Any comparison of the British and American curriculums must start with the statement that one is not comparing like with like. Whereas schools in England follow a single standard National Curriculum, there is no similar national system in America.
To clarify, the English National Curriculum is the correct name for what is commonly referred to as the British curriculum.
American schools do, however, have a number of accreditation bodies, which ensure that they have certain standards and fundamentals in common. US schools are also much freer to respond to the requirements, or indeed demands, of the local population. This means that special interest groups can have at times a significant effect on teaching requirements and the curriculum in schools. This might lead to certain subjects, such as Biology, having additional strictures on what can and cannot be taught in schools.
Teachers in both systems have some degree of personal freedom to develop their own teaching style within the structure of the particular curriculum that they follow. The English National Curriculum specifies in some considerable detail the educational milestones that children should reach on a year-by-year basis as they progress through their school life. Children are regularly assessed in detail by teachers, who use a standardised set of criteria to assign levels to their progress. Nationally, standardised tests are also employed, which give a very strong indication of how well a child is doing compared to national standards.
In the US, the No Child Left Behind act, introduced by President George W. Bush, has also made standardised testing compulsory in the majority of schools. The act was brought in to address American students’ relatively poor academic performance compared with students in other developed countries.
International schools which follow the English National Curriculum use the same standardised testing regime and criteria as schools in England. This allows, for example, a British International School to compare and benchmark itself with the very best schools in the UK and to ensure that its standards are set at that level.
Assessing Student Performance
In the British system, each child is assessed and set targets that are achievable for them. It’s important to note that schools are tasked with ensuring the progress of all students, not only those at the top of the range. While individual students may not excel in national terms in all areas of the curriculum, it is important that schools ensure that each student does as well as they can and is challenged to progress at a rate over and above that they might achieve at an ‘average’ school. These targets are often used as criteria for parents to judge the progress that students in each school make over and above the average progress that a child would be expected to make, and are an important element in school evaluation in the UK.
In the US, students are compared using a variety of different standards throughout elementary school and high school. These vary from essentially IQ-based tests to tests which track progress through the curriculum based on recall or understanding.
International schools following a broadly US-based curriculum will generally choose one of the larger schools accreditation bodies. These are based in different regions of the US and have also broadened their responsibilities to include some overseas US schools. These bodies include WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges), NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) and SACS (Southern Association of Schools and Colleges), but there are others. They try to ensure that schools meet the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) targets specified in the NCLB act.
Starting Out and Moving Through
Schooling in the US generally begins at around 5 or 6 years old. The initial focus in kindergarten is on play-based activities, with a transition to more formal structured learning occurring gradually as the child progresses through school.
The British system differs in that, unlike in most parts of the US, a full system is in place for early years education and the first compulsory year of schooling is the Reception year at age 4.
The Early Years/Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum is centred on developing all aspects of a very young child, both social and academic. It monitors and assesses key developmental milestones and theres is a strong emphasis on communication with parents. Play is, of course, emphasised in the play-based learning sections of the curriculum, as are outdoor play, arts activities and books.
Moving into Infants and Junior School, or Elementary school in the US, the key difference might be seen to be one of approach. The core areas of teaching in fact vary little. It is arguably the case that the British system is slightly more advanced in terms of maths and literacy, but in truth the variation between students is higher than that between the two systems. There is also a somewhat wider focus in the British system, contrasted with a more ‘national’ focus in the US. This may lead parents not from the US, but whose child attends an international school which follows the American curriculum, to wonder why their child is learning all about the states of America but not necessarily the rest of the world. However, again, the variation between teachers is wider than that laid down in the curriculum, with some US teachers considering it their duty to promote a wider world view where they are allowed to do so.
One key area, though, is that of ‘tradition’. Many British schools still have uniforms and an explicit emphasis on teaching good manners and social skills. Both systems, of course, aim to combat bullying and other obvious social ills, but in general it would be fair to say that many US schools from Infants upwards are a little more informal than their British counterparts. Some parents may consider the teaching of good manners rather old-fashioned, or school uniforms a restriction of children’s freedom of expression. The British principal would reply that uniforms make for a family atmosphere and feeling of community and reduce fashion pressure on both children and parents. There is, of course, no right answer to this issue and it is really a matter of parental choice.
In secondary school (high school) the differences become more pronounced. Here, by most standards, the average British child is indeed one year more advanced in mathematics and language than their US counterpart (based on national average statistics). The differences in approach become even more pronounced, as schools across the US have a very different and more liberal approach than that of schools in the UK.
Whereas the US system follows a year-by-year approach to learning and assessment all the way through to Grade 12, in Years 10 and 11 students in the British curriculum will undertake a specific curriculum leading to standard testing known as the General Certificate of Secondary Education or IGCSE for international schools following the British curriculum. Within the GCSE or IGCSE, students still have choice about the subjects they select.
Under the British system, Year 11 is the final year of compulsory education, with the GCSE or IGCSE qualification enabling students to apply to university either in the UK
or in the US. However, most British students go on to do A Levels or, in the case of students studying at international schools following a British curriculum, will study for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB). Internationally recognised as a rigorous and challenging comprehensive two-year course, the IB includes major final examinations. Regardless of where students intend to study, be it in the UK, the US or elsewhere, the IB prepares students for the best universities worldwide.
Students in the US and studying at international schools following the American curriculum may also be offered the IB in Years 11 and 12. The American system may also include Advanced Placement (AP), from Years 10 to 12. AP is subject specific, with course work over three years, culminating in final exams in the final year.
Making Your Choice
General standards in any good school in either the US or the UK will not vary hugely. The UK primary and early years system has proven to be highly successful in nurturing young minds, but aspects of the US middle school system are also being developed strongly. Both systems feature a strong emphasis on ICT skills, but the UK system is perhaps a little more outward looking.
The key difference will always be one of approach. A modern forward-looking system aiming to maintain some traditional values, or a highly varied state-by-state system looking to satisfy the needs of a very varied community while maintaining a liberal tradition; in the end, it’s up to parents and students to investigate Shanghai schooling options and choose the one best suited to them.