British Schools vs. American Schools

british schools vs american schools featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

 british schools vs american schools featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom 

Earlier we discussed Dutch schools and French schools, and today, I thought it would be fun to discuss English schools too.

Let’s start with Jessica Rushing. Jessica is an American mother of 4 kids. Almost two years ago, the whole family moved from Washington D.C. to England, where the kids attend school in that amazing building pictured above. Jessica told me the English schools totally transformed her kids into students who actively look forward to going to school. And she believes it’s all do to one simple thing — not budget related — that any school district could replicate.

Here’s what Jessica says:

british schools vs american schools featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom


When our family of six moved to England in August of 2015, we knew that we’d be experiencing a lot of new things. Little did we know, though, that the thing that would make the biggest change in all our lives would be the British schools my children would attend.

When we lived in the D.C. area, my four children attended public school in what was considered one of the best school districts in the country. We loved our schools, but had all the typical complaints so many families had: not enough activity in the school day, budget cuts every year that impacted (or even eliminated) arts programs and extracurricular clubs, and really, really bad food served for lunches.

Moving to England, we put our kids in an independent prep school. In the U.S. it would be considered a private school, although the tuition is actually much lower than private school tuition in the States. The difference the school made in my kids within just a few weeks of starting was simply unbelievable. They were happier, more engaged, and more positive about school overall. All four of my children now actively look forward to going to school — last July, when the school year ended, my ten year old son looked at the calendar and sighed that he wished summer break weren’t so long because he loves school so much! If that isn’t a sign that the school is doing something right, I don’t know what is!

The thing I think makes the biggest difference in British schools is how the school day is organized. Our school here runs from 8:50AM to 3:50PM, so the five day school week lasts 35 hours total, which is only 25 MINUTES longer per week than our school in America. Out of those 35 hours, though, my kids spend 19 in lunch/recess and physically active classes like P.E., Art, Music, and Games/Sports. In our school in the States they had only about 5 hours of guaranteed physical activity in a school week! Based on that change alone, it’s no wonder they are happier with the British schools system. They never have to sit in a class for more than 90 straight minutes during the entire school week.

british schools vs american schools featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

The activity built into the school day here makes so much sense that it now seems insane to me that kids in schools in the U.S. spend so much time sitting in one classroom. Kids want — need — to move around. Every parent pretty much knows that. The way the school day here is organized enables kids to move and run and play more consistently. Because the kids are moving so much more often in British schools, they are better able to sit quietly and pay attention when they are required to — there’s no bottled up energy just begging to be released! So although my kids are spending less time on average sitting in a classroom, they are actually learning more and getting better grades than they ever did at home. It’s a win-win situation.

The other thing I love about British schools is that from the equivalent of American 2nd grade, the children change teachers and classes throughout the day for different subjects, similar to a middle school day in the U.S. At first I was worried about it — what if the kids had trouble adjusting to different teachers or settling down as each new class started? But it turns out I worried for nothing. It has actually been really good for my children to be exposed to multiple different teaching styles throughout the day. They’ve also learned how to adapt their behavior to different classes and different teachers, which is a great skill to acquire at a young age!

I’m not honestly looking forward to the time when we have to put our kids back in a school where they sit all day long, but it’s coming. It just seems to me that the school here organizes the days in a way that makes kids happier AND enables better learning. It has nothing to do with funding or budget and everything to do with priorities. In fact, I feel so strongly about it that I’m in the process of writing a book about the schools here and how American schools could make small changes that would have huge impacts.

In the meantime, though, we are just trying to soak up all the goodness we can from British schools we have now. No matter what happens in the future, I know my kids have had an amazing school experience here and hopefully wherever we end up, we can build on that.


Oh my goodness, Jessica. I love this write up. But first of all: those knee socks and little purple blazers! I’m dying of cuteness. Beyond the cuteness, I found your insights super interesting. Thank you for sharing with us.

Dear Readers, what do you think? Could something as simple as a daily schedule change, allowing for less sitting time, transform your kids? Do British schools and their schedule sound appealing to you? And do any of you attend schools that are similar? If yes, do you have the same take as Jessica? I’d love to hear.

P.S. — Are French mothers mean?

91 thoughts on “British Schools vs. American Schools”

  1. It sounds a lot like a Waldorf school which are plentiful in the U.S. There is plenty of movement (even for things like math) and different teachers provide specialty subject instruction (foreign languages, handwork, PE, music). I loved it for my sons b/c they got it all in school and when they came home at 3:30, they could simply play outside the rest of the afternoon. No running around to sports or music lessons. Homework didn’t start until 4th grade and by then they were really craving it b/c it was something they hadn’t yet experienced!

    1. I agree on the benefits of Waldorf. We chose a Waldorf school for our daughter specifically because they focus on physical activity and kinesthetic learning. And not having homework in early grades is amazing–it allows for more outside time and creative play after school. Also, our Waldorf school is a public charter.

  2. I love this post! Yes, to more physical activities in schools. Yes, to giving children room to be children. I haven’t read research, but my gut belief is a lot of things which we see happening to students in later years is because we have cut out so much time for play and running around in their younger years.

  3. Interesting. I agree with a lot of what was said, although I wonder what the differences would be in relation to a British public school. It’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison.

