Comparison of Education Systems in the US and UK

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Every country seems to be an advocate of its own education system in comparison to others. The educational systems found in the United States and the United Kingdom seem to be two of the highest-ranking systems; however, advocates from each country are adamant about the effectiveness of their system over the other.  In this essay, I will explain the systems, as well as compare and contrast them for their measures of organization, funding, and affordability, to show that each system has its own problems as well as benefits over the other.

The education system in the UK comprises five stages, including the following: early years, primary, secondary, Further Education (FE), and Higher Education (HE) (Department for Education 1).  The primary stage includes nursery (ages under 5), infant (ages  5-8), and junior (ages  11-12).  It is normal for children to transfer directly from the primary setting to the secondary setting at age 11 or 12 (Department for Education 1-2).  Secondary schools can be state-run or private, or students may attend Academies.  Children must attend school from the ages of 5-16. FE is not required but is also not considered “higher education” as it includes basic skill learning and other vocational programs.  FE programs can sometimes include courses that are required in order to qualify for attendance at a HE university or to begin a specific career path.  He is sometimes referred to post-secondary, or third level education, and it includes formal learning from a university, college, technical institute, seminary, etc., or anything past GCE A levels (Department for Education 2-4).

In the United States, American students are required to attend school until they are 16 (around grade 11), but the grades range from kindergarten until twelfth grade.  Primary school ranges from kindergarten until 5th grade (ages 5-12 or so), and secondary school ranges from sixth grade until twelfth grade (ages 12-18 or so)—for a total of 12 years.  Usually, it is broken up into elementary, middle (or junior high), and high school with periodic testing occurring throughout.  Private schooling is available, but families must pay tuition or apply for scholarships to attend.  (Interestingly, in the UK ‘public schools’ are what Americans refer to as ‘private schools,’ which can be perplexing.) After high school graduation, students may choose to go on to a vocational school or college/university.  A student’s quality is officially recorded on an academic transcript, including a grade point average (GPA) and a system of percentage grading which is usually adapted into letter grades (Corsi-Bunker 8).  Both the UK and the US offer special education programs funded by the government, as well as private programs, but the United States government seems to have more effective programs in place.  In the US, special education is controlled by one department with one person in charge of it, to ensure “that children and young people with disabilities have the same opportunities as their mainstream peers at school and beyond,” while the UK is currently working on a similar program (Salman par. 9).  

In England, three and four-year-olds receive up to “15 hours of free nursery education for 38 weeks of the year” (Department for Education 2).  Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) can take place in state schools, voluntary pre-schools, private schools, etc., and the EYFS is considered “a quality framework for the provision of learning” (Department for Education 2).  However, in the United States, day care and pre-school, the first formal school programs a child enters prior to kindergarten, are not required, and are not free, but are “quite expensive” (Corsi-Bunker 4).   While there are many options available to parents to pay for school and several government programs to assist parents who cannot afford school, most families must find a way to pay for this program (Corsi-Bunker 5). 

In the UK, there are four types of primary and secondary schools, including Academies in a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT), Academies not in a MAT, free schools, and local authority schools.  “Maintained Schools” are schools that are funded through the local authority.  Academies are “public funded independent schools” with “greater freedoms to help innovate and raise standards” (Department for Education 3).  Academies can be sponsored (by businesses, universities, volunteer groups, etc.), and usually, they are schools that were underperforming at one point and were sponsored as an improvement initiative.  While this is a positive aspect of academies, these schools create controversy as they are difficult to track, legislate, or compare to other schools. Because they are the majority of secondary schools, these issues create a major problem with understanding the quality of the UK’s education system (Gee par. 7-12).  

Further, the US Federal government contributes “almost 10% to the national education budget,” but education is “primarily the responsibility of state and local government” (Corsi-Bunker 2).  States also choose what is taught in schools, as well as many other requirements, making things confusing from state to state, and even further, public education is further divided into local school districts, and public schools rely heavily on local property taxes to pay for expenses.  Therefore, if a school is located in a poor area, the school is likely in poor condition with much less funding (Corsi-Bunker 2).  However, American public schools are much easier to track and regulate than UK state schools, making the system seems more desirable, unless you are an international student coming into an American school, in which case you will have to understand what a grade point average (GPA) is, as well as to interpret transcripts for entrance into American universities, as US equivalents of education level are much different. However, there are many fewer divisions involved, and instead of a “huge variation among schools regarding courses, subjects, and other activities” (Corsi-Bunker 2).

In terms of higher education, Auerbach suggests that UK schools are better due to a focus on “small-group teaching” taught by full-time staff who are experts rather than a “focus in lectures” taught by “postgraduates with limited knowledge ...[or] training” (par. 3).  Accordingly, UK universities are much less expensive due to US marketization (Auerbach par. 4).  Goodman uses Stanford University to illustrate the shocking tuition rate growth in the United States, explaining that if the price of a gallon of milk had grown as exponentially as Stanford’s yearly tuition ($6,285 in 1980-81 to $38,700 in 2012), a gallon of milk would now cost well over $15 (par. 1).  In the United States, tuition grows more swiftly than inflation, meaning that many students will pay more for their first year of college tuition than they will make in their first year as a professional in their field, as an average salary, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), for first-year college graduates ranged from $37,791 for those with degrees in humanities or social sciences to one of the highest being $62,062 for engineering majors, and an overall average salary of $45,327 across professions (par. 1).

Frankly, both US and UK school systems are ranked highly and right alongside one another in terms of national standards; for example, on the PISA 2009 assessment, the US scored a 500 on the reading literacy scale, while the UK scored a 494 (US Department of Education).  Both schools have a varying number of things to improve upon, as well as good points.  While American schools seem to have better organization, methods of ranking, and special education programs, UK schools are much more affordable and equal in terms of academic preparation for the future.


Auerback, Sascha. (2014). Don’t be Seduced by the US-UK universities Offer A Richer Education.  Available at: [Accessed: 09 Nov 2015].

Corsi-Bunker, A. (2013).  Guide to the Education System in the United States [online].  Available at: [Accessed: 09 Nov 2015].

Department for Education. (2013). Education System in the UK. Available: Last accessed 11/9/2015. [Accessed: 09 Nov 2015].

Gee, Geoff. (2015).  Academies and Maintained Schools: What do We Know? [online].  Available at: [Accessed: 09 Nov 2015].

Goodman, S. (2011). Why college tuition should be regulated. [online].   Available at: http://ideas.time.come/2011/10/27/why-college-tuition-should-be-regulated/ [Accessed: 09 Nov 2015].

National Association of Colleges and Employers.  (2013). Salary survey: Average starting salary for class of 2013 grads increases 2.4 percent.[online.] Available at: [Accessed: 09 Nov 2015].

Salman, Saba.  (2012). America Leads the Way on Support for Disabled Children. [online].  Available at: [Accessed: 09 Nov 2015].

US Department of Education. (2012).  Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and other G-8 Countries: 2011 [online.] Available at: [Accessed: 09 Nov 2015].