United Kingdom education system structure

United Kingdom (UK) vs. United States (USA) Education Systems

The following is an essay I wrote in the summer of 2010, comparing the education systems in the UK and USA, specifically for the 2 universities I studied at. Note that it is based on my experience and research, and not all universities compare the same way.

Universities around the world serve an important purpose – to educate students about their choosen field of study. Students are expected to do similar tasks and think in proscribed ways, yet, they graduate from curricula that are vastly different. Universities, regardless of location, produce professionals and intellectuals who fundamentally shape the world in which they will live. Students are expected to master a body of knowledge based on the cirricula that exists within their respective countries. While the goals of universities are similar worldwide, the structure of the educational system vary from place to place (ex. ‘college’ in England is roughly equivalent to the third and fouth years of high school in the United States, while ‘university’ in England is equivalent to our third and fourth years of university). Even though the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) share a common Anglo-Saxon derived culture, their ideals and practice within each education system differ vastly.

The goal of this paper is to illustrate similarities and differences in higher education programs between the United Kingdom and the United States, despite a common desire to generate adults who are ready to tackle the challenges of the world. This paper is the result of study at the University of Leeds (Leeds, England) and at the Colorado School of Mines (Colorado, United States). It is a preliminary examination based on participant observation as a student in both institutions.

The significant differences (in general) between UK and US education are outlined below:

United Kingdom United States of America
College begins at the age of 16, where students choose their field of study for university at 16 College begins at the age of 18, where students choose their field of study
Price of attending university is relatively small University costs are relatively high for students
Students focus solely on their field of study Students focus on their major and peripheral subjects related to their major
Undergraduate in university lasts 3 years Undergraduate lasts 4 years
Learning responsibility primarily lies on the students Faculty and students share responsibility for learning
Homework is rarely assigned, and the final exam is worth 80%+ of the final grade Homework makes up a large portion of the grade, and final exams are worth approximately 30%
Grading system is out of 100, but grades above 75% are rare Grading system is out of 100, and 90%+ grades are common
Social life is just as important if not more important than academics Academics dominate, and social life is not nearly as important.
A masters is often required in order to become a professional A bachelors degree will often allow a student to obtain a well-paying occupation

The main differences between university study in the US and UK are outlined above, but it is the subtle differences in combination that really make the experience different, such as UK english vs. US english and ethos of the UK/US.

Children from ages 5 to 16 are required to attend school in the UK, either through state schools, independently, or home-schools (state schools are free) (“Office of Public Sector Information”). At the age of 16, students have a choice of whether they want to continue or not. If they continue, they will leave ‘school’ and attend sixth form (what they call ‘college), which is two years of pre-requisite courses for students interested in going to university. At the age of 16, students in the UK decide on what their field of study will be while in university. The courses they take at sixth form will be related to what they will study while at university (ex. an engineer will take mathematics/physics courses during sixth form). In order to pass sixth form, students need to pass standardized A-level tests. Students then apply to the universities of their choice. The scores that they receive on their A-levels are given to universities to help determine whether the student is accepted or not.

In the US, students are required to attend school until they are 16 via public or private schools, or by being home schooled. Students typically enter high school at the age of 14, and complete the four years of high school and graduate at 18. At the age of 18, students either have the choice to continue their education at university (also known as college in the US), or they can stop school and attempt to find work. Students electing to contine their studies will apply to universities of their choice. During the last two years of high school, students take a nationwide standardized test that covers math, science, reading, and writing (the test is either the ACT or SAT, depending on where you live and what university you’re applying to). The results on these tests along with the students’ average grade in high school help the universities determine whether or not the student gets accepted.

In the later parts of the British educational system (age 16 or older), students need to choose their field of study and then focus only on that field until they graduate and begin to work. The later part of the American system tends to be a bit more broad, meaning students get to experience many different fields of study before actually deciding to specialize in one. For example, a student who is educated in Britain will choose a major by the age of 17, and will only study that major for the following several years without getting much of a glimpse into other fields. For engineering, in general, all students in the US will take the same courses for the first two years of university, and then specialize for the remaining two years. This allows the student to decided on a field of study roughly at the age of 20, and at the same time allows the student to look at a whole range of fields that may interest them. The first two years (particularly for engineering) prepare the students in a way such that whatever field they decide to specialize in, they can without additional prerequisites.

Education and Economics

The structure of the courses (particularly at university level) and how they are taught are unique. The American system typically teaches students how to do something, and then forces the students to study immediately by assigning homework. British education sets students up to learn, and then a large piece of the learning process is studying for the final exam. The British are much more relaxed, in that they lecture, and expect each student to be ready for the final at the end of the year, while assigning little or no homework. It is my contention that differences in pricing structures affect expectations om the teaching and learning culture. Analysis of the cost structure provides at least a partial explanation for the resulting differences in teaching and learning strategies.


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