Moving from the US to the British education system

Introducing your children to a different education system can be challenging. American families, in particular, can find it daunting to transition to the British education system.  However, moving from the US to the British education system, two of the most well-regarded in the world can be done smoothly and effectively. With a little preparation, children moving from the US to the British education system can thrive.


The US runs a more generalist structure of education. There is a wider range of subjects taught during the later years of high school, and at degree level, than in the UK. The British system can be thought of as more specialist – young people are given a wider choice of subjects to study from the ages of 14 (GCSE options) to 16 (A-Level/BTEC choices), and 18+ (Degree options). These subjects are taught in greater depth from an earlier age. 

Additionally, the US standardisation of tests and assessments is mandated at a state, rather than a federal level. With this – and the much larger size of the US – comes a naturally more varied approach to education than exists within the UK. The UK has a more nationally bound system – although this is broken into four sub-divisions as education has been devolved to the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish governments.

Early Years and Primary Education 

In the UK, the early years foundation phase (EYFS) exists in the form of childminders, preschools, nurseries and school reception classes for your child from birth to five years old. Learning is mostly taught through games and play and your child’s progression will be reviewed by an early years practitioner or health visitor. In England, the areas of learning consist of communication and language, physical development, personal, social and emotional development, literacy, mathematics, understanding the world, expressive arts and design. There are different early years standards in the devolved administrations, to find out more, read our blogs on how education differs in Scotland and Wales.

UK schools offer some flexibility with most starting in a Reception class at the age of four or five.  This early approach to learning, literacy and reading, can seem too much too soon for US families.   Alternatively, there are many Steiner or Montessori schools which offer a gentler approach and focus on developing your child’s learning through practical activities, flexible thinking and moral and social growth. Most Steiner and Montessori schools are private, though the reform in the Welsh and Scottish curriculum has moved towards a pupil-led and holistic learning environment.

Children aged 4-5 enter Key Stage 1 (KS1) and finish Primary Education in Key Stage 2 (KS2) through the ages of 7-11. Your child will be assessed by national tests in English and Maths. 

Middle/High School

In the UK, ‘middle school’ and ‘high school’ are merged into a compulsory, and more seamless block of education that runs from ages 11 to 16. At 16+, most students will continue their studies by either staying in their school’s ‘sixth form’ or progressing onto a ‘Further-Education College’ (FE).

At aged 11-14 pupils study a range of compulsory subjects and limited optional choices: English, Maths, Science, Modern Foreign Languages (MFL), History, Geography, ICT/Computing, Design and Technology, Drama, Art, and Physical Education (PE), as well as Personal, Health and Social education (PHSE), and Religious Studies (RS). Whilst there is a degree of variation between schools, these subjects provide the basic format.

During year 9 (age 13-14), pupils are required to slim down the subjects they study at GCSE level. All pupils must continue to study English, Maths and Science, and many schools will mandate certain other subjects such as an MFL – it is noteworthy that in Wales, all children must study some form of Welsh until the age of 16. Children will get the opportunity to choose 3-4 subjects to complement their core education. Options, offered will include subjects they have studied through years 7-9, and normally a range of new subjects for them to try such as Latin, Economics or Psychology.

After 16 and the completion of GCSEs, education in the UK becomes voluntary but strongly encouraged. Many schools offer an in-house sixth form, where A-levels and BTEC courses are offered to age 18. FE colleges offer students a more transitionary mode of education that allows for greater independence and a less rigid experience than schools. Both Sixth-Form and FE colleges offer A-Level options and are equally considered by university admissions teams. Universities will require particular A-Level subjects at specific grades but will not mandate whether these were achieved in a sixth form or college.


Finding a school that is willing to support the student’s adjustment, academically, emotionally and socially, is vital.  We work closely with international and ex-pat families to ensure a smooth educational transition to life in the UK.  We are highly experienced in supporting families who are moving between different education systems and cultures. If you relocating to London and would like your child to continue with a US education, please contact us to book a consultation.