I realized that I haven’t fully talked about the kids’ school here in England. I’ve certainly touched on the fact that it is very different than the school system we came from, but I want to explain how it’s different and what we love about it.
All the kids go to the same school, but it encompasses three separate entities: Quinn is in what is called the “Lower Prep” school — ages 4-6. Owen and Gabe are in the “Upper Prep” — ages 7-10. Bridget is in the Senior school — age 11 through graduation.
In England, full-day school begins at age four in Reception, which is the equivalent to American kindergarten (just a year earlier, obviously). Because school starts a year earlier here, all my kids skipped a number grade: Gabe is in Year 4 (not third grade), Owen is in Year 3 (instead of second grade), and Quinn actually skipped the equivalent to kindergarten and went straight into Year 1. Bridget, rather than being in the oldest grade in the school like she would have been in sixth grade in the States, went into the first year of high school and is instead in the youngest grade.
There are so many things that set this school apart from what we’re used to, but today I just want to talk about the differences in the Upper Prep where Gabe and Owen are — I think the differences here are the most easily visible and easily described.
This post is a long one, but it’s really important to me — keep reading to find our how elementary school in the States is different from the Prep school the kids attend here in England.
The difference I notice most at this level of schooling is the independence and accountability put on the students from a young age. Beginning in Owen’s class — Year 3 (American grade 2) — the kids switch classes for all their subjects. The school day starts in their “homeroom”, but they don’t remain with their main teacher for the whole day — they have a different teacher for almost every subject. The class stays together throughout the day, but they move from room to room, and when the bell rings between classes, no teacher walks them through the halls — they get where they are supposed to be on their own and they are expected to act responsibly in the hallways between classes.
The children are held to a high standard in terms of school work, behavior, and general personal responsibility. The teachers are all encouraging and positive and give lots of praise, but they also tell students (and their parents) in no uncertain terms when something isn’t up to par. The students are then expected to address and fix the issue. I absolutely noticed a difference in my kids — especially Gabe — within a few weeks of school starting. Because he was given more independence and responsibility, he acted more independently and responsibly.
The children also take MORE subjects, but they don’t have every subject every day. For example, Owen and Gabe each take English, Math, Geography, Spelling, Science, History, French or Spanish, Music, Art, Drama, Shop Class, Religious Studies, Computers, P.E., Swimming, and Games. The core classes all meet several times a week, but the other classes may meet only once a week or once every few weeks. For instance, they each have English three times a week, but they only have Shop Class once a week, and they only have Swimming once every other week.
Right off the bat, you can see that the subject matter is different than what you’d see in an American elementary school. Drama is a core subject taught weekly from age seven up through high school and the class plays and performances have been frequent and extremely well-done. Shop class rotates through a few topics (sewing/stitching, wood shop, some cooking I think) — but in the first term, Owen, at age seven, was literally using hand saws independently in class to cut wood pieces and make a picture frame. Foreign languages start at age four and continue through high school. Swimming is part of the curriculum and is a separate class from P.E.
“Games” is essentially sports practice, because beginning in Year 3 (again, at age seven), the children play sports for their school against other schools. Each season is a different sport, but all the boys in the grade play it — fall is soccer (football), winter is hockey (field hockey), spring is cricket. (The girls sports are field hockey, netball, and rounders.) The children are split onto A, B, C, and D teams and play against the corresponding teams from other primary school throughout the season. The practice times and many of the actual matches take place during the school day. I love this so much for several reasons: first, having practice during the school day means we don’t have practices in the evenings like we did in America. Instead of getting home from school and having to get ready for baseball at 5:30 or 6PM (that wouldn’t end until 7:30 or 8PM, even on a school night!), when we get home, we’re done for the day. Second, the kids feel more pride and more loyalty to the school because they are representing the school in their games. It creates a sense of belonging that goes far beyond the classroom.
There is also MUCH MORE physical activity built into the school day than there was in our school in the States. I don’t think the children ever get antsy or stifled from lack of movement, which is a nice change! In addition to the fact that they walk between classes several times a day, there are a few breaks where the kids can just play outside. Before the school bell in the morning, Gabe and Owen and all the other boys in their grades play a modified soccer game with a tennis ball on the basketball court behind the school. There’s another twenty minute break after the end of second period. During lunch (which lasts for 65 minutes and is cooked fresh in the school kitchen every single day!) the kids play outside when their class is not eating. There are also more physically-focused classes in their schedules. For example, Gabe has ninety minutes of swimming every other Tuesday, sixty minutes of P.E. every Wednesday, and ninety minutes of games every Thursday AND Friday.
I also noticed that there are more male teachers at their school than I’ve ever seen in an elementary school. Between the two elementary schools my kids attended in America that included at least 30-40 teachers in EACH school at a minimum, I can only think of four male teachers: one was a 4th grade teacher, one was a music teacher, and two of them were P.E. teachers. (Maybe I’m forgetting some, but I really can’t think of any others.) Here, there are five male teachers I can think of right off the top of my head out of probably half as many total teachers. It’s good for all the children to see that teaching is not a “woman’s job”.
The other big difference that I’ve noticed is that because the students switch classes, almost all the teachers know all the kids and therefore there is more of a sense of community at the school. The two grades that Gabe and Owen are in — Years 3 and 4 — are sort of “paired” and ALL the teachers in those two grades basically teach ALL the kids in those two grades in something.
Each teacher also teaches multiple subjects: Gabe has Owen’s homeroom teacher for Spanish, Owen has her for English and Science. They have the same teacher for art and drama and music. The art teacher also teaches Owen’s computer class this term. Gabe’s homeroom teacher was Owen’s shop class teacher first term. Gabe has her for English and Spelling. I would love to see the teachers’ schedules — it sounds confusing, but it all works and it never seems to get messed up. The Headmaster and the Deputy Headmaster (Principal and Assistant Principal) also teach classes occasionally, which seems really cool to me; I’m sure they get to know the students on a more personal basis because they are involved with them in the classroom.
In short, I think the students here are given more independence and responsibility, take more subjects and get to know more teachers and teaching styles, have more physical exercise and break time on a daily basis, and have a stronger sense of belonging to the school because of the way the sports are organized.
I know I’ve written a novel, but education is a hot topic for me, and the school here has been one of the biggest differences in all our lives. We didn’t have too many complaints about the schools we were in in D.C., but we also didn’t have much to compare to — it was all we knew. Now that we’ve seen a different model, I have a lot more opinions on the way things are done at schools back home. I really, truly love the way the kids are being taught here and I love the way the school integrates sports and the arts and language into the curriculum. So far, there have been no downsides to the school, and we feel so lucky to be able to send the kids here even for just a short time.
Obviously, because this is a private school with fairly expensive tuition, it’s hard to compare it to a public school. But the thing is, many of the parts we love about this school have nothing to do with money — things are simply organized differently and a different educational model is being used. We’ve actually looked into similar schools in America, just to see what options we might have when we leave here, and any school that seems even closely comparable costs about twice as much as the school here. It makes me wonder how the money is allocated and what they do differently here. How could this model be applied other places?
What do you think — would you like school sports during the school day? French class for 4-year olds? I’d love to hear your opinions!
Also, I wrote about my feelings on school uniforms here.