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  • Addison Lewis

Schools: How they stack up from across the pond

As we sit on the sidelines of life while COVID-19 ravages the world, I've taken the time to reflect on how my freshman year of American high school stacks up with my unfortunately short six months as a year 11 student in British schools. The differences were far more than I imagined, from grading and testing to schedules and discipline. While both have their advantages and disadvantages, and despite the stereotype of both countries having failing public schools, I've found both to be fun, enriching, and positive experiences.


The structures of how each system operates starts with grading and graduation. In America, high school is four years of signing up for classes to fill required amounts of credits for graduation. Grades are given out every term for each class, and the average of all these grades forms a student's GPA, which is between zero and four, with 4.0 being the best possible (at least in my state, but it is different across the states). There is also a very well-developed athletics system at American high schools, and according to some estimates, 55% of American high school students play high school sports, making athletics a huge recreational and social component of American high schools.

In the UK, high school is split into two parts. The first are the GCSEs, where students spend two years studying for final exams at the end of their second year. They are periodically given predicted grades from their teachers, but these have no impact on your final grade (unless, in a hypothetical scenario, a global pandemic cancels your exams.) After the GCSEs are taken, a student can decide which career path they would like to pursue. They can get a job, go to college (in America known as trade/technical school), or they can take A-Levels, which are essentially much harder GCSEs, and focused on just a few subjects of your choice. A-Level grades are used to apply to University (called college, for Americans).


The Take: Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, the British system seems to be far more effective than the American system in terms of getting students to do their homework on time. British students can risk detention if homework is not completed, while their American counterparts risk only marginal grade reductions. However classwork in America is graded, while in Britain it rarely is viewed by the teacher. I found I could get away with doing essentially no or very bad work it some of my classes, where in America that would be unacceptable if I wanted an A. I personally love the sports available at my American high school and that opportunity is one of the best parts of high school. British schools have sports as well, but they are less official, accessible, or developed.

An advantage of British schools however is that there is a lower stress environment when it comes to extracurricular activities. The American alternative is students hoping to get the best college application, and thus turning every waking hour into a way to improve the college resume by cramming their lives full of excess sports, student council, volunteering, clubs, nonprofits, start-ups, competitions, and a host of other miscellaneous stress-inducing resume buffs. Now, I'm not saying that sports, volunteering, and the like are bad things. What is bad though is the fact that students aren't focusing on what they love or care about, and they're burning themselves out in the process. I noticed my British friends seemed to be quite entrepreneurial in starting mini-businesses that focused on publishing their work, whether it was music, art, or photography, simply because they enjoyed doing it, without any pressure to live up to some social ideal.

The advantage American schools have however, is their smaller emphasis on testing. Now, don't get me wrong, American schools are loaded with too many standardized tests as it its, but they're nothing in the face of the British system. The GCSEs involve 25 or more tests in the space of four weeks, with each test around two hours. This produces a number between one and nine for each subject, and that is the grade you carry for life. A-Level exams are no better, with around eight to twelve four hour exams producing just four numbers, one to nine. If you have a bad day and flunk the American SAT, you can always retake it a few months later. If you have a bad day on an A Level test, there are no re-dos, and it can crush your entire path to university and career. This stress weighs on students and makes many fall into anxiety and depression.

Now, this has been sounding all doom and gloom, but in the end I'd have to say that the American system is a better system, if marginally, mainly due to the fact that many kids simply aren't good test takers, and grading based on an accumulation of work over months and years is a more accurate system than one based on a handful of tests after years of studying.

I guess all of this takes a back seat when you consider the current state of both countries under lock down, but when we reach the end of this pandemic, I think both countries should take a look across the pond and see what they can learn from each other.

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