    1. I agree – I can only compare the school systems we have actually experienced, so it’s not apples to apples. From what I’ve learned, British public schools do have a lot of the same issues American public schools have. However, the village school that is the public school my kids would go to here STILL has more daily activity than the one we came from in D.C.

  4. Yes, agreed definitely not an apples and apples comparison. Many of the families that I know who live in London who’s children go to what American’s call a public school have the same issues as the US and even more. I think this private school sounds wonderful, but it doesn’t represent typical schooling in England in general.

  5. I seriously love designmom but I think this article is REALLY mislabeled. I’m an American teacher who lives in the UK, where I volunteer in my children’s school and subsitute (supply) teach. These differences are really school-specific, and not remotely country-specific.

    For instance, the public school I taught at in the US had 3/recesses a day as well. The UK school (NOT private) my children attend here has no “specials” teachers, so I think you could argue the arts are less funded. They do have art supplies, but it is on the regular teacher to find the time to teach art, music, etc. Meanwhile, I started “switching teachers” at an inner-city American school in 4th grade. My children will not “switch teachers” until secondary school (Year 7/6th grade.)

    Long story short, I agree with the author about physical activity being an important priority in the school day, but otherwise I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the gross generalizations presented here.

    1. I agree. The school described sounds good, but it is wrong to believe it represents the British system. My British sister in law is a teacher in the UK and has worked at 3 different private schools (they however are called public schools, a fact that is confusing for people not used to the system!). Before that she worked at a school in Ireland. She says all “her” schools were very different from each other. There us one thing she does find the same in all the schools: She likes that there is a focus on physical education. But she notices how the spirit is very competitive. She feels that kids which are not very athletic feel left out or even pressured by the system.

      I am in Germany and my two eldest kids both spent some time in schools abroad: My daughter went to Boston and Lyon, my son to Dallas. Their experiences were totally different which shows: No two schools are the same. Here in Germany I have 4 kids in 3 different schools and there are worlds between them.

    2. I have to agree. I moved to England when I was just turning 16 and went to a state school (what would be known as public school in the U.S.). Of course part of what coloured my experience at the time was where I had previously come from (mainly a Montessori background, but also some public school, then a prep high school) and the age I was when we moved here. I was an awkward age based on the education system and the series of exams and coursework that students start around the age of 14/15 and complete around the age of 15/16. Some schools wouldn’t even look at me for fear I would skew their exam results!

      Having come from a background of mutual respect between student and teacher, I was surprised to see that respect on a very superficial level (calling teachers ‘Miss’ or ‘Sir’) was important, but a healthy, respectful relationship as a learning experience of how to treat others just didn’t seem to be encouraged. Our uniforms did help level the affordable fashion stakes, but I took no pride in my appearance as I was wearing crunchy man-made fibres and just really uncomfortable clothes that didn’t fit my body well. We had about 2-3 hours of P.E. per week. I was lucky enough to go to a school that offered dance, so I also had that about 2-3 hours per week. There is a real issue now of arts being erased from school curriculums here and being seen as ‘soft’ subjects though, so I was very lucky.

      A big problem for a lot of schools here (and it’s often debated) is being taught specifically for exams. So I found we weren’t learning for the sake of learning and enjoying discovering new things, we were told day in and day out ‘this is what they’ll ask you on the exam’. So, I had a particularly negative experience with schools in England, but I just wanted to add my two cents – a private prep school here is *very* different to a state school!

    3. I can only compare the two systems my children have been in, so I can’t accurately speak about British state schools or American private schools. I also know, though, that the school they are in here in the UK is certainly not the only one like it — most of the independent schools seem to have this type of schedule. Those schools are obviously not the same as the state/public schools, some of which are tiny (the one for our village is!) and therefore haven’t got the resources to provide as much in terms of arts. From what I’ve learned while here, the state schools in England seem to have a lot of the same issues that American public schools have. I certainly think that some of what’s great in our school here is not budget-related — scheduling more PE and recess hasn’t got a lot to do with funding. They don’t have specific PE teachers, actually — the teachers that teach science and history and math ALSO have times where they teach PE. I don’t think I’m generalizing that ALL schools are like this — just that OUR school is, and that it has had an enormous benefit for my kids!

  6. I volunteer in my kids elementary classrooms in a public school. The children are frequently out of their seats working on projects individually, in pairs, or small groups. Teachers also let the younger kids onto the playground for short unofficial recesses when they are getting squirrely and need a break.

    Teachers are also going to “flexible seating”. One third grade classroom has no desks, but has a variety of seating like a couch, chaise, stools, and cushions. There are also a couple of tables at different heights for sitting on the stools or on the floor.

    To assume that if it isn’t PE time the kids are confined to a desk and chair is incorrect.

    Also art and music aren’t necessarily active classes. Even PE can be pretty structured and spend a lot of time listening to instructions.

    1. I teach 6th grade in the US at a public school in California and this is exactly how it is at my school. I use flexible seating in my classroom as well as fidget cubes and spinners for my learners who are kinesthetic (although I have a class set because they ALL love using them). I do agree that the younger students get a lot more recess time, but we have PE each day with a full hour of PE on our minimum days once a week after lunch. I like to rotate between different sports for PE. Right now we’re in our volleyball phase :-) Our school luckily has a lot of clubs (like a Fine Arts Club) all run by teachers who take time after school to hold meetings/host events, etc. I do agree the budget cuts have been terrible all around, especially for middle school concerning the arts (at least in our district).

