American School System vs UK

Dr Mohammad Shafiq

American School System vs UK

American School System vs UK

Want to know a secret? The curriculum of the UK education system is more flexible than that of the American education system. However, both are the most respected and sought-after education systems worldwide. The American education system is divided into three levels, whereas the UK has four. We'll compare and contrast key aspects of the American school system vs UK. So, let’s begin.

Structure and Levels of Education

Primary Education

Age range and grade levels in the UK and USA are as follows:

  • UK: 4 to 11 years old; Grade: 1st to 6th
  • USA: 5 to 11 years old; Grade: Kindergarten to 5th

Curriculum and Subjects

The difference between the American school system vs British school system lies in many factors. How does the American school system work? The curriculum at American schools is set by each state. But there are some common subjects that all students must study, such as Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. They can also choose elective courses like Art, Foreign Language, and Music.

The British school curriculum is set by the UK government. Students in primary school study subjects like English, Math, Science, and History. They can also choose from elective courses such as music, art, and foreign language.

Assessment Methods                                                                  

Students of primary school in the USA are assessed by standardized tests and teachers. On the contrary, students of the UK’s primary schools are assessed by National Curriculum Assessments and teachers.

Secondary Education

Age ranges and grade levels of secondary levels in the UK and USA are:

  • UK: 11 to 16 years old; Grades: 7th to 11th
  • USA: 12 to 18 years old; Grades: 6th to 12th

Types of Schools

  • UK: State Schools funded by the government, Self-funding Private Schools
  • USA: Public Schools funded by the government, Self-funding Private Schools, and Charter Schools.

Curriculum and Subjects

  • UK: English, Math, Science, History, Geography, ICT, Music, Art, Foreign Language, Physical Education.
  • USA: English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Art, Music, Foreign Language, Computer Science, History, Economics, Business Studies.

Assessment Methods

  • UK: GCSE exams, teacher assessments.
  • USA: State standardized tests, SAT, teacher assessments.

Higher Education

The United Kingdom has several state and private universities and colleges. On the other hand, the US has many state and private universities, colleges, and community colleges.

Admission Process and Requirements

UK: Students must have good grades in their GCSE exams and may be required to take some additional tests for university admission.

USA: Students must have good grades in their high school courses and may need to take standardized tests like the SAT for university admission.

Degree Structure and Duration

  • UK: A Bachelor's degree generally takes 3 years, a master's degree takes 1 year, and a doctoral degree takes 3 to 4 years.
  • USA: Bachelor’s degree generally takes 4 years, master’s degree takes 1 to 2 years, and doctoral degrees take 4 to 6 years.

Curriculum and Assessment

American Curriculum vs British Assessment

Let's see what is the difference between American and British curriculum:

American Curriculum

Here are the characteristics of the American curriculum in various factors:

  1. Emphasize and approach to education: The American curriculum emphasizes general education. It focuses on the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills of students. The US's approach to education is more student-centric. Meaning that students have more freedom in choosing their courses and learning methods.
  2. Core subjects and electives: The core subjects are English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Foreign Language. Elective courses include Computer Science, Economics, Business Studies, Technology, Art, and Music.
  3. Standardized Test: SAT and ACT are the two most common standardized tests for university and college admission in the US.

British Curriculum    

Here are the characteristics of the British curriculum in various factors:

  1. Emphasize and approach to education: The British curriculum emphasizes more on rigorous and specialized education with a strong focus on academic achievements. It is more of a teacher-centric academic approach where students have to follow a set of curriculum and learning methods.
  2. Core subjects and electives: Core subjects in the British curriculum are English, Math, Science, History, Geography, Physical Education, and Foreign Language. Elective subjects can include Art, Music, and other subjects.  
  3. Exams: GCSE exams at the end of secondary school are the most important exams in the British education system. Students generally take two or three A-level subjects for university admission.

The following table shows the differences between the British curriculum vs American curriculum:


American Curriculum

British Curriculum

Emphasis and approach to education

Well-rounded education

Academic rigour and specialization

Core subjects

English, math, science, social studies, foreign language

English, math, science, history, geography


Art, music, physical education, other subjects

Art, music, and other subjects

Standardized testing


GCSE exams

School System and Governance

School System and Governance

Decentralized Governance in the US and Centralized Governance in the UK

The United States has a decentralized education system, where responsibilities are shared between the federal government, state governments, and local school districts. All the funding comes from the federal government, but they do not have direct control over the curriculum. State governments are responsible for setting curricula and standards for education. They also oversee the school districts. Local school districts have the authority to hire teachers and run the schools.

The British school system, on the other hand, is more centralized. The Department of Education has the overall authority and responsibility for Education. It sets the national curriculum, and standards for education, and provides funding to schools. Local education authorities have some administrative power, but the policy-making and implementation power lies with the federal government.

Role of federal, state, and local authorities in the US

We have already learned that the Federal government in the US has a limited role in the country's education. Its sole responsibility is to provide funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

However, the federal government can influence by providing more funding to schools that meet specific standards than those that don't.

The state governments have authority over the curriculum and how schools are run. Local school districts can hire teachers and run the schools.

Must Read:

Role of the Department for Education in the UK

The Department for Education is the government department in the UK responsible for the country's education system. It has full control over the education system and has several powers, such as:

  • Setting up the national curriculum and standard of education.
  • Providing the necessary funds to schools.
  • Evaluating the work of local school authorities.
  • Ensuring the standards of schools.
  • Creating specific targets for school.
  • Policy-making and implementation of innovation in education.

