The UK and the USA have two of the best education systems in the world, despite taking reasonably varied approaches to curriculums and examinations, with the main differences being particularly noticeable for students who are 14+.
In the American education system there is no national curriculum, and therefore schools do not prepare their students for national examinations. Instead, students work towards a High School Diploma, the requirement for which is set by each individual state. American students are continually assessed throughout the school year, including mid-term and final exams, class participation, and homework assignments, all of which then combine to create their GPA (grade point average), the results of which are available on their transcripts. While university applications in the UK are heavily reliant on GCSE and A-Level results, the American education system relies on GPAs and high school transcripts.
The UK and USA education systems do not vary as greatly at the primary/ elementary school level, with both systems having a relatively prescriptive curriculum. American elementary schools provide the fundamental skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as history, geography, civics, crafts, music, science, health and physical education, which covers very similar topics to the UK’s Key Stage 1 and 2. Another similarity is that in the USA, students have to complete state exams for Grades 3-8, while UK children sit their Year 6 SATS. It is only from middle school onwards that the American education system becomes more flexible, while the UK system remains rigid.
The American system of continual and varied assessment avoids putting students under the immense exam stress they would face in the UK education system, but this does mean they have to be focused all year round. However, this also means that universities and colleges in America can be sure that their applicants’ grades are representative of overall ability, and they didn’t just perform well or badly in one exam.
A disadvantage of the US education system is that there is no curriculum, meaning that GPAs and transcripts are not standardised, therefore universities have to evaluate the performance and prestige of the individual school, when deciding whether to accept a pupil, meaning the choice of high school is significant, rather than a means to an end. However, having no national curriculum does have the advantage of schools having more freedom, in which they can promote discussion and inquisitive thinking amongst students, as opposed to in the UK, where much emphasis is placed upon exam based teaching.
The UK examination process is currently undergoing significant change and A-Levels are reverting to their linear days of old. Little by little, the modular exams are being phased out. This means teachers will have more freedom to explore topics that interest their students, giving them a broader education as opposed to only teaching things for the sake of exams, a little more similar to the American way of doing things. This idea is echoed by Lucy Elphinstone, Head Teacher at Francis Holland School in London, who commented that, “It enables you to develop an academically curious student.” However, the fact that A-Levels will now be wholly dependent on exams at the end of the 2 year course, moves further away from the US’s approach of regular and varying assessment of students.
Both the UK and US systems have merits, and both ultimately lead to success amongst their students, however one might surmise that a more rigid and controlled system, with a national curriculum and limited teacher freedom, leads to a better education, with the UK being ranked as the 6th best education system in the world in 2015/16, and the US coming 14th according to the MCB Times.
However, only time will tell whether the reforms the UK education system is currently undergoing, will have a positive effect, further increasing the success of the UK’s education system.