    2. The difference I have seen here in comparison to our school in D.C. is that while the students are in the classroom, they ARE all seated at desks for the lesson. But they have FAR more lessons that are not like that during the week than they ever had in the U.S. — in addition to P.E. every week, my kids also have 3 hours of “Games” per week, which is essentially sports practice for the sport of that term, and they have shop class/cooking class, art class, drama class, music class, and 85 minutes PER DAY of lunch/recess/break. Plus they switch classes several times a day. They simply move more and have FAR more classes that are movement-based than they did at home, and that is what I think has made a difference for my kids. At their school near D.C., they did do projects and walk around the classroom when it was appropriate, but they WERE seated at desks in a class for way more hours there than they are here.

  7. I love reading about how different schools/cities/states/countries approach education, so this is a fun discussion to have here. My son’s school teacher (public school in U.S.) recently sent home a survey asking parents’ preferences regarding homework. I wrote that I would like my kids to be required to read and play outside for homework in elementary school–there’s a lot to be learned from independent reading and independent play.

    The title of this article sparked a completely unrelated thought–I think it’s interesting how the United States is often referred to as simply “America.” I get that it is embedded in so much of our culture, patriotic songs, etc. But I grew up using the term America to refer to the entirety of North and South America. In fact, in Venezuela, where I grew up, we thought of ourselves as “Americans.” (Fun fact: the term America comes from an Italian explorer’s name–Amerigo Vespucci. He explored South America and the West Indies, not North America! Even well after the U.S. declared independence, there are lots of historical documents using the term “America” to refer to South America). I always laugh when my dad, who lives in Venezuela, comes to visit the U.S. Well meaning people say things like, “Welcome to America!” or “How do you like America?” and my father is confused both because it’s not his first time in the United States and because he thinks of himself as living in America. I have tried to stop using the term to refer only to the United States, though I have not found a good substitute for the term “Americans.”

    1. giselle taminez

      I am from Colombia and people always makes the same coment. Actually all the countries which names consist of United States of…are commonly known by the latter part. For example United States of Mexico is commonly known as Mexico and United States of Brazil is commonly known as Brazil. We are United States of America but somehow the United States part of the name is used as commonly as the latter. However, following the previous examples, it makes sense we use America as the name of our country.

  8. I agree with some comments above that this makes a lot of generalizations. I do think it is great that your children are now enjoying school, though! Have you noticed any difference in academics? Are they learning roughly the same thing in each grade as they do in the USA? Do you think they are learning faster, more engaged in academics, etc? Also – why did you chose an independent prep school? What are the equivalent to “public” schools like there? How do they deal with disabilities, income differences, etc? How diverse are they?

    1. All of my kids are actually far more engaged in their academic classes here than they were at home too. My theory is that they are better able to sit and focus when they are in science, math, history, etc because they have so much more activity built in to the days that they don’t have fidgety energy to burn and distract them during class. They are getting better grades and learning more as well, and I find the classes to be more academically rigorous than the school we were at in the U.S.

      We chose this school because the contract my husband works on covers the cost of school for an overseas post; in the U.S. all four of my kids went to public schools. The cost of this school is actually LESS than if we had enrolled them in the closest American DOD school on a nearby American military base! Public schools here (called state schools) can vary dramatically in terms of size and resources (similar to in the U.S.) and we didn’t have enough information before we moved to know exactly where we’d be living and then be able to know which public school the kids would be in, so we chose to do the independent school because that would not be affected by where we were able to find a house to rent!

      The school is a “test school” so my kids did have to take an exam to be accepted, but there are children with disabilities in the school. I don’t think there is as much differentiated teaching for kids with disabilities in our school, but that wasn’t something I was familiar with at home either as my kids are all typical learners, so I really can’t speak to that. There are some VERY wealthy families at the school and some completely not wealthy families. It is definitely not as diverse as our school near D.C. was, but we live way out in the English countryside, so there is not a hugely diverse population here in general.

  9. Our kids are in a charter school. It is a university model with a shorter school day (8:30-1:50), more homework and students start changing classes in 1st grade. They have 90 minute blocks for core subjects and then “specials” like P.E., art, and music. It has been FABULOUS! I agree that changing teachers is a benefit. Teachers can specialize. Students learn to adapt to different personalities and if you get a doozie, you only have to sit through them for 90 minutes before you get a fresh start :). The shorter school day gives us time for outdoor activity, swim team and dinner together and they have learned responsibility by managing homework. Their goal is to come home and get it done ASAP so they have more free time. I like that they are doing some of their work at home, which means I get to see what they are learning. The school equips parents to help with homework. Often we all sit in our family office and chip away at our work loads.

    1. I was nervous at first about the kids switching teachers at such a young age, but now I am a HUGE fan for exactly the reasons you stated! And the homework here is completely reasonable — usually about 20-30 minutes per night in one subject, and that’s it. I do like seeing what they’re working on, and it’s nothing that takes up the whole evening.

  10. Please re-title this post. The picture you posted at the top is the last thing any typical English school looks like. I am British and an independent prep school is *nothing* like the rest of the UK school system. That you would choose an American expat to discuss the British school system is also disappointing.

