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11 July 2006

Scotland and the US. Educational systems compared

I'm currently in Scotland and looking around for a new job. I'd even look as far as going to the US, having been offered a job there once before. However, although the US might be great for my career, I'm not so sure it would be great for my kid's education if the family were to go there too. They are aged 2, 4 and 6 and when the schools resume from the summer break in the middle of August, the eldest will be in P3, the middle one in P1 and the youngest will be old enough for playgroup.

Now that my children are all going to be in school for the first time, I thought it would be useful to revisit the different educational systems. My own background is that I went to school in Dunblane; a fairly wealthy small historic town in southern Perthshire (home to tennis star Andy Murray) and during that time went on a school exchange to Rochester, Minnesota (a fairly wealthy Midwest US town, home to the Mayo Clinic and a large number of medical professionals). So I guess the two towns had a broadly similar social background.

For these purposes I'm going to focus on state education, i.e. education paid entirely out of taxes, wherever possible.

I cover the Scottish educational system in greater depth in the soc.culture.scottish FAQ but in this article I will focus more on the comparison with the US. I would also recommend the children in Scotland site.

OK, let's begin.

In Scotland, although there is private nursery care available for babies, the state educational system begins with the first term after the child has reached 30 months. This is playgroup level and many playgroups receive financial assistance from the local council. In this setting, the child is only in the playgroup for a half-day session (2.5 hours) and this costs approx £3.25 per session. Anything over and above this, including lunch, would need to be via a private playgroup or nursery. Children aged 2-3 typically attend 3 sessions a week.

Aged 3, all children are eligible for a free nursery place. 81% of children take up a place at this age and almost 100% of four year olds take up a place, figures here.

Nursery offers a slightly more mature learning environment to playgroup although both are based around structured play. Nursery slots are typically 2.5 hours. My children would attend 5 morning sessions or 4 afternoon sessions as the schools here close at Friday lunchtime. At nursery level, my children were introduced to French. Gaelic medium education is also available in Scotland free of charge for anyone near a unit; these are spread throughout most of the country.

Compulsory education begins with Primary 1. The academic cut off is about mid February. That is, when the children start primary 1 they have to be 5 years old by the February following the August intake. P1 represents a more desks and chairs layout with the tables set out in groups, as opposed to nursery, which has a less formal setting more geared towards play. Children attend primary school for 7 years. The academic year, which continues up to the end of high school, is 40 weeks - generally 7 weeks holiday in the summer, one week in October; 2 over Christmas and 2 at Easter. The school day begins about 9am and finishes between around 3pm (P1-P2) and 3:30pm (P3-P7). Friday the school finishes about 12:30pm. There is a 15-minute break in the morning (Mon-Fri) and about an hour-long break for lunch (Mon-Thu). Exact figures will vary school to school, but for my local school this works out at about 21 hours per week for P1-P2 and 25 hours for P3 to P7, or about 1000 teaching hours a year for P3 to P7.

High school or secondary school (S1-S6) follows on from P7. S1-S4 is compulsory; most pupils elect to stay on until S5 where they obtain the qualifications necessary for university entrance. By the end of S5, the pupils are aged 16 or 17 with about a 50/50 split. Thus it is quite possible to go to university aged 16. I stayed on for an extra year in school for a more vocational year and was still only 17 when I started university. High school also comprises about 1,000 teaching hours a year. Typical times on top of this for homework would be S1/2 5 hrs, S3/4 7.5 hrs and S5/6 10 hrs per week.

The length of a university course for most subjects is 3 years for an ordinary degree, four years for honours with nearly everyone doing the full four years.

Following on from this, a Masters degree is one year full time and a Ph.D approx. three years full time. Doing an MBA straight from an undergraduate degree is not encouraged.

Thus a typical Scottish student who is studying at an "international" (postgraduate) level at a major university and has gone straight from school would be between 16-18 when starting university, 21-23 when completing a Masters Degree and 23-25 when completing a Ph.D.

Turning now to the US. Some terminology: Nursery in Scotland is called Kindergarten in the US. Playgroup in Scotland is called pre-school in the US. Public school in the US is taxpayer funded. The term public school in Scotland is not generally used, however in England it means private (fee paying) schools. Throughout the US system, an 8am start is more usual than in Scotland where it is 9am, however the academic day finishes earlier in the US.

With a typical age of 5-6 of US Kindergarten, this corresponds roughly to P2 in Scotland. With Typically mandatory education begins in the US with 1st grades, although it may begin at kindergarten. Thus mandatory education starts a 1-2 years later in the US than it does in Scotland.

Moving along, the US typically starts middle school in 6th grade. This is ages 11-12 and represents the first year at which pupils have different subjects and classes each day rather than spending most of the time with the same teacher. I was 11 when I went to High School. Thus the US system has 3 (middle school) plus 4 (high school) years of subject-based education, the Scottish system has 5 or 6.

My own experience is mostly around early High School as I attended US school in the freshman year - this corresponded to the Scottish S3. I Attended 2 different US High Schools across a 3 week period and across all subjects it was quite clear that in every academic subject the Scottish curriculum was approx 2 years ahead of its US counterpart. Remember, this is comparing state schools in two broadly similar wealthy towns. In all subjects except US History my knowledge exceeded the US pupils (and also sport, given that I had no prior experience of US football, baseball etc). The other observation is that my High school in Scotland had no study periods until S6 whereas the US High Schools I went to had study periods at each year, thus there was much less class contact in the US. This gap widens further when you consider the academic year that is about 5 weeks shorter in the US, mostly due to the 3-month summer break there as opposed to 6-8 weeks in Scotland. This 17-week holiday that US students enjoy is 15 weeks more than they receive when they begin employment. In the UK, the difference is only 5 weeks (12-7). The other alarming difference I noticed when I was there is the presence of a flag and pledging allegiance to it each day. Such a practice anywhere else outside of the former Eastern Bloc would be roundly laughed at.

The US, possibly as a result of the above factors, ranks below average in science and mathematics understanding for a Western country. The poor performance has pushed public and private efforts such as the No Child Left Behind Act. This is also reflected in postgraduate education where a US Masters degree typically takes 2 full academic years. In Scotland it is one full time year. PhDs vary considerably in length on both sides of the Atlantic and also vary in terms of subject however people in Scotland try to do a PhD in 3 years and sometimes take a little longer. In the US it seems more open and may take 3-6 years.

The longer US Masters probably reflects the fact that at this more international level the two systems are finally in step although in achieving this parity, at the end of a US Masters degree the student would typically be 24, whereas in Scotland they could be as young as 21 with the same qualification. The other significant factor is the for UK citizens Vs US citizens, the cost of a university education does seem to be higher in the US although costs vary considerably. The difference between the top US universities and the others is considerably wider fee wise than the corresponding universities in the UK.
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