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Letter from America: Educational standards are higher in the US


Greetings from America! As a proud stay-at-home mother of six children, I write from the battlefront of the American – well, Anglo-American – home.

Last summer, our family emigrated from the UK to the USA. My husband is British, and my children had all, up to that point, lived in Britain for their entire lives. The adjustments were painful and many, but perhaps the most difficult one was the adjustment to the American education system.

This is because … wait for it … the American system is harder and more demanding than the British system.

Having lived in the UK for 18 years, I know that education is a perpetual source of concern for the British, and something in which politicians always feel they have to meddle. It’s touted at every party conference as the solution to nearly all social and economic problems: ‘if you want to help the lower classes, get them educated, starting at two!’ And yet, while British politicians constantly review, debate, chop and change, none of their meddling has raised standards – if anything, educational standards in the UK have fallen significantly.

Many American states, on the other hand, have managed to come up with something really quite rigorous, with much less fuss, intervention or fanfare.

Granted, British education starts off at a higher standard than the American one – or appears to. This is mainly because the American system starts a year later, and even then – in some states – parents are not required by law to send their children to kindergarten until  they are five, rising six ( a year later than UK reception classes). So, unsurprisingly, my seven year old found herself streets ahead of her American associates when she arrived.

However – and Nick Clegg please take note –  the advantage gained from starting school earlier does not last. By the time children turn 12 or so, the tables start to turn. This is because the age at which children start school is not nearly as important as what and how they are taught once they get there.

Last year when we were still living in England, my now 16-year-old took her maths GCSE – the foundation paper – a year early in year ten. She got a C and with that she passed. If we had stayed in the UK, theoretically that would have been enough – she would have achieved the minimum standard schools aim for to meet Government targets.

But when she arrived America, we were shocked to find her put in a maths class for students in the year below her. She is failing miserably. This is because, we’ve found out, her maths skills are at the level of average American students who are two years below her – 8th graders (year 9). And that’s not all, my daughter, quite rightly, is required to take more maths in order to graduate from high school. If she wants to be considered by an American university, she has to take maths until she is 18, even though she has no intention of doing the subject at university.

In the UK too last year, she took the first part of her chemistry GCSE and was thrilled to get an A*. So we confidently placed her with her peers in a chemistry course here. Another mistake: those in her year are doing chemistry that is A-level standard in the UK. Yet these kids are not considered ‘advanced’, nor are they specializing in chemistry – they are just average, university-bound students.

What we have found is that, at least in the maths and sciences, the UK’s GCSE course is too practical. The American approach is much more theoretical and conceptual, even by year 9. American students are also expected to study a broader range of subjects over a longer period of time, and are thus expected to reach higher levels of proficiency in more subjects than their British counterparts.

Recently, my 13-year-old, who had been at student at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Lincolnshire, moaned to my husband and me, ‘Everyone here is so much smarter!’ ‘They’re not smarter!’ my husband spat, who is a proud product of the Kent grammar school system and the University of Cambridge. ‘It’s just that … they seem to be taught better, and more is expected of them.’

If my husband can admit that, then maybe Michael Gove should pay a visit.

Holly also blogs at Philosophy for Parents.

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Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly is a mother of six, now living in the United States. She holds an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History & Political Thought from Newnham College, Cambridge. She blogs at Philosophy for Parents. Tim is her husband and a former RAF officer.

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