    1. THANK YOU. As a Swedish mother of three, recently relocated to London (and loving it, I may add) I burst out laughing when I saw the headline and the school pictured. This is SO not a typical English school. I’m glad to hear the children are happy, and yes exercise is good for you, but this would be more accurately labeled “Our English school of dreams”. I know I shouldn’t feel offended, but I love coming here and was severely disappointed by the lack of insight in this post.

      1. Sarah Dennison

        I agree wholeheartedly! The experiences that I have had with the UK system certainly do not fit under this umbrella!

        1. Glad I’m not the only one! This was a distressing article to read after 6 months in a U.K. school with my 4 kids. Glad things are working out for OP.

    2. Now that we’ve seen what it’s like to be educated at Hogwarts, could I suggest that next week we take a look inside Grange Hill to get a more balanced perspective on the British education system.

    3. I write in terms of comparing the school my kids went to in the U.S. with the school they currently attend here, which, truth be told, is middle of the road in comparison with other independent prep schools. We were lucky enough to be able to put them in this school because my husband’s contract pays for overseas education. And as an ex-pat I think I have a pretty solid grounding to be able to actually compare the two education systems we’ve so far experienced for our kids since we’ve now actually experienced the pros and cons of BOTH types of school.

  11. I also would be curious about the demographics at this school. A large public school system in the DC area would be quite diverse, I imagine – with various races, ethnicities, and socio-economic classes represented. Having kids from all different backgrounds in one classroom from a variety of family backgrounds can pose challenges for a teacher – there can be kids at so many phases of learning all in one classroom, especially at the elementary level. Going out on a limb (and maybe wrongly so), but based on the photos of the school building and uniforms, I would guess that this school trends towards a more homogeneous, upper-income group of students, most of whom probably have very engaged parental support. The school probably doesn’t have a lot of discipline issues, for example, or students for whom English is a second language. I’ll bet the class size is a lot smaller. So I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to compare this one school in the UK with schools you’ve experienced in the US. I do agree that physical activity and the arts is great for all students – and wish the US would move away from a focus on standardized testing.

    1. The school here is definitely not as diverse as our school just outside D.C., but the general population in our area of the English countryside is also not as diverse as the neighborhood we previously lived in! The classes are actually about the same size as the classes my kids were in before the move, but you’re right that I don’t think there are many kids for whom English is a second language. There are a few kids who are multi-lingual, though. There are some VERY wealthy families, but there are also some completely middle-class families (which is where we fall in). Some kids show up to school in Aston Martins, and some show up in Fords and Hyundais (or my kids, who roll up in a 15-yr old used Land Rover!).

      Another thing they do here that I didn’t even mention is that they do “leveling” within some subjects, which I think helps to address the wide range of learning ability within classes. They didn’t do that at our school in the U.S., but I think it’s good for all the kids to be able to work comfortably at the level they are at in, for example, math, rather than have some kids be struggling to keep up and others bored.

      What I do know, and why I felt that it was worth writing this post, is that the things that have most benefited my kids here have very little to do with how the school is funded and a lot to do with how they organize the school days. I’m not saying American public schools could do everything this school does, but adding more (MUCH MORE) guaranteed activity into the days and weeks would go a long way for most kids, I’d be willing to bet!

    1. I have one posted on my blog here:

      That post contains last year’s schedule, and the timetable this year has changed very slightly, but I don’t have a copy of my kids’ schedule for this year — they carry it on them during the school day.

      To translate some of the acronyms: DT = Design Technology, which includes shop class, sewing, and cooking depending on the term; ICT = Computer class; R.E. = religious educations (and they learn about a wide variety of world religions, not just one!).

  12. My kids go to a public school in Oakland. And no they do not sit in one classroom all day. They also start changing teachers and classrooms starting in 2nd grade. There’s some broad generalizations going on this critique of public schools here in the states. Trust me, I know there’s so many things wrong with the public schools here, especially since money spent on each student varies from state to state but the comparison points seem inaccurate.

    1. I love that they switch schools so young — I wish my kids had in our school near D.C. It was one of the things I was worried about when we moved here, but now it’s one of the things I love most.

      I can only compare the two school systems we’ve actually been in — but I think it’s worth looking at to see how improvements could be made that aren’t dependent on funding, and increasing activity in the school day would be good for just about every student.

      1. It’s funny because I teach in a public elementary school in Georgetown, Washington DC and we departmentalize (switch classes).

        Maybe your children didn’t switch classes at an early age but after teaching in schools in Boston and Washington DC, DC is known to actually do way more departmentalizing then anywhere else.

        It’s interesting to me to read how peoples experiences in one school or a few schools in a district can differ so vastly. Just a thought not a criticism. Thanks for your post!

  13. Our kids attend a private classical school in the US that is in session only four days a week. I’ve read a good bit about rural communities switching to four-day-a-week schedules, but we live in a city. The benefit of this schedule is HUGE. Our kids love to go to school (which does prioritize outside playtime and nature walks, as well as hands-on learning combined with direct instruction from teachers), and they love the extra day to explore around our house or go on a hike or to a museum or self-entertain–something that isn’t traditional “school” learning. It wouldn’t work for all families, I know, but it’s been a big benefit to our kids.

