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Putting your kids in school: American versus local education

The American School in Central London costs around £20K per child per year. Unless you receive on-going subsidies as part of your expatriate package (see my treatise on relocation packages for further reference), you would probably be put off by this price tag. We obviously were, although the cost was only one of the reasons why we put our girls into local schools in England.

The main reason can be summed up as this: It is all about the experience. As I stated on many occasions, the main rationale for our move to England was our desire to expand our opportunities for experiencing European life. It was mostly about travelling, seeing places, ability to decide over breakfast that we’d like to go to Paris and be there by lunch… ok, by late lunch… But it was also about immersing ourselves in a different culture and a different way of life. (Don’t get me wrong, I find a lot of positives in the American way of life, but I am certainly open-minded enough to want to learn a different way first-hand.)

So, if we are immersing ourselves in a different culture (albeit, not stranger different, but more like cousin different), why would we want to limit our kids’ opportunities to do likewise? We want them to expand their horizons and grow up enlightened and cosmopolitan. So, we’ve been to half a dozen different countries in as many months, visited variety of museums and galleries, played at learning foreign languages along the way – generally inflicted tons of enlightening stuff on our children, whether they wanted or not.

But all that fun stuff happens only on weekends and during school breaks, while most of their time is spent, obviously, in school. And this is where I strongly feel that putting your kids into an American school is counter-productive, preventing them from getting immersed into the new culture.

Some may argue that an American school will benefit a young impressionable mind by providing continuity, safeguarding from full-blown culture shock, minimizing disruption. That is probably all true. But not getting to know how local kids think and what they like, not being exposed to familiar concepts from possibly a wholly different point of view, is an opportunity that is too big to lose, in my humble opinion.

Of course, if your goal is to shield your child from anything that does not have an American stamp of approval, then your choice is clear, and don’t let me waste my breath in trying to convince you otherwise.

There is also an argument about quality of education. It is widely accepted that the American levels are rather low, and you may actually want to have your children avail themselves to better education in a foreign land. Not entirely unsurprisingly, this notion holds true only if your kids attended an average urban public school in America and are going to attend a public school in an affluent suburb in your host country. In all other cases, you are likely not to find a dramatic difference in the level of instruction (any time a private – i.e., fee-paying, – school is involved on at least one side of the equation, your expectations cannot be based on national averages, as there surely exist many fantastic, if expensive, private schools in America). Furthermore, if your kid ends up going to a state school in central London, there is a reasonable chance that she will be worse off scholastically, no matter how bad her education was back home.

In our specific case, Becky moved from an average public New Jersey school (the great State of New Jersey has customarily occupied one of the top spots nationwide when it comes to public education) to a selective, if not exactly exclusive, and expensive suburban London school. According to her, in math and science, she studies this year pretty much what she would be studying in her respective grade in America. Having looked over her coursework a bit, I tend to agree. Which takes “more advanced” out of the argument about the comparative quality of education. But her interest in school and schoolwork is undoubtedly greater right now than it was last year, which is the main reason why we think she is truly getting a better level of education than before.

Let me emphasize that she goes to a fee-paying school now. At a free state school, it could have been different. But in an American school in England, she would surely be less engaged, as long as their methods and curricula remained similar to what you get in the US.

I realize that my argument is a bit circular. I just stipulated that a private American school can provide an excellent education, yet I am unwilling to allow that a private American school overseas can do the same. Hmmm… don’t have a response to that. I simply do not know – it might very well be that the level of instruction in an American school is beyond reproach… Give me something to harp on, quick! I need to negate the admission of the previous statement! Oh, yes, of course, how about this: I heard somewhere that American schools are full of snobbish diplomat brats, and you probably do not want your kids to be in that type of an environment ;D

Back to seriousness, some components of a different curriculum of a foreign school is another argument for cosmopolitan immersion. When your children return to America one day, wouldn’t they be naturally advantaged against other children by having studied something that nobody else in their class had? Math, sciences, geography – they are likely to be largely the same everywhere. Other subjects (art, music, information technology, etc.) may be presented differently, but most likely do not differ in substance. Foreign languages as well (although I might have mentioned that Becky is currently studying three foreign languages, with French being compulsory and two more being mandatory electives – she studies Spanish and Mandarin; while I personally do not believe that you can learn a foreign language in school, the exposure to many languages is certainly beneficial).

History certainly focuses on different things – and whatever common topics it covers, the angle has got to be different from this side of the ocean (Becky actually did not have history as a subject in her middle school in NJ – it was part of the social studies concoction).

Drama did not exist on the schedule in America, but is one of Becky’s favorite subjects here.

