10 Fascinating Differences Between British Schools and Schools Abroad

Image shows a row of Union Jacks on flagpoles.

The impression given around the world of what British schools are really like can vary widely.

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There’s the Enid Blyton view, of mischievous schoolgirls sneaking out of boarding schools for midnight feasts. There’s the Harry Potter view, of arcane rituals and odd desserts. And at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the impression given by TV series such as The Inbetweeners, of low-level anarchy and not much learning going on. The reality is more mundane. And yet it can be hard to explain exactly where the differences lie in going to school in one country rather than another unless you’ve experienced it – and many students who move schools regularly will be shifting between different international schools, which have their own distinct culture, separate from that of the country within which they are located.
As a result, we’ve looked at how schools in the UK differ from their counterparts in other countries, from the big, noticeable differences to the small, ordinary things that might nonetheless startle you when you first make the switch.

1. British school students usually wear uniforms

Image shows a group of British school pupils in bottle-green uniforms.
Green is a surprisingly popular colour for school uniforms.

This is probably the most noticeable, and most remarked-upon, difference between British schools and the majority of their counterparts abroad. While students in most other countries can wear more-or-less what they want, students in Britain are usually required to wear something that looks a little like cabin crew uniform as designed by someone who really, really hates flying. More traditional schools will have blazers and ties (with different ties or pins for students who have won awards or succeeded in sports), while more modern schools might only insist on a polo shirt or sweatshirt with neutral trousers.
What’s the point of uniform? Conspiracy theorists suggest that it serves to suppress students’ individuality and create a herd mentality, and seen more positively, there’s perhaps something in that, in that wearing the same things encourages school spirit of a kind. More importantly, it cuts down on distinctions between students from different backgrounds that might otherwise cause tension; it’s harder to show off your wealth when everyone’s wearing a uniform. And while some teachers complain that they spend a disproportionate amount of time telling students off for issues with their uniform (untucked shirts, missing ties, customised blazers…), others observe that students with a rebellious streak are much better off taking it out on their uniforms than on their teachers, school property or their classmates.

2. Almost everything you need for school is provided for you

Image shows a pile of exercise books.
As the school provides your exercise books, woe betide you if you lose one.

In Germany, a crucial part of the back-to-school routine is the great stationery shop, where students buy stacks of brightly-coloured exercise books to call their own. In the UK, it’s somewhat different. Students are expected to buy their own bags, uniform (as well as sports kit) and pens and pencils, but that’s all. Textbooks and exercise books are provided by the school, for free. For the first three years of primary school, all students get free school lunches as well. Whether this seems generous or stingy will depend on which school system you’re used to.
With everyone wearing the same uniform and using the same textbooks and exercise books, it’s certainly the case that school students in the UK can be a more homogeneous group that in other countries – what can be different is that in the UK, each school will have its own distinct identity and branding, so while all students from that school will be dressed the same and using the same materials, they could also be quite distinct from the school just down the road.

3. You start school at 5, or younger

Image shows a young child reading.
Children start school relatively young in the UK.

Schools in the UK differ from many countries in Europe in that students start semi-formal education at the age of 5 or younger (with students frequently starting in September of the school year in which they will turn 5). This isn’t structured learning with memorisation and whiteboards – there’s a lot of colouring-in and storytime – but students are nonetheless expected to manage a school day from 9am until 3.30pm or thereabouts.
The complexities of the British school system, with its mixture of state and private schools, is also reflected in the division of ages later on. In state schools, it’s the norm to attend primary school until the age of 11, and then to go on to secondary school. In private schools, the first school is referred to as prep school rather than primary school, which you don’t leave until the age of 13. A final possible division is that at the age of 16, some students leave their secondary school and go to a sixth form college for the last two years of their education; these last two years, known as the sixth form, are usually quite distinct from the rest even in secondary schools that educate their students up to the age of 18.

4. A school day lasts from 9 until around 3.30

Image shows a school clock at 3.35pm.
Hometime for British students.

The length and timings of a school day can vary considerably around the world. A Brazilian school day might start at 7am but end at noon. Chinese school days can be very long, from 7.30am to 5pm or even later. French school days last longer than British ones, running from 8am to 4pm – but that includes two hours for lunch. British school days start around 9am, usually with a 15 minute break mid-morning, and an hour for lunch.
There are a wide variety of implications from a shorter or longer day, such as how much time parents will have to take to look after their children, or whether it’s normal for children to go home for lunch, or help out with a family business in the afternoon, or the level of extra-curriculars or free time it’s usual for school students to enjoy during the school week. In the UK, the majority of families have both parents working, and it’s unusual for students to work during the week, though many students have weekend jobs.

5. It’s very unusual to repeat a year

Image shows a school class.
Students in the same class are likely to all be the same age.

One way in which the British school system differs considerably from that of other countries is that it is virtually unknown for students to repeat a year. While in other countries, a student who hasn’t got up to the required level in a particular school year will simply be required to do the whole thing again in the company of a new set of classmates a year younger than them, in Britain this is exceptionally rare, and usually only happens in fringe cases at the primary school level (such as in the case of a student born in August who would have been in the year below had they been born in September).
More normal is for a particularly bright student to be moved up a year, so that they will be among classmates who are a year older than them. This is still relatively rare – so the majority of the time, you can expect to be in a class filled exclusively with people who are the same age in a British school.

