Tag Archives: British schools

Thoughts on Schools and Education

hooray for school

To me, education is the foundation upon which a successful society is built.  A good education offers benefits you can’t always truly measure, and a bad education or a lack of education can limit a person for their entire lives.

I feel strongly that a quality public education is a right, not a privilege, and I believe that public schools have the potential to provide that if they are properly funded and if they rely on an organizational method and curriculum that is designed specifically to serve the children as the #1 priority.  I do not, however, think that this is always how schools are run. 

It’s unfortunate, because I think that the widespread existence of poor and mediocre public schools is what causes parents to seek alternatives for their kids, which I fully understand and believe is admirable — my priority as a parent is that my children get the very best education possible.  But that leads to parents enrolling their children in charter schools or private schools which then causes money to be diverted away from the public schools, which then causes those schools to become less and less effective.  It’s a bad cycle.

I’ve probably already said it one million times, but the thing that has had the single biggest impact on our lives since moving to England is the kids’ new school.  By far and away the school has had the most positive affect on all our lives, more than any of the other changes and experiences we’ve had.

When we lived in D.C., my kids went to public school.  We liked our schools a lot; there were dedicated teachers and nice classrooms and everything was just fine.  We felt like the kids were getting a pretty good education, although we definitely had complaints.  The kids really didn’t LOVE school, but I thought that was normal — what kids LOVE school???

Here in England though, my kids go to an Independent school (which would be called a private school in the U.S.) and it has been eye-opening.  Because here, my kids actually, seriously LOVE school.  The school days are absolutely designed with children in mind — as I’ve said, there’s far, far more activity in their days and weeks — and the school community is really strong.  There are tons of extracurricular activities, they have far more responsibility and independence, and school here is just FUN.  Because they look forward to going to school now, they are getting better grades and learning more than they ever did before we moved.  There’s no downside.

Frankly, though, they only go to this school because Matt’s company pays for it — it costs more than we could probably realistically afford on our own.  Although having now seen what a difference it makes in all our lives, I would bend over backwards to try to provide this to them if his company didn’t pay.  What’s more discouraging is that the school here actually costs about HALF as much as a comparable school in America, so it would be even harder to make it work when we move back home.  It’s really, really disheartening to think of eventually leaving this school and going back to the way things were before.

But, on the bright side, I don’t think that the things that make our school in England so amazing are actually based on the school’s budget.  The way the days are organized and the focus on what’s best for the children in terms of scheduling, curriculum, activity, and community have very little to do with funding and very much to do with priorities.  All of what we love about our school here is achievable without spending almost any extra money, to be honest.

I don’t have solutions for everything that ails so many public schools in the U.S., but I do have some pretty strong ideas now about how small changes could be made that have nothing to do with money that would make any school – every school – a better experience for a vast majority of the students.  And I think that’s a goal worth working toward.  In fact, I’m writing a book about it.

I’d love to hear what you like and don’t like about the schools your kids attend, what types of schools they are, and your thoughts on everything I’ve said about our school here.  And please, if you work in education, share your views from that perspective.  Or if you know anyone who does, please share this post with them.  The more points of view I can learn about, the better!

As parents, we all have a strong interest in doing what’s best for our kids, and improving schools can only help us all.  Change often starts at a grassroots level…let’s get the ball rolling.

A School Update: Sports, Sports, Sports

g-house-x-country-y5

We went into this school year with far less anxiety than last year and even more anticipation, if that’s even possible.  The school here has quite simply become the thing we love most about living in England, much to my surprise. And while I certainly thought the school looked amazing before we moved, the kids love it even more than I do (which is a lot).  About two weeks into this past summer break, Gabe remarked that he wished summer weren’t so long because school is so fun.  When a 10-yr old boy says that, you know you’ve got a good thing going.

