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

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Same Language; Oceans Apart

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

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

Curriculum in US Schools:

The first thing to understand if you’re moving to the US is that, unlike many other countries, the US does not have a national curriculum, and many decisions about curricular content are made at the state or local level. Independent or “private” schools also have additional autonomy, but here are a few generalizations to guide you:

State-provided, full-day education begins later in the US than it does in the UK—at age five, with Kindergarten. Most children attend some kind of preschool at age three or four, but it is typically part-time and usually privately sourced, though some districts (councils) will provide limited, free preschool options.

Children enter Kindergarten at age 5, and the first few years of education are dedicated to basic literacy and math and socialization. It’s probably safe to say that children in the US system are not as “academically” focused during the early years of elementary (primary) school as they are in most UK schools. Although they begin learning to read in Kindergarten, for example, mastery is not expected amongst all children at that stage.

In elementary school, in addition to learning Literacy and Math, children begin to study “Social Studies” (formerly called “History”) and Science, Music and Art and IT. Eventually (alas, not until age 11 or 12), they will add Foreign Language to the list of studies; and, of course, there is always PE or Physical Education.

US students remain “generalists” all through secondary school, which ends with Grade 12 and a high school diploma. The diploma is earned through completing credits in coursework across subject matters, not through results on national exams. It should be noted that a US high school diploma will not, by itself, qualify a student for a university in the UK.

A quick summary of some areas where the curriculum is different from those of the UK:

· More of an emphasis on socialization in the early elementary years; Grade 4 (the equivalent of Year 5) is when the level of expectation generally increases and when students are expected to begin applying the skills they have been learning during the foundation years to more complex tasks.

· There are no sets of major exams (such as GCSEs) that require years of study and preparation. Students sit for exams and standardized tests throughout their education, but these tests are not designed to either “track” or eliminate students.

· Foreign Language usually begins in Grade 6 or 7 (Years 7 or 8) with a choice, typically, of French, Spanish or Chinese (foreign language offerings vary enormously, district to district). Students typically study only one foreign language.

· Science and Math are taught sequentially in the US, not as a “spiral” as in the UK. For example, in high school (the last four years of education, grades 9-12), a typical sequence might be: Physics in Grade 9, Chemistry in Grade 10, Biology in Grade 11 and an advanced course in one of these subjects in Grade 12.

· Likewise, Math is taught sequentially. Typical, for example, might be Advanced Algebra in Grade 9, Geometry in Grade 10, Pre-Calculus in Grade 11, and Calculus in Grade 12.

· Because of the fact of sequential teaching in the maths and sciences, this is an area where “matching up” what an inbound student from the UK has been studying can be tricky. However, it’s typically very doable.

For many of the above reasons, it’s fair to say that students in the UK are often academically ahead of their US peers in the early years of education, but that this lead diminishes over time, and especially at the secondary level. Because US students continue studying across all subject matters until they are 18 (no specialization in the latter years as in England post GCSEs with A-Levels), they “catch up” to their UK counterparts by the time they graduate from high school.

Next up, Curriculum in UK Schools, stay tuned!


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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