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Moving from the US to the UK With School-Aged Children? British School Curriculum: The Basics

Same Language an Ocean Apart

Part Three of a Series by Elizabeth Sawyer, CEO, Bennett International

Because there are a lot of US families with school-age children relocating to the UK, we thought it might be helpful to provide some overview information on the UK education system and how it compares to the US systems; we’ve compiled this info based on actual questions we’re asked by families coming from the US moving to different parts of the UK. So, here’s a look at British schools:

Curriculum in British Schools

If you’re moving from the US to England and planning on using local (English, versus international) schools, some things to understand about the English system:

First, children begin school earlier in England (age 3) and spend more time in schools each day. Early on, there is more of an emphasis on academics than there is in the US, and it is expected that children be reading at age 5.

The British system is broken in “Key Stages” :

Early Years

• Nursery: 3-4; publicly offered but the state is not bound to place a student

• Reception: 4-5

• The prime areas of learning are Communication and Language; Physical Development; Personal, Social and Emotional Development.

• Emphasis on Literacy; Mathematics; Understanding the World; Expressive Arts and Design.

• Children often learn material through games and play.

Key Stage 1 and 2

• Key Stage 1: Age 5 to 7, Years 1 and 2

• Key Stage 2: Age 7 to 11, Years 3 to 6

• Compulsory subjects include English, Math, Science, Design and Technology, Geography, Art and Design, Music, Physical Education (PE) including swimming as well as Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

• Religious Education (RE) must also be provided, but parents can request their children not take part for all or some of it. RE is very general and covers all religion without necessarily focusing on one.

• Schools often also teach Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), Citizenship and Modern Foreign Languages.

• In Key Stage 1 tests include Phonics; Reading; Writing; Speaking and Listening; Math and Science.

• In Key Stage 2 tests include English Reading, English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling, as well as Math.

Key Stage 3

• Age 11 to 14, Year 7 to Year 9

• Compulsory National Curriculum subjects include English; Math; Science; History; Geography; Modern Foreign Languages; Design and Technology (DT); Art and Design; Music; PE; Citizenship; ICT.

• Schools must also provide RE and Sex Education; again, parents may request exemption for their children from these classes.

Key Stage 4

• Age 14 to 16, Year 10 and Year 11

• Most pupils work towards National Qualifications in this Key Stage, usually GCSEs.

• Compulsory subjects include the ‘Core Subjects’ – English, Math and Science – and the ‘Foundation Subjects’ – ICT, PE, Citizenship.

• Schools must also offer at least one subject from each of these areas: Arts; DT; Humanities (e.g. History/Geography) and Modern Foreign Languages.

• Students must also undertake RE and sex education at key stage 4. Pupils don’t have to take exams in religious studies but schools must provide at least one course where pupils may earn a recognized RE qualification at key stage 4 and above.

Key Stage 5

• Age 16 to 18, Year 12 and 13.

• All children are required by law to remain in some form of further education, apprenticeship or training until age 18.

• Students can leave school on the last Friday in June if they are 16 by the end of the summer holiday. They must then do one of the following until age 18:

o Stay in full-time education, for example Sixth Form at a secondary school or separate FE / Sixth Form College

o Start an apprenticeship or traineeship

o Spend 20 hours or more a week working or volunteering, while in part-time education or training

• However, a school council (district) is under no obligation to provide such education or training; the onus is on the family to make the arrangements and to ensure the child is in suitable education in accordance with the law

• In State education the qualifications offered at this stage are typically A levels, as well as BTEC qualifications which are typically more vocational

Since the above may be a bit dense, a summary of some of the major differences from the US curriculum:

Children begin school earlier and focus on academics more quickly. In elementary school, they are typically ahead of US students.

• There are exams “sprinkled” throughout the system such that it can be difficult for US students to step into the system at certain points.

• Students prepare for two years in Years 10 & 11 (Grades 9 &10) for a set of exams called GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education), which is the equivalent of a US high school diploma. They earn this diploma at age 16 and then spend two years specializing for another set of exams called A-levels, which they pass at age 18.

Based on the above information, it may be difficult for older students coming from the US to enter the British system and more advisable for them to attend an American or International school, if one is available.


Elizabeth Sawyer, CEO

Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.


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