Monday, September 3, 2012

Back-to-School in England and America!

My Primary School in Cheshire, England.
How quaint!
It still feels like summer in Massachusetts - the sun is shining, the sky is blue and the weather is lovely and warm. But back to school the kids must go. It always seems to come around too quickly. My entire elementary (or primary) and secondary education was in England, but as my kids were born in America my only experience as a parent has been in the American – Massachusetts, to be precise – school system. As my son and daughter progress through the system though, I am often left asking questions about how things work here. I find myself looking back at my own school years and realize they were different in many ways. 

The lovely village where I went to
school. I was even married in that church!
First of all, in England, the kids go to school for one year longer than in the US. I toddled off to reception class at age 4, would you believe? Today the pupils then go reception class through to year 13. (Grades K-12 in the US). Things have changed somewhat though from when my generation was at school in England. We went to primary school until we were 11, then on to secondary school for first form to fifth form culminating with O’Levels (nationwide standardized exams) at the end of the fifth year. O’Levels no longer exist. My nephew informs me that they are now GCSE’s taken at the end of year 11. So confusing! For those taking A’Levels we then went to the lower 6th and upper 6th. This is now year 12 and 13. For A’Levels we had reduced our course load down to three classes (French, German and economics for me!) I have to say that I like the fact that in the American system, the students don’t have to narrow down their subjects as soon as we did in England. Until recently English students could leave school after O’Levels and go out into the world aged 16! In 2008, a new law, that will take effect in 2015, was introduced in England stating all students must stay in some form of education or training until they are 18.

The Harry Potter gang in Uniform.
As my kids prepare for the first day of school, my 6th grade daughter is faced with the big decision of what to wear on this first day! Denim skirt, shorts, maybe the red capris? And which top will go with that, oh my! But for the majority of British school-goers, back in my day and today, that stress was eliminated by school uniform. Looking back I don’t think I minded the uniform. It was easy, navy blue skirt (length varying according the the style of the given year), white shirt and navy blue, v-neck sweater, even a tie in the early years. We also had a purple blazer with gold trim, which we avioded wearing as the aubergine color was not too flattering! My kids are always fascinated by all the children in England pouring out of schools at the end of the day dressed the same, like a pool of blue ink (many of the uniforms seem to be blue). With the advent of "Harry Potter" many US children think uniforms are quite cool now too. If we ever attend a school event here while my mother is visiting, she always laments the lack of uniform. “They would look so much smarter with uniforms on,” she says.

When my son started kindergarten, I was shocked at the length of the summer holiday. Eleven weeks! I know family and friends in England find the idea of such a long summer shocking! But after 9 years of those lovely, long summers I am very used to it. Like everyone else, I lament the end of the summer. Maybe it’s because the weather is usually better here, or just that feeling that we can all really switch off from school and activities for a good length of time. Although there are times I  wish there were more breaks during the year like in England with their 3 terms, each with a week of half term holiday. Most towns have 2 weeks around Christmas and again around Easter, but only about 6 weeks in the summer.

There are some traditions that are part of the America school system though that I wish we had had when I was at school. I have some photos from school, and the annual class picture, but I love seeing the yearbooks from my American friends. Now in the age of Facebook I have caught up with some friends from high school, but it would be great to have that official record of those high school years.

American High School Graduation.
And what about prom and graduation? It still amazes me how huge graduation is here with the caps, gowns, big ceremony and lots of parties. Parties we did have, but nothing as fun and special as the graduation ceremony. School was basically done with your last A’Level, and that was it except for the excruciating wait for the results until August. And only then did we know if we had made it into our college of choice if our results were good enough! Quite stressfull actually. In America by the time the kids finish the senior year they know exactly where they will be heading in September. We Brits had about two and half nail-biting months of wondering if we would be replanning our whole future come results day! 
A Nerve-Wracking Day.

At the end of the summer all your friends go their separate ways, but the lucky Americans have all their milestone reunions to look forward to in the future. I think I have had one kind of semi-reunion, organized one Christmas break by a friend where we all got together in the pub in our hometown! I know some of my friends don’t relish the idea of reunions as much as others but it is great to have the opprtunity to get together with all those folks from high school again.

Much has changed in the UK since I left so I can’t even claim to be an authority about the current state of the school system in England. I do know that my secondary school is now a housing development! To bad. And as my son enters 10th grade I am starting to find out about SATs, all the different class options and of course the dreaded college application process. But that’s a whole other blog entry!


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a lovely informative post. I'm a Brit in Florida and have only been here for four years. I'm still getting used to the summer holidays. I need to learn now about what the 'honour roll' is and how kids get onto it