Comparing the UK school levels with USA school levels – from Primary to Secondary

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Types of Schools

British have State (Government) run free schools and Public/Independent (Private) fee based schools. While UK have state run faith schools, separation of Church and State does not allow religion to be taught in US government funded schools, and there are a lot of quality private schools run by the churches with good disciplines.


Mandatory schooling in UK is from 5 to 16 years old, where primary starts at the age of 5 and secondary school starts around 11.  In US, mandatory school age is from 5 to 18 years old, where elementary schools (K-5th grade) from the age of 5, middle schools (6th to 8th grade) from 11 and high school (9th to 12th grade) from the age of 14.

In America, we say students are in 7th Grade while British students of the same age are in Year 8. They are labeled a higher number in comparison to the US because we call the first formal year of school Kindergarten in America, which is the equivalent to Year 1 in England.


In British schools, students are separated in to numerous ability levels and can be changed and regrouped throughout the year. Therefore, it is clear to everyone what type of progress a student is or is not making.

American schools offer classes that are usually either general or advanced. That’s it. Students mostly pick which type of class they’d like to take. Those that want the higher level need a teacher’s recommendation to register.

US school is supposed to move students from grade to grade according to meritocracy. UK matriculates according to age, eventually aging out of system.

US High School Diploma

At completion of High School (HS) in US students are to pass minimum course requirements and exam to receive a HS diploma – thus graduating. Students who pass the 12th Grade in the US by completing enough classes, but do not meet all of the standard graduation requirements, will not receive a high school diploma, but will instead receive a certificate of attendance.

Requirements for HS diploma are well below acceptable minimum to get into 4 year college or university, and there is a good reason for this – the first year (Freshman year) in US College provides a fundamental level of education across five major disciplines*. This approach gives time and flexibility to high school graduates to seriously consider their future majors during their first year in college, and hence a better decision. Colleges in US give out 4 year bachelors, whereas UK colleges are 3 years.

State (Government) Schools

For state schools in UK (run by government), the school years are further broken in to groups called Key Stages. For example, Years 7-9 are classified as Key Stage 3. Students ages 16-18 are in the 5th Key Stage, the final stage which is also called Sixth Form.

When looking at study plans as differences between British and American schools, there is more unity in the British course of study. Schools (unless they are independent) must follow the National Curriculum. American school teachers experience a substantial amount of freedom in comparison to what they can teach and when against their British counterparts.

US have Public (100% tax funded), Magnet schools (also public but specializing in specific subjects like art or biology or technology or college prep; magnet school have application processes and selection criteria) , Charter schools (partially public funded, parents given money/voucher and allow to pay for school of choice, including faith based school. And Private school (no government funding).

In U.K. state run secondary school parents still needs to pay for uniforms, textbooks, lunches, field trips etc. (avg cost 500 EU/year) Most public school in US does not require uniform and all textbooks are free; it is free except for extracurricular (sports and music), with subsidies available for those who can’t afford it.

Both countries have need-based government lunch and other aid programs for those who qualify. US is big in requesting fundraiser for free public school, whereas fundraisers are mostly done in fee based private school in UK. UK has a lot more boarding schools than US.

Independent (Private) Schools

In UK, Public school, also called independent school is one of a relatively small group of institutions educating secondary-level students for a fee and independent of the state system as regards both endowment and administration. (The term public school emerged in the 18th century when the reputation of certain grammar schools spread beyond their immediate environs. They began taking students whose parents could afford residential fees and thus became known as public, in contrast to local (state run) schools.

Standardized Tests

British have national standardized testing throughout for primary and secondary education. US have K-12 Common Core (CC) Standards in 42 of 50 states. Each state implements CC differently but the testing is the same. States ranking at the bottom are threatening to leave CC.

US standard and quality of education vary drastically from state to state and even within same district depending on school. Take an example, San Francisco has many top High Schools in the nation as well as the not too good ones.

Instruction for British secondary students focuses on the GCSE subject exams and the A Levels. In America, the SAT and ACT are the only real standardized tests that students take at a national level.

Since the GCSE are subjects based, students are expected to have spend time in tutoring and drillings for the exam, one the other hand, the SAT exam is basically a test for the students’ general academic ability, to see how well they are prepared for colleges.

The SAT is most popular, it features three sections: math, critical reading and writing. For nearly four hours, students have to answer questions that have little reflection on what they study in school each day. However, the results of this test have a substantial effect on a student’s ability to apply for a university.

In both UK and USA, there are schools that also offer IB (International Baccalaureate).


Grades in UK are often given according to bell curve; if majority get 90 on a test, then 90 = C, only the top 10% will get an A. In US if you get 90% correct on a test you’ll receive an A; if everyone received 90% or higher everyone in class can get an A. Straight As report cards are a lot more difficult to obtain in UK.

Holidays and Breaks

In America, schools generally give students around 10-12 weeks of vacation. They can release students anywhere from the end of May to mid August, or mid-June to the beginning of September.

British schools are quite different. They generally end their academic year in mid-July and begin the first week of September. This gives students about 6 weeks of a summer holiday.

However, British students receive much more time away from school during the academic year, in comparison to American students. Nearly all British schools have a half-term, one week break in October, February and May. They also receive at least two weeks holiday over both Christmas and Easter holidays.

The class is ended

At the end of a class period, British students must stand at their desks and wait for a teacher to say they are dismissed. In America, when the bell rings, you run. … The end.