  14. I loved reading about this! It’s one of my favorite topics. While I agree with some of the other commenters that it’s not accurate to generalize this family’s experience to perhaps more typical British schools, it’s still worthwhile learning about this approach.

    For me the key takeaway is what Jessica said about priorities: it doesn’t take a huge budget or a certain kind of school or community to put movement, outdoor time, and the arts at a higher priority level. Speaking for myself as an adult, I know that I’m far more focused and efficient at my work when I have had exercise, a healthy meal, and a bit of creative time.

    Thanks for sharing! I’d love to see this become more of a regular series on Design Mom!

    1. Thank you! I don’t mean at all to indicate that every school is the same, either in the U.S. or the U.K. — all I can do is compare the systems I’ve experienced! And the increased activity levels here are HUGE in terms of benefit to my kids.

      (I didn’t even mention the lunches, but man, the food at this school is AMAZING, and it’s only about $1 more per student per day than school lunches at our school in D.C.!)

  15. All of these comparisons seem to use upper-middle class, suburban schools and parents who live on the coasts as the U.S. standard. We lived on the East Coast in one of the top school districts in the nation (as measured by SAT scores) and left to raise our children in a small, rural college town in the midwest. On the East Coast my children had about 15 minutes of outdoor time right after lunch. Here in the Midwest they have two half hour recesses and two fifteen minute recesses–plus teachers take students outdoors for extra time when students need a break. We also have art, music and PE every third day for good chunks of time. I have spoken to teachers here about the differences in schedule between the schools and they wonder that anything could be taught at all without recess! One more note–there is also much less emphasis here on being the best–not much talk about getting into “good” colleges or getting on track to take over the world but yet we still turn out a good number of National Merit Scholars each year, send students to the Ivy League AND raise an amazingly kind group of young adults. Schools in the U.S. are in no way uniform. We are a large, diverse country and our schools, students and families reflect that.

    1. I’ve only had my kids in a middle-class suburban public school on the East Coast, so that’s all I can compare to! But we did have exactly what you said — about 15-20 mins of recess a day. How I wish they had what your kids have!

      Schools in the U.K. are also diverse, but we have only experienced ONE, so that’s all I can write about. I had no other context for schools until we got here and then I was astounded to see how differently the day was organized and what a great change that led to in my kids.

      I think that your comment proves that increasing activity in the school days is certainly possible in American public schools — which is exactly the point I am trying to make.

  16. As a homeschooling mom, I agree with many who posted here about the importance of movement for kids in the school day. My kids get their academic work done and still spend hours outside, expending energy, being creative, and active. My oldest, in eighth grade this year, still enjoys plenty of outdoor time (and of six kids, he seems to need this activity the most). Certain types of learners especially benefit from being able to “digest” what they are learning through free play after tackling a difficult concept.

  17. Whitney Ingram

    This British schools sure sounds like the public school my kids attend in the US. We have teacher changes starting in kindergarten. We have three recesses. We have plenty of movement. A large number of classrooms have no desks but have exercise balls, bean bags and banana chairs instead.

    I strongly believe that the education experience your kids have depends on you. If you go into it thinking it’s a broken system, then it will be. If you want your kids to be engaged and learn, they will. It’s as much as the parents as it is the kids, no matter the country.

    1. Yes! I am in Arizona with bottom funding and teacher pay and state wide open enrollment and newly expanded vouchers so “the grass is always greener”. I tell parents al the time most success in school starts at home and bloom where you are planted in your neighborhood school instead of assuming it’s broken and finding the newest, shiniest charter or private. My kids THRIVE in a public district with extensive range of services, arts, athletics, alternative programs for gifted or twice exceptional learners, excellent services for children with disabilities, etc.

      Agreed with so many comments that this posted piece is full of gross generalizations on both sides of the pond.

    2. We are very engaged parents and certainly did not go in to our school in the D.C. area with the idea that it was broken. But parents can only do so much, and the school they were in did NOT offer the same amount of activity that the school your kids are in seems to — so my kids suffered without me even knowing it until we changed to a school with a different type of schedule.

      Now that I’ve seen how a school CAN be, I think it’s important to try to share our experiences so that other schools might consider ways to increase activity and create a school day that is less sedentary.

  18. I have to write that when I read comparisons like this it makes me feel sad for the children that don’t get to go to school at all.

  19. Agree with the above posters that this is far from a typical British school. I am a teacher and have never taught at or attended a school remotely like this, nor has anyone I know! The cost of a school like this would be wildly out of reach for all but the most privileged, and they don’t follow the same kind of curriculum as the state schools attended by the vast majority of children. The fact that they change teachers throughout the day is also not typical, I have never been in a primary school that works this way. I found this a rather short sighted article, which really only represents the experience of the most privileged.

    1. Yes to your last line! When Jessica commented the fees were so much less than in the US, it doesn’t mean they’re inexpensive. You’re talking a minimum GBP £9,000 per year, per child for fees, and that’s at the cheap end. Of course expats love this schooling – most of the time it is paid for or subsidised! Privileged indeed.

      1. I think it’s extremely unfair to call our family “privileged indeed” without knowing any of the circumstances whatsoever. We chose to move to the UK temporarily because we strongly believed that the experience would be worthwhile both for us and for our children. That does not, however, mean that it was never difficult.