And then, religious education… If there is subject to which I should have a natural aversion, that’s it. But this is the thing with being open-minded (and for those who doubt that I am, look up the definition of open-minded in the dictionary – you will find a picture of an atheist Jew perusing the Bible, which was me circa 1991). While I do not exactly care about the subject, I do not mind my daughter discovering that stuff for herself, so that she may be better equipped to make decisions about it when she grows up.

Just listing the subjects taught in corresponding grades in UK and US points to a more well-rounded and engaging curriculum on this side of the pond.

So, there it is, my few thoughts on the two main approaches to educating your child while living overseas. I firmly vote for putting her into a local school and letting her experience the different culture fully. It should be noted that for younger children, around Kimmy’s age, my position is even firmer: Kids of that age need local friendships more than anyone else, and the only way to achieve that is to have them attend a school around the corner (but if you get a flat in St John’s Wood, then by all means, you should consider the American School in London for your child, – that is why there are many American expatriates who settle in the area). Plus, the particulars of the level of education and curriculum differences have much less impact in elementary/grammar school – it’s what you do at home that matters more…

The only situation that argues strongly for avoiding local schools is when your child is in the final couple of years of high school and planning to go to college back home. Then, she is certainly better off at an American school, for simple reasons of SAT and college preparation…

I hear a question from the back of the audience. Would we feel the same about local education if we were not living in an English-speaking country? In other words, if our kids were handicapped by a language barrier, would we be more willing to “protect” them by putting them in an American school?

No doubt, going for a local school without speaking the language would certainly be a lot more painful for the kids. But I would without reservation go for it (no, hold it, if the language was not of the Romance family, I would have reservations). It would be such an incredible opportunity for them to become fluent in another language in just a few months! I actually feel a bit down about relocating to London in that it is not Geneva or Paris or Milan or Madrid, which would force a beautiful different language on us…

Too many woulds – I better sign off…


  1. George Cook

    Thanks for the great Blogs!

    My wife daughter (13- 14 in Sept) and I are in the process of considering a relo to the London area. We don’t have the job offer yet but it’s looking good enough to really make us nervous. We come from a similar background, we currently on Long Island NY and my daughter is excelling in a local Public School.

    We pulled all of the info out of you relocation Blog and we are of a similar mindset to you insight to the education experience.

    The primary choice for a neighborhood in London is her school. After reading your Blog it reaffirms my feeling to do a local (not International or US) Public school ($$)

    Could you make any suggestions for schools or neighborhoods of just as importantly warnings.

    Thanks again for the great blogs, even if you don’t have time to respond you already have shared a lot!

    All the Best,


    PS- One comment on the education Blog- IMHO if a student is considering a US University the education and world view that a UK education gives are a distinct advantage. Graduating and getting a GCSE (I think that what’s they get) from a good school with good grades would put you way ahead of other applicants. The SAT’s are being down graded (you can also cram for them on line) and a much heavier weighting is being given to diversity.

    It is so much harder now for a Long Island (or NJ) student to get into a competitive university (even if you have the $ and are an Alumni) because there are so many excellent students with similar qualifications applying for slots from LI and NY. The schools allocate admissions geographically to create diversity from around the US and world.

  2. Ilya

    Thanks for reading, George!

    I unfortunately do not have a comprehensive advice on where to settle in relation to schools. As I mention elsewhere on my blog, I am only really
    familiar with the Southeast London where we live and a bit with St Johns Wood in central London where many of expats settle. I don’t really know
    anything about schools in St Johns Wood, and we only looked into two “independent” (i.e., fee-paying) school in our area, on account of coming
    over at an inopportune time for school entry and being limited in availability. The school that Becky attends, Blackheath High, is consistently rated as one of the best in the country. The other school, Riverstone, impressed us considerably less. The fees, interestingly, are very close at both, almost £11K/yr.

    Sorry for not being able to offer more.

    As far as having an advantage for college entry with a UK high-school education, I am a bit sceptical. A-levels will certainly not hurt, but I doubt that the notion of “diversity” extends to a Caucasian applicant who happened to receive secondary education abroad. Unscientific evidence suggests that everyone of my American-based acquaintances who recently applied for college entry has gotten into a reasonably good school, albeit possibly not their first choice. (GCSE’s are taken at the end of Year 11, which is roughly the equivalent of 10th Grade in the US; most of the pupils are 16 at the time of the exams. They serve as a “diploma” for those who do not pursue higher education and actually leave school at that age; everyone who wants to go to college stays in school for two more years and needs to take A-levels around the time they graduate from Year 13).

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