The thing is, the kids love school because school here IS fun, in large part because they get to play sports during the school day almost every day of the week.  And what’s not to love about that?

o-x-country-meet-y4

As I’ve said before, there is far more activity built into the school day and week here than the kids had in the States.  Twice a week for 90-minutes each, Gabe and Owen have a Games lesson, which is essentially sports practice for whatever the sport is that season (and that is in addition to the hour of P.E. they have every week, too).  Right now we’re in football (soccer) season.  In addition to the three hours per week they spend in games lessons, they also each have football club after school once a week for another hour.  Plus they play games against teams from other schools every few weeks. 

Quinn, in Year 2, also has Games once a week this year, which is basically the most exciting thing EVER if you ask his opinion.  He shares every little detail of his lessons with me when I pick him up on a Monday afternoon.  What a difference it makes in all my boys’ attitudes about school to have a bit more sport thrown into their days.

In addition to football (soccer), all the kids in the school have a one hour swim lesson every week.  Both Gabe and Owen are on the school swim team, so they also have after school swim practice once a week and a swim meet against another school just about every other week.

And, on top of all that, the school also has a cross-country team that competes against other schools periodically throughout the year.  Gabe and Owen are both on the team, and Owen came in 2nd in his last meet out of a field of 72 kids!  And then, as if that weren’t enough activity, there is a school-wide cross-country race once a term in which every child participates. 

q-x-country-y2

It almost sounds like with all this sport, there’s barely enough time to be in class, but the truth is, it’s spread out so nicely over the course of the week and throughout the terms that it creates just the right balance of school work and physical activity.  It means that, instead of dreading going to school, my boys actively look forward to it.

In which case, I say: Long live school sports! 

(Also, I feel like I should add that all of these activities are at no additional cost — they are simply part of the school program!  You know what’s EVEN BETTER than sports for kids?  FREE SPORTS FOR KIDS!)


Also, here are the main differences between our American and British schools, and here’s why I love school uniforms!


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Did You Miss Me?

climbing the eiffel tower

Climbing the Eiffel Tower!

I didn’t set out last month to take a blogging break, but that’s what happened.  Nothing major occurred, just a lot of everyday stuff that took precedence.  Life is busy this time of the year and something had to give.  Hopefully I’m back up and running now.

This has been a month of chilly, wet weather, cricket matches, a bit of travel, and lots of end-of-the-year school events.

We traveled to Paris for three days, which was…interesting.  I’ll go into more details later, but let’s just say that not every trip can go smoothly.

Bridget had her final exams in school — although she’s only in the equivalent of American 6th grade, they had the whole month of May homework-free in order to study.  Then she had an exam week right before Memorial Day and took a total of something like sixteen exams; it was remarkably similar to a finals week in American high school, except with MORE tests than I ever remember taking in one week.  It was intense.  Although she had a few freak-outs over the course of the month, overall she handled the added responsibility just as she has handled everything else throughout the rest of this school year: with remarkable maturity and impressive organization.  She ACED the exams, coming back with the 3rd highest overall exam average in her year.  To say I am proud of this child would be a laughable understatement.

The children had an awards day at each of their schools.  Bridget earned the Academic Achievement award for her class.  Gabriel was given the “Most Improved” award, and Quinn received the Effort award.  Matt and I were basically popping with pride.  I think Owen felt a bit badly that he didn’t get any awards, but we assured him that we were proud of him anyway (and possibly may have reminded him that he has to actually, consistently, put his best effort in if he wants to be rewarded in school).  The awards ceremonies were followed by champagne and canapes at the Castle (which, remember, is the central building of the school). ‘Cause that’s how we roll here.  American schools are going to feel so lame after this.

west lawn cocktails

The British spring has been grey and cold, but the sun is shining this week and it finally feels like the end of the school year is nigh and summer might be here.  Our last day is July 6th, obviously late by U.S. standards, but a full two weeks earlier than British state schools.  I am looking forward to summer vacation.  I’m looking forward to a more relaxed schedule, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing.