        Our education IS subsidized, and I doubt there is a mother on earth who would turn down tuition to such a school for her children. My husband took a demotion at work in order to make it possible for us to do this. We left our home, we live 5,000 miles away from all our family and friends, we miss birthdays, weddings, funerals, etc and we had to adapt to living in a new culture where we knew no one and had no support system until we built one ourselves. We did so because we believed it would be a positive experience in the end, but we did not do so because we are “privileged”.

    2. The cost of this school IS high in comparison to the free public school my children were enrolled in while in the U.S. My husband’s contract pays for overseas education expenses though, so we were extremely fortunate to be able to put our kids in this school while we are living in the UK. We are not wealthy or of the “most-privileged” class, and while there are certainly families in our school that ARE, there are also many that are not — they are just average middle class families who have found a way to pay for tuition because they feel it is worth it.

      However, having now researched similar schools in the US to see whether we could afford to put our kids in a private school in the U.S., I have found that the cost of the school here is about 25% of the cost of a comparable school in D.C. or Massachusetts — the two places we could be heading when we leave this post.

      For the same price to send ALL FOUR of my kids to school here, I could send ONE in the U.S.

      Additionally, nothing about what I discussed in the post as having made the biggest difference to my kids is based on tuition or fees — it is based on how the school organizes the daily timetable.

  20. Ohmygosh, those uniforms… Love it! :D

    Looking through the comments, it seems pretty clear that the public/private school experience various tremendously across countries as well as community- to-community and state-to-state.

    As a homeschooler, the variety in the educational experience is one of those things I try to drive home to people. One homeschooler’s experience is different from another’s, and it’s the same in schools. Some people love their schools–others hate them. Some public schools are good–some are terrible.

    All that being said, you can’t beat those uniforms ;)

    || ||

  21. I would have to agree with people who have pointed it out before me, this is very unlike the schools a majority of children in Britain will have gone to. Public (private, paid) schools in Britain are getting resources and beautiful grounds due to their parents money and status, which sadly most children aren’t getting. It is also interesting to note that as many of these schools have charity status, there are no taxes on the fees they pay… continuing the circle of having less funding for normal schools.

    Having said that, I went to a comprehensive (which is what we call schools in England that are co-ed, non-religious and you don’t have to take any tests to get into) in the middle of London, which some people considered “rough” but had one of the best music depts in the country, and despite only having concrete playgrounds, tried to get us as interested in possible in sports. It had hugely diverse mix of backgrounds, religions and classes going to it and only a t-shirt for a uniform. No, it wasn’t perfect and could really have done with some more funding but we all got along great.

  22. I think the title of this post definitely opened it to more criticism.

    LDN – I am curious to know more about “charity status” for these schools. Also, I knew that “public” schools in Britain are what we consider “private” schools in the U.S. How did the term “public” come to be used to describe these schools?

  23. “Not budget related” — hahahahaha! Sorry, but that phrase, under a picture of what looks like a nobleman’s 17th C country house? Yes, absolutely, children should be more active in their school day, and ideally should experience a variety of teachers and approaches in their curriculum, but let’s be real — these kids get to go to a school that looks like Xavier’s School for Gifted Young X-men. I’m sure that helps with their overall enthusiasm for the venture. I think the author makes some good points here, but the fact is, kids at an inner-city or otherwise underfunded school often don’t have room for games, don’t have supplies for other activities, and their instructors are overworked and underappreciated. In some U.S. schools, teachers are supplying the toilet paper. I don’t begrudge the author’s children their fabulous experience, but it’s hard not to see these basic inequalities acknowledged, much less addressed.

    1. The fact that the main school building is what it is has no bearing on how the school days are organized. My kids aren’t happy because they are in a cool building (and actually, only my daughter, who is in the senior school, even has classes in that building) — they are happy because their school days and weeks are organized in a way that prioritizes the needs of kids and allows them to move around and be physically active. I can only knowledgeably write about the experiences I’ve had and my kids have had, so I can’t address the problems of schools where teachers have to supply toilet paper, nor do I think that type of situation even belongs in the same discussion as this — this is a post about how the organization of the school day benefits the children.

      1. I understand, and I know you were making personal observations, and not a sociological or economic argument. It’s a sore spot, though, because there are so many rationales out there for continuing to underfund or defund public schools, and one of them is that teachers should “do more with less.” I know you weren’t making this argument directly yourself, but I think people are sensitive to it because funding does matter, and when we don’t acknowledge it — even in the most well-meaning posts about getting kids to move more — well, it makes it easier to ignore in general.

  24. Grace McNicholas

    A teacher here from a private school iN Washington, DC. You’re comparing a public school in DC to a private school (I don’t care where it’s located). A private school is of course going to have more time for play, recess, PE, and the arts – it’s private school! It’s what you’re paying for. If you’re going to say English schools are superior at least level the playing field and compare a public to public or a private to private. What a slanted article.

    1. I can’t compare it to a private school in the U.S. because my kids did not attend a private school in the U.S. and I therefore have no knowledge of how those schools operate. I can only say that the way the school days were organized at their well-respected public school outside D.C. did not provide nearly as much activity or exercise as the school they currently attend, and I don’t think it had anything to do with how much money the school had.

