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Re-visiting education (Q&A, part 2)

Continuing our Q&A exercise, in which I successfully engaged one single person to ask me questions, let’s address another one of Jeri’s queries. (Part 1 is here.)

I’m assuming your children are in British schools – what are the advantages and disadvantages of American vs. British school systems?

I did, in fact, produce a rambling essay on this very subject more than a year ago. It is worth to briefly restate it here.

Becky attends an independent – British equivalent for private; in other words, fee-paying – girls-only school that is reportedly one of the top schools in the country. Kimmy goes to a regular co-ed state school, one that is rated as “good” – but not exceptional – by the Ofsted.

After close to two years of experience with British schooling, I firmly hold that, if taught right, British approach to school education is both wider in its range and deeper in its substance than American schooling approach. The simplest example of greater depth is the fact that pupils actually learn how to prove mathematical theorems as opposed to just checking them off as “facts”; the former trains the mind, while the latter is pretty useless on its own merits, in my humble opinion.

The greater width is best characterized by the existence of more diverse subjects, as well as the social sciences curriculum that is balanced enough to teach children about the world, not just the country that they live in.

If taught right is a very important qualifier, though. The quality of schooling varies from area to area and, as you might experience in the US as well, tends to be worse in urban areas and better in more affluent suburban ones. Moreover, state schools are unflinchingly egalitarian, in that children with different abilities and attitudes are taught in the same classroom; the pressure on even the best teachers to dumb down the instruction to the lowest common denominator is too great – the student mix becomes a dominant factor in the level of schooling that your children obtain.

Having said all that, I have no doubt that, all other things being equal, my kids will end up more well-rounded and open-minded individuals than their American peers because of the years they will have spent in British schools.

Posted in Expat Archive

2 Comments

  1. Jeri

    I read both of your education blogs — pretty fascinating.

    I taught for a couple years at a US Dept of Defense school at UK military base. It was really no different than most American schools except that the students were perhaps less diverse, very much middle class and fairly well behaved. I never had a chance to visit a British state or public school, and my kids were babies then… Well, actually, I was expecting Zach, he was born a month before we moved home.

    It is stereotypical that US education is not particularly broad or deep, the quality isn’t there. My youngest’s school is pretty good – the only quality measure I’m aware of, test scores, puts it at 70%. It’s well funded with caring, passionate teachers and a good sprinkling of AP and high-end technology classes.

    The neighboring ultra-rich island school district is at 95%, but I don’t think the high-achievement, snobby pressure would have been a comfortable fit for the boys, I’m glad we are where we are.

  2. Ilya

    British senior schools use test scores (although Ofsted reports take into consideration quite a number of other factors). They normally count the percentage of pupils achieving 5 or more good grades (A, B or C) on GCSE exams as the primary indicator of quality.

    The sad truth is that in the Greater London very few state schools can claim 70% or higher test scores. The only school available to Becky when we moved over boasted at the time that they had achieved an unprecedented 55% GCSE score. If you dissect what it means, you conclude that a bit over half of the pupils get at least 5 C’s on exams – and the rest does worse. This doesn’t even sniff “mediocre”, IMHO.

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