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Comparison of the British and American education systems

What's the difference between UK and US education systems?

Many private international schools in Poland, most often international high schools, use curricula either from the UK or the US, and their students take exams administered in each of these systems. We often hear about GCSE, IGCE, A-Levels, SAT, ACT, and many people don’t know what these acronyms mean and what their exams involve.  continue reading...

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In this article we explain the education systems in the UK and the USA, at what age kids study in each grade, and what exams students take in these countries.

The education system in the UK

In Great Britain, England, Wales and Northern Ireland follow the National Curriculum, with some variations. Scotland, on the other hand, has its own curriculum.

In the UK, children generally start formal education at the age of four, earlier than in the US. Students take exams at key stages in their education. Then the two-year program starting at the age of 14 ends with the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education - O-Levels or ordinary levels until 1988), and the next two-year program starting at the age of 16 is crowned with the English “Baccalaureate”—secondary school diploma exams, i.e., A-Level exams. (Advanced Level). Overall, it can be said that the system leads students towards increasing specialization.


The GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) is the main school-leaving certificate in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (Scotland has an independent national qualifications system). It’s generally highly valued by higher education institutions and employers.

In recent years, the UK government has introduced a GCSE reform program, including a grading system that uses numbers (1-9) instead of letters (A-G).

GCSEs are available in approximately 50 subjects and are usually preceded by full-time five-semester courses. GCSE exams are taken in May/June when students are in Grade 11 (Year 11) and their results are published in August.


The International GCSE (IGCSE) is an internationally recognized exam at the same level as the GCSE. It aims to adopt a broader approach to learning.

According to the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) board, which is the main governing body of IGCSE for independent schools in the UK, the exam "encourages an inquiry-based approach to learning and develops the skills of creative thinking, analysis, and problem-solving, giving students excellent preparation for the next stage of their education ”.

Schools may offer any combination of subjects for which each student receives a separate certificate. There are over 70 subjects, including over 30 language courses, offering a variety of options for students with a wide range of abilities, including those whose first language is not English.


The A-Level diploma was introduced in Great Britain in 1951, and its idea is to educate the best candidates for leading universities.

The A-Levels are taken between the ages of 16 and 18 and are much more difficult than the GCSEs. They can’t be taken without having passed GCSEs in similar subjects. If you want to go to university, you have to take both exams.

The education system in the US

In the US system, less emphasis is placed on examinations and students study general subjects until the end of high school, which is Grade 12, the UK equivalent of Year 13.

In the United States, most children attend preschool part-time, but state-provided education does not start until Kindergarten (Year 1 in the UK).

In the early years, children are gradually introduced to learning, with a strong emphasis on socialization as well as developing basic language and math skills. It’s generally accepted that from kindergarten through Grade 3. children acquire basic knowledge that is then applied and developed more rigorously in Grade 4.

The US system is typically divided into three levels:

• Basic: Elementary school (K - Grade 5),

• Middle school (Grades 6-8)

• High school (Grades 9–12).

The curriculum in the United States is usually quite extensive, and students are expected to study many subjects—such as English, math, science, foreign languages, history, art, music, and physical education—all the way to Grade 12.

Students are assessed at the end of each grade when they move on to the next, but the exams are not nationally standardized and have traditionally had relatively little influence on their progression to the next grade. They can, however, help to determine at what level a student can choose a course in the next grade—more or less advanced. However, there are no exams in the US comparable to GCSE or A-Levels.

In the United States, math and science are taught sequentially rather than simultaneously. A student in Grade 9 can study physics in one year, followed by a year of chemistry in Grade 10. Likewise, students progress from algebra to geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and so on.

At the end of high school, US students apply for college education based on a number of elements: their grades in all four years of high school averaged as GPA (Grade Point Average), results from various exams, teachers’ opinions, and personal achievements and extracurricular/volunteer activities.


Colleges in the United States, however, often expect more information about prospective students than what the GPA and high school diploma can offer. Therefore, many students choose to take the SAT (also known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (the American College Test), both of which are nationally recognized tests taken at the end of high school.

"Almost all highly-rated US universities require applicants to submit results from one of the US admission tests—SAT or ACT," says Jon Tabbert, head of recruiting at consulting firm Dukes Education and Jon Tabbert Associates. "A good test score is critical to a successful application."

ACT is another standardized test for high school students wishing to study at universities or colleges in the US. Like the SAT, it assesses the general academic aptitude of high school students and the ability to study at the college level. The tests are multiple-choice and cover four areas: English, math, reading, and science. They also include an optional written test that measures the student's short essay skills.

International students can take the ACT and SAT from outside the US to gain access to American universities and colleges.

Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement (AP) is another teaching and assessment program designed to help US higher education institutions assess students for admission. It’s developed and administered by the College Board, the organization responsible for SAT testing.

AP is specifically designed to be closely related to the first year of the student’s study in the US, so students typically take the program to demonstrate an interest in a field or subject they hope to pursue at the college level.

According to the Fulbright Commission, AP is more rigorous and in-depth than standard high school courses offered in US schools and compares favourably with A-Levels and International Baccalaureate (IB), both of which are considered the highest standard of qualification for university admission.

While AP is not necessary to enter an American university, students can demonstrate commitment to the field they hope to study by taking AP courses. And especially for the most competitive universities, successfully completing these courses may give them better chances for admission.

Grades in both systems

It’s worth looking at both systems—British and American—and see at what age students attend different levels of education, i.e., particular grades, to understand what’s being referred to when someone says "Year 4" or "Grade 11":

Age British system American system
3-4 Nursery Preschool
4-5 Reception Preschool
5-6 Year 1 Kindergarten
6-7 Year 2 Grade 1
7-8 Year 3 Grade 2
8-9 Year 4 Grade 3
9-10 Year 5 Grade 4
10-11 Year 6 Grade 5
11-12 Year 7 Grade 6
12-13 Year 8 Grade 7
13-14 Year 9 Grade 8
14-15 Year 10 Grade 9
15-16 Year 11 Grade 10
16-17 Year 12 Grade 11
17-18 Year 13 Grade 12

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