  25. Hey great article as usual.
    Typical Indian schools function for 30 hours/week with holidays on weekends and play/music/arts constitute around 1 hour/day.Picnics are arranged on a regular basis where kids are accompanied by teachers.
    Lectures are of 30-60 minutes per subject and the teacher changes for different subjects.They have to sit in one classroom-the tables are fixed and the teachers come to the class.So children see around 3-6 teachers per day.Laboratory activities are mandatory in secondary school and children get to practice what they learned.Schooling is economical and there maybe subsidies & reservations for girls & economically backward people.Coaching classes are common for kids but not mandatory.
    The playtime and creative arts time is higher in more expensive schools.
    I personally feel that there needs to be an unscheduled time in schools and homes globally where the child is free to do anything…not necessarily play/paint/study…but anything…just sit quietly/sleep or anything or he/she wants to do/be.

  26. A coworker took a sabbatical in England for a year. During that year his kids attended the free neighborhood school. They experiences a lot of bullying and when they returned to the US had to repeat the year because the academics were poor at the neighborhood school. The experience described in the post sounds lovely, but do not represent all educational experiences in England.

  27. Gabrielle, I love design mom and what you do, and I love the international outlook, but I have to say every time Britain comes up here, it drives me nuts!

    I’m a Canadian living in London, and, well, this sort of private school is not only unaffordable to most people, it’s socially toxic. Private schools mean the kids of wealthy parents don’t have to mix with a diverse group of children, they take funding away from state schools (ones everyone can access), and perhaps most importantly they prop up the class system.

    British state schools are fighting for their lives right now because of funding cuts, but I can tell you, those are he schools where the really amazing stories are. They hold communities together, they make sure every kid can be anything they want, and no one is excluded because they can’t afford it.

    I’ve noticed the London homes that come up here too are beyond aspirational, into the realm of the kind of thing that only bankers or people with inherited wealth could possibly afford.

    Anyway, I hate to leave a negative comment because I really admire what you do, and I don’t usually comment, but I felt I had to say something!

  28. I’m an Assistant Headteacher at a state primary school in London. It’s true that the post describes an elite education but I would add that another inaccuracy is the way that the poster says the decision to have more sport and arts subjects have ‘nothing to do with funding or budget and everything to do with priorities’, I would argue that this is another factor which massively marks the school out as out of the ordinary. In addition to massive budget cuts in state education which are reducing the money available for arts projects, state schools in Britain are also constricted by a new, very demanding curriculum which is meant to be raising standards in English and Maths. As a result, in the eleven years that I’ve been teaching, the level of creativity in English state schools has noticeably dipped as schools struggle to get their pupils through ever more demanding tests. It’s a sad state of affairs and is definitely not represented by the 7% of children who are lucky enough to attend a private school!

    1. These are really important points – you took the words out of my mouth! My son attends a state school in Birmingham. It’s brilliant but like so many is feeling financial pressure. The National Curriculum is also a key factor – in America you don’t have this mandated at such a high level, and independent schools don’t have to follow it. State (American public) schools here are so constrained in what they can teach, and it’s down to fantastic, creative teachers (and a leadership team supporting them).

  29. Provision of variety of sports, musical and art education is ALL to do with funding here in the UK. And I suspect the same is true for the US? Goodwill and priorities take you only so far if the local council has decided to sell of your schools playing fields to property developers. Money talks.

  30. The comments to this post are as valuable as the post itself. I appreciate that Gabriel is curious about different educations and reaches out to those whose families have experienced such. Thank you for posting! And thank you to the readers who comment with their own experiences. This is why I read designmom.

  31. When I moved overseas to teach in Vienna, I took a photo of the palace at Schoenbrunn (which, by the way, was modelled on Versailles) and sent it back to my old school. I told them that this was my new school – and they believed me! I never did clear that up with them…

    Not that this has anything to do with this post, but the photo of the school/castle reminded me of that. :)

  32. Nichole Detering

    I am an American living in London and have two children at two different state (public) schools in our neighbourhood. As many have pointed out, this is not the typical experience of British schooling since few can afford £9,000/year as this schools costs. If this were a London-based school, that figure would rise to £20,000/year. My children are both in school from 9-3:30 and have two breaks throughout the day. One has large grounds to play and exercise, while the other has a teeny-tiny paved area. My older daughter attends a school with a very active and sporty ethos, while my younger one has more academic rigor, art and drama. At both schools, all activities outside of the general curriculum are under-funded and supported by the PTA. Both our children will most likely attend private secondary schools, but this will come with a huge loss in diversity, both racial and socio-economic. In summary, this post does not represent “British schooling” as only 7% of Britons attend a private school. In my experience, both British and American schools seem to be chronically under-funded, especially in arts and music. Activities levels seem to continuously cut back in favour of a more testing-based curriculum.

  33. Having attended public high school in France for a year, I liked the lack of segregation by cliques. No wall of stoners, preppies, mean girls. Just classes with students in them. We did not have uniforms. Many smoked which was disgusting and I was lucky I didn’t come home a smoker. That’s great that this woman’s kids enjoy school more, but it’s obviously gorgeous and not typical. This week I attended an amazing music performance of public school students. There is a lot of trashing of US public school these days, but there is a lot of awesomeness going on.

