the price. In short, in USA, the price is high, and in UK, it is moderate. Moreover, in UK, the tuition fees are collected in the form of government loans to be repaid after the student graduates and earns a certain minimum income. If a graduate doesn’t earn above the threshold level, no more interests are collected on the loan and the loan is not to be repaid until the graduate finds an occupation with a sufficient income. The situation is quite different in USA and much more severe. In case of an unsubsidized loan, US students often pay interests even when they still study. And subsidized loans start to collect interests upon your graduation – no matter whether you find any job or not.
And there is yet another difference in the courses organizations and in the way they are taught. In the US system, courses involve weekly and sometimes even biweekly readings. Besides, there may be other assignments like research projects and presentations. While, in the UK, higher education predominantly lecture based with very rare assignments.
On the whole, the differences are not so numerous and significant. Actually, there are more common features than differences, which is natural, given the common cultural roots. And part of the differences are differences in terms not in the essence. However, either educational pattern has a few unique features as well. And their knowledge may be of interest both for those who may somehow deal with the US or UK educational systems and for those taking interest in the topic for research reasons or just out of curiosity.