6. Individual schools are unusually autonomous

Image shows a school in Bristol.
Two different state schools, even within the same local authority, are likely to be quite distinct from one another.

In many countries across the world, most of the ways in which state schools are run is dictated to them by an external body, such as a local or state-level authority.
This isn’t the case in the UK. While all schools are required to follow the national curriculum, an individual school has the freedom to decide which exam boards it will use, which optional subjects it will teach (e.g. which languages), whether it will have a uniform and what sort of uniform that will be, which foreign exchanges it puts in place, how it spends its budget on things like new buildings and facilities, the exact mechanism it uses for selecting students if it’s oversubscribed and all decisions to do with hiring and firing staff. Recently introduced new types of schools, called free schools and academies, have even more individual flexibility than this.
The main consequence for students is that two schools in the same area with a similar sort of intake can in fact be quite different depending on the choices made by the headteacher and the school’s governing body; and a new headteacher can also make some quite significant changes to a school.

7. Teachers are treated respectfully, but don’t earn respect by default

Image shows a teacher at a whiteboard.
The expectations pupils and teachers have of one another aren’t necessarily the same in the UK as elsewhere.

Compared to some parts of the world, the teacher/student relationship in the UK is quite informal. While it’s still the norm in the vast majority of British schools that teachers are addressed by title and surname – and in most they will also be called “Sir” and “Miss” as convenient shorthand – other conventional trappings of respect are less common. For instance, only the most old-fashioned teacher will expect the class to stand up when they enter a room. The class will be expected to be quiet and pay attention when the teacher is speaking, but if the teacher makes a factual mistake of some kind, someone in the class will point it out.
Whether respectful behaviour is based on genuine feelings of respect is a different question. Unlike in some countries, British students are unlikely to be deferential of their teachers outside the classroom unless the teacher has earned their respect (which most do). So it can be quite usual for students to spend a break time talking among themselves about how a particular teacher is lacking in ability, authority or dress sense – but to be respectful, quiet and disciplined in that teacher’s class all the same. While some countries take the idea that a teacher is in loco parentis to be all-important, in the UK the relationship between teacher and pupil is more like that between a boss and an employee: when they aren’t around, they might be criticised, but their instructions will still be obeyed.

8. You study fewer subjects than in many other countries

Image shows a calculator and a workbook.
A student planning on studying Engineering might take only Maths, Further Maths and Physics A-levels.

At the start of secondary school, a British student might study a dozen subjects: English, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geography, History, Religious Studies, Art, Computing, Technology, Physical Education and one or two languages. At the age of 14-15, this would drop down to the core subjects of English, Mathematics and the sciences, plus another three or four of the rest. So far, so in line with most other countries.
However, at the age of 16-17 – the start of the sixth form, students taking A-levels (the most popular school leaving exams in the UK) usually take a mere three or four subjects entirely of their own choice – so after the age of 16, they could focus entirely on sciences, and never study humanities again, or vice versa. The consequence is to make students choose an overall academic path much sooner than they do elsewhere, and to give them an education that is much more deep than broad.

9. Students are encouraged to speak up and share their opinions

Image shows a student volunteering in class.
British classrooms are seldom silent.

The traditional Victorian image of students sitting in rows in front of a blackboard, patiently writing down everything that their stern teacher says, doesn’t much resemble a modern British school. For one thing, teachers aim to keep their lessons lively and varied, but more importantly, students speaking up and having their opinions heard is considered a major part of the educational process. So you might just as often see students sitting around working in groups and discussing a task with one another, or with their desks in rows facing one another for a debate. If everyone is facing the board, they’re as likely to be listening to a presentation given by one of their classmates as they are to be listening to a teacher.
This means that creativity and individual thought are key features of British classrooms; if a textbook has an error, British students will not hesitate to point it out. Memorisation of facts is kept to a minimum in favour of more active styles of learning. This may be partly why language-learning in the UK is falling, as that requires a kind of memorisation that British students don’t often practise; but it also gives British students a flexible, creative approach to learning.

10. There’s usually something to do after school

Image shows school pupils in band practice.
There are often a lot of opportunities for musicians at school.

British schools have increasingly been required to do more than simply teach their students the national curriculum and then throw them out into the world. The school day proper may run from 9am to 3.30pm or thereabouts, but many schools have breakfast clubs from 8am or earlier (to accommodate students with parents who work full-time) and after-school clubs that might run until 4.30 or 5pm. Choirs will practise during lunchtimes and after school; there is after-school sports practice; and there may even be the option of picking up an extra qualification with after-school lessons.
These kinds of school-based extra-curriculars, which are usually cheap if not free, are a normal part of British school life, and most students will be involved in one or more of them as a matter of course. While British schools don’t get involved in their students’ home lives as much as in other countries (for instance, if a teacher phones a student’s parents, it’s almost always because that student has misbehaved very badly), the same is not true in the other direction, as schools become not just a place of structured education, but a kind of community hub for all those who attend them.
Do you have experience of how British schools differ from those in other countries around the world? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Image credits: banner; uniform; exercise books; young child; clock; class; school; teacher; Maths; volunteering; band.