School Culture and Extracurricular Activities

School Culture and Extracurricular Activities

Emphasis on Sports and Extracurricular Activities in American Schools

American education system places a strong emphasis on sports and extracurricular activities in their schools. Many American schools have various types of sports teams, clubs, and student organizations.

School authorities encourage students to participate in these sports teams, clubs, and organizations as they help students build character, teamwork, and leadership skills. Extracurricular activities are also considered a way to foster a sense of community in the schools and make friends.

House Systems and Competitive Inter-school Events in British Schools

British schools have the world-famous house systems, which are groups of students who compete against each other in sports, and extracurricular activities. It helps create a sense of competition, as well as school spirit and unity. These sports and other activities help students build a winning mentality.

The schools in the UK often arrange competitive inter-school events, such as sports tournaments and academic competitions. Winning these tournaments and competitions can raise the profile and prestige of the schools and give students a sense of achievement.

Role of School Clubs, Organizations, and Traditions in Both Systems

Clubs, organizations, and traditions play an important role in both British and American schools to develop their interests, meet new people, and make friends through their activities. They teach leadership, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills to students, which will shape their personal and professional lives.

Special Education and Inclusion

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in the US

IEPs are legal documents that outline the educational plans and support for disabled students in the US. These legal documents are developed by a team of professionals, including experts, teachers, and parents to ensure educational rights for students with disabilities. The authority regularly reviews and updates IEPs to make sure that they are fulfilling the needs of students.

Special Educational Needs (SEN) Support in the UK

SEN support is a term that ensures educational provisions for students with disabilities in the UK. It is not a legal document but has the same principles as the IEPs of the United States. This support is provided by several professionals, including teachers, educational professionals, and social workers.

Inclusion in regular classrooms in the US and differentiated education in the UK

The inclusion of disabled students in regular classrooms with their non-disabled peers is a key goal of the education system in the US. Although, not all students with disabilities can be fully facilitated in the classrooms.

On the other hand, differentiated education for disabled students with adaptive curriculum and instruction to meet specific needs is a key practice in the UK. It is placed to help students get the necessary opportunity to succeed.

Support services, accommodations, and Statement of Special Educational Needs (SSEN) in the UK

Students with SEN receive various support services in the UK, including:

  • Speech and language therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Educational psychology

SEN students are also specially accommodated to make it easier for them to learn and succeed. These accommodations can include:

  • Allowing extended time on tests
  • Permitting the use of computer
  • Access to a quiet space

Statement of Special Educational Needs or SSEN is a legal document that ensures the educational needs of SEN students in the UK. It is developed by a group of expert professionals, teachers, and parents to make sure that students with SEN get the necessary opportunity to study.

Differences in School Years and Grading Systems

US School Years vs UK and Grading System

Comparison of UK and US School Years

The following table shows the differences in age and grade equivalence in the UK and US education system:




Primary Grades

4 to 11 years old

5 to 11 years old

Secondary Grades

11 to 16 years old

12 to 18 years old

Higher Education

Beyond 16 years old

Beyond 18 years old

The school year in the UK generally starts in September and ends in July. On the contrary, the school year in the US typically starts in August and ends in May. Students in the UK attend schools for 180 days, compared to students in the USA for 190 days. So, the UK has a shorter school year compared to the US.

Here are the transition period and milestones in both the UK and US school systems:



  • Formal school starts with Reception
  • Year 7 is the 1st year of secondary school
  • Year 11 is the last year of compulsory education
  • Formal education starts with Kindergarten
  • Grade 9 is the first year of high school
  • Grade 12 is the last year of high school

Grading Systems: American Grades vs. UK Years

The grading systems in the American exams vs UK exams are different in the following ways:

American Grades

UK Years

American grades are generally on a scale of A to F, where A is the highest grade and F is the lowest grade.

UK years are generally on a scale of 1 to 9, where 1 is the lowest grade and 9 is the highest grade.

The UK and the USA have no conversion between the grades. However, students with A's and B's in the US would be considered to be in the top tier in the UK. Students with C's and D's would be considered in the middle tier and students earning F's would be considered fail in both systems.

The grade scale conversion typically looks like this:











Frequently Asked Questions

Which is better American or British curriculum?

This question does not have a one-size-fits-all answer. Both systems have some pros and cons. It completely depends on your personal needs and preferred learning style.  

Is the British education system harder than American?

The British education system has a more academically rigorous curriculum compared to the American education system. However, both are challenging in their ways.

Is British education better than American?

It depends on personal preferences and goals. British education emphasizes specialization at the secondary level, while American education offers broader flexibility. Both systems have unique strengths and can be excellent depending on individual needs.

How does the American school system work?

The American school system consists of elementary, middle, and high schools. After high school, students can attend college or university. It allows flexibility in course selection and offers a broad-based education with extracurricular opportunities.

What are A-levels in the UK compared to the US?

A-levels in the UK are advanced courses typically taken in the last two years of secondary school, focusing on 3-4 subjects. In the US, the equivalent would be Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, allowing college-level study in high school.

Is British school harder than American?

Difficulty depends on the school, curriculum, and personal learning style. British schools often focus on depth in specific subjects, while American schools offer broader studies. The challenge level can vary based on the chosen courses and expectations.

Is British curriculum harder than American?

It's not necessarily harder; it's structured differently. The British curriculum tends to focus on specialized subjects, while the American curriculum allows more flexibility and broader learning. Both can be challenging in their ways depending on the subjects and teaching methods.


Both British and American education systems are complex and have their own strengths and weaknesses. There are many similarities and differences between the American school system vs UK, which make them unique. You can choose the diversity of the US's education system or the academic rigour and specialization of the UK. Just make sure to conform to your personal needs and learning style.

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