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American vs. U.K. schools

An English rose in Georgia

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POSTED: August 12, 2011 12:25 p.m.

As the kids go back to school in Coastal Georgia this month, it still strikes me – even though this is my third summer living here – as peculiar that the school year begins now during the heat of summer when most of Europe is at the beach.
In England, the schools “break up,” as we call it, in mid-July, and the summer break is not only later but also shorter, lasting around six weeks. However, there are much longer Christmas and Easter breaks in the U.K. with “half terms,” which are a week’s break during the middle of each of the three terms during the school year.
Of course, back in 1817, the wonderful Thomas Jefferson developed the principles of the American education system – elementary school, high school and then college, or university as it’s known in England. This was one of the most ambitious projects ever designed for education in a free republic.
The elementary schools were to provide instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic and geography and were to be free to all children, as Jefferson believed that this was the duty of government. However, he stopped short of making elementary school attendance compulsory. 
The high schools were to teach sciences and languages to prepare pupils for the professions and were to be within one day’s ride of every inhabitant. 
The universities were to be the crown of the whole system to train young people in what he considered to be useful branches of science to enable them to become professional architects, economists, physicians, clergymen, lawyers and the like.
In the U.K., students do not graduate high school or have any such ceremony at 17 or 18 years old. Instead, they take a number of individual tests (called GCSEs and A Levels) in different subjects to see if they can get accepted into university. 
Also – and this is very important to young people – we never refer to further education as “school.” This is considered insulting to any self-respecting university or college student. If you are English, then school finishes at 18 years of age.
Of course, as a British school girl in the 1980s, we were all wildly jealous of the imagined glamour of American high school and believed every day to be like Rydell High – as in the “Grease” movies. 
We all wanted to be cheerleaders, go to a prom and maybe even be elected as prom queen. Apparently some schools in the U.K. have introduced this tradition, but it is too late for me. 
We were so jealous of our American counterparts as we made do with a boring, not-very-glitzy school disco at the end of the school year. I went to an exclusively girls school, so this was less than thrilling, as you can imagine.
I often comment on the big differences in language and terminology between the U.S. and the U.K., and the topic of education is no exception. In the U.S., a public school is what we English call a “state” school. We call fee-paying private schools “public” schools, most of which are still single-sex schools in the U.K.
One of the most famous boys’ schools is Eton, which princes William and Harry attended. It’s conveniently located near their grandma, the Queen, at Windsor Castle.
Earlier this year, I volunteered for Junior Achievement with the charming teachers and third-grade students at the Richmond Hill Primary School. I think this is a wonderful initiative, and I know that years ago it inspired my husband to become the captain of industry that he is today. 
By giving kids solid role models and teaching them the importance of education in their own future success – rather than just drilling facts into them for the sake of self-betterment – encapsulates what it means to be an American.
God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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