  34. I’m a teacher, British, teaching in Oakland, and just caught sight of this post. I had to laugh out loud! As you’re already aware, this is NOT your typical British school. I chuckle at the thought of people believing this is how we are educated in England!

    While the photo and school grounds are no doubt beautiful, such schools are reserved for those with very, VERY large sums of money and privilege.

    And lol at the Grange Hill comment. :)

  35. Gabrielle, I completely appreciate your sharing this experience of ours on your site and I am so disappointed that it was received the way it was; I can only speak to our family’s experiences, so of course this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. I have never had a child in an American private school or a British state school so I can’t speak about those systems. My children were in a public school in the U.S. that was considered one of the best counties in the country for education. The school they attend here in England isn’t even rare (we drive to other prep schools all over the place to watch our kids play sports against other schools) and it isn’t even close to the “most impressive” school we’ve seen despite having the castle as it’s central building — there have been some schools we’ve visited that put Hogwarts to shame.

    My point in writing the post was to show that a fairly simple change like increasing the activity in the school week has had a dramatic effect on my children and that is something that I absolutely believe could be duplicated in other schools. My opinion is that education reform in the US is so hotly contested and debated at such high levels — state and national — but something as easy as having the children switch classes/teachers can make a huge difference without needing an influx of money.

    No school is perfect, including the one my kids currently attend in the U.K. But insisting that any examination of ways to improve schools MUST take into account every single type of school in every single location is completely counterproductive and means that no solutions will ever be found! And to imply or outright say that our experience is based on privilege and thus essentially invalid is unfair.

    I can only write about what I know, and I KNOW that the schedule here is better than the one my kids had at our school outside D.C. My entire hope in writing this was that parents who maybe aren’t thrilled with the school their kids are at might read this and consider suggesting additional activity as step toward making improvements.

    Regardless of the outcome, though, I’m grateful that Design Mom never shies away from difficult discussions — it’s why I’ve been reading for a decade and why I’ll keep reading. XO

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience and for not shying away from comments and discussion! Just a breath of fresh and perspective and to each their own :)

  36. Wow! I loved this post and thank you for sharing your perspective and experiences. As a parent I love exploring other learning options and as we all know everyone learns and does things differently. Variety the spice of life! We all just want to the same to learn and grow. Such a lively topic of discussion :)

  37. Our 2 children had the experience studying in the elementary schools in Seattle and the state primary schools in South East England. They told us they did not enjoy the school meals in the state but they absolutely loved one particular American school because it allowed them to play on the monkey bars without much restriction :D. In general, schools in England are more structured but much less freedom. The primary schools have less test but the secondary schools are certainly teaching to exams. Last but not least, there is no retainment policy, so it is possible to have year 8 (grade 7) kids not being able to do basic times table in class.

  38. Susan Boisvert

    I live in Washington state and was fortunate enough to put my two girls though the public education system in one of the best school districts in the state. With that said, every day of high school (and to a lesser extent, middle school) was still a struggle even though they were both actively involved in one of the highest regarded music programs in the state. Throughout the school there is constant disrespect for teachers, bullying, and just general nonsense all day everyday. Kids won’t even look up from their phones in class to listen to the teachers, and the teachers have in turn given up for the most part on trying to make them stay engaged.

    This post was very enlightening about how the days are structured in English schools. But I’d like to dig deeper into the culture that is in place. Like many other parents in the US, I’m struggling to figure out why our youth are scared to go to school. I understand the argument of gun control and I believe it’s too easy to get a gun here. But while the politicians are going nuts arguing over guns and mental health, I think we’re missing an integral part of the big picture. There’s something about how our schools operate that is obviously dysfunctional. I think we need to expect more from our kids, not necessarily academically (although that may naturally follow) but in terms of generally just straightening up. I don’t know what that looks like, though, because I myself only have experience in the public school system.

    Any insight is appreciated.

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  41. Melyndia Polunas

    I’m considering letting my daughter spend a year of her high school in England. Currently she is home schooled and i thought it would btw a great experience.
    Her concern was she wouldn’t learn as much in England vs the US. Sounds like that’s not the issue.
    My husband is over protective and concerned she will be turned into a sex slave instead of going to an appropriate school. Moms, what is your option?
    Thank you- Melynda California

  42. In my school(in England) we all have to wear blazers. We have 6 lessons a day which all are 55mins long. We have a tutor lesson in the morning which is 10mins long and one in the afternoon what is 30mins long. Our dinner(lunch) is 30 mins long.We have 2 lessons of french a week. 5 lessons of science a week. 4 lessons of maths,4 lessons of english. The other lessons are history,geography,drama,art,music,photography,tech,it.
    We don’t learn much about other countries like the USA. We do history of our country and that’s about it.
    We get a least 1 bit of homework per subject each week.
    Just thought I would let you know what it’s like in England.

  43. From someone who has done the reverse move (a British independent school to and one of the best American public elementary schools) I completely agree with your preference of the British system. As people have quite rightly said it is not an apples to apples comparison, however even the state (public) British schools have far more physical activity incorporated into their daily routine. The schools lunches are delicious and the level of knowledge is much more depth. My child who started second grade here was being taught things he had covered two years prior in reception. I am sure the American private system would be on par with the schools back home however this is currently out of our reach. I for one cannot wait to get back to England!

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