While the US and the UK are both modern, western world countries with excellent educational facilities, there are many differences between their education systems.

One of the most important differences to understand about the differences with US and UK schools is that while both countries use English as their official language, there are some differences in key terms.

Public vs private school in the UK

The terms ‘public’ and ‘private school’ often cause confusion, for both Americans and the British. In the UK, public and private schools are fee paying, with the difference really owing to their history and formation.

Public schools take their name from that fact that they would have provided education to the public and taxes would not have been paid on fees, usually because of a charitable status.

Private schools, on the other hand, whilst still fee paying schools tend to less well known but usually require passing an entrance exam to attend.


In the UK, ‘school’ really relates to the traditional compulsory education and typically ranges from age 5 to 16. It is worth mentioning that in the UK, education or training is compulsory until age 18, but this doesn’t have to be at a school.

One significant and very visual difference with education in the UK is that almost all (90%+) of schools require school uniforms to be worn, giving each school a specific identity and formal nature, rarely encountered in the US.

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These compulsory years are known as years 1 to 11 in the UK and follow a standard national curriculum, with the most significant options for choosing subjects at around age 14, or year 10. Years 1 to 6 are known as primary education, and years 7 to 11 are known as secondary education.

What is sixth form?

Beyond year 11 in the UK is year 12 and year 13. These are known as ‘6th form’ and are not compulsory. Subjects studied during these two years can be completed at a school which also offers the earlier years of study or at a college, which is typically called a 6th form college.

Some students will have the choice of staying at their current school to complete 6th form, whereas others may have to choose a college to study for the next two years of academia.

College – not university

The term ‘college’ in the UK really applies to higher education such as 6th form (years 12 + 13) of school, as well as institutions that may offer short courses and evening classes.

It isn’t recognised as referring to higher education such as a UK university. School also is kept specific to primary, secondary and 6th form education, and isn’t used to refer to a university.

Key stages

As well as each year group being numbered from 1 to 11, the British national curriculum also has four main milestones in educational assessment. These are defined as ‘key stages’.

  • Key stage 1 occurs at the end of year 2 and includes teacher assessments for English, mathematics and science.
  • Key stage 2 occurs at the end of year 6, where the transition from primary to secondary education also takes place. This key stage includes teacher assessments and national tests in English, mathematics and science.
  • Key stage 3 is teacher assessed at the end of years 7, 8 and 9, typically in English, mathematics and science.
  • Key stage 4 covers both years 10 and 11, with national exams for General Certificates of Secondary Education, known as GCSE’s.

Schools in the UK are inspected, and regulated by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, known as Ofsted. This regulatory board often inspects schools to ensure performance targets are met.

The actual curriculum taught in the UK is known as the national curriculum and teaches many different subjects throughout the school years. These include:

English School Subjects

Physical educationGeography
Art & designDesign & technology
CitizenshipModern foreign languages

Most schools also teach religious education and sex education.

UK academic year

Another key difference is the academic year and school holidays. While in the US, there are usually two semesters, in the UK, the academic year is broken down into 3 terms. The school year in the UK typically runs from early September until the middle of July, with a key difference of a 3-week break around Easter.

This also means that students in primary and secondary school in the UK are in school until mid-July, whereas students in the US have a longer summer break, beginning in May/June and ending in August/September.

In the United States, the term private school tends to apply to a fee paying school, whereas a public school is state funded, which is directly comparable to a maintained school in the UK.