Also, I may be busy, but at least I’m not 20+ hours-per-week-at-the-baseball-field-busy


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School Differences: Classroom Time vs. Non-classroom Time

O xcountry meet

Since the beginning of the new school year last September, Matt and I have discussed many times how much the children seem to be learning — as I said before, they have quite a few more subjects in their schedules, and they are expected to work hard and really do their best.  But we’ve also noted how much happier the kids are about school here.  They are, all four of them, simply more invested and engaged and they ENJOY school more than ever before. 

Why, I wondered, are my kids so much happier about school here when they seem to have more work than ever before? 

The answer, I strongly believe, lies in the way the school day is structured: there is significantly more activity and movement built into their days and weeks here than in their average school week in America.

The current school day for Gabe and Owen lasts 7 hours — from 8:50AM to 3:50PM each day.  The school day in our American school lasted 6h 40m — from 8:40AM to 3:20PM.  (This year, though, the county where we lived extended the school day by 15 minutes and the days there now last 6h 55m, so really the school days are about the same length.)

Each day here, the children have two 10-minute homeroom periods — one at the beginning and and end of each day.  They also have a 10-minute “registration” period just after lunch to take attendance and make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be.  Each morning after homeroom, there is a 20-minute school-wide assembly.  There is a 20-minute break after second period when the kids just go outside and play.  The lunch/recess period lasts 65 minutes.  In addition, the students change classes multiple times throughout the day, so they walk between classes across the school.  That all adds up to at least 135 minutes (2h 15m) of non-instructional hours in each seven hour school day, most of which are physically active times when the kids are walking, running, or playing. 

Through the course of the 35-hour school week, that adds up to 11.25 hours NOT spent sitting in a seat in class.  Only 4.75 hours are spent sitting in class each day, and of those hours, some of them are in PE and Games and Art and Music.

Here’s 7- year old Owen’s timetable (British Year 3, equivalent to American 2nd grade) so you can see how the day is structured (this schedule doesn’t include the 10-minutes of homeroom at the beginning and end of each day):

Owen timetable

The kids here have 60 minutes of PE every week AND 180 minutes of Games (sports practice, which I explained in my last post about schools here) every week.  They have 90 minutes of Swimming every other week. They have 60 minutes of Art and 60 minutes of Music every week.  They also have 60 minutes of Design Technology (DT) each week, which is essentially Home Ec and rotates between sewing, cooking, and shop class.  That adds up to another 7h 45m per week of physical activity, bringing the total number of hours of physically-related activities up to 19 hours out of 35 available in the school week.  (And yes, I count Art and Music and DT as physical activities — those are classes based on movement and development of gross and fine motor skills.)

In our school in the States, lunch lasted 30 minutes and recess was 20 minutes.  The kids only moved between classes a few times a day: to go to and from lunch/recess and to go to specials like PE, Art, and Music.  On average, the kids had 100 minutes of PE, 100 minutes of Music, and 60 minutes of Art each week.  There were occasional assemblies, but not daily, school-wide gatherings.  Sometimes the kids had more physical-related lessons in a classroom, but those weren’t guaranteed in any given day.  That adds up to only 310 minutes, or 5 1/3 hours of reliable non-seated, physically-related activity total in the school week.  That’s A LOT less time spent moving and a lot MORE time spent sitting.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison (for the sake of simplicity, I generalized a bit and made the 7hr British school day and the 6hr 55min American school day both add up to 35 hours per week):

Brit v Amer School chart

See the red?  That’s time generally spent sitting in a classroom.  

No wonder my kids are happier in school here — they never have to sit in a seat in a class for more than 90 minutes in a row at any point at all during the school week.  I’d also be willing to bet that because of the amount of physical activity built into each day, the kids are better able to sit still and focus when they do need to because they’re not spending their days bottling up all of the energy that is just part of being a kid. 

I often read articles — like this one — that explain why it’s so important for kids to move and be physically active.  Or articles like this that describe how difficult it is for children to sit still for long periods of time, especially for little boys.  Having now experienced a school where daily physical activity is guaranteed and built into the week, I can say with absolute certainty that it makes a huge difference in my children’s attitudes toward going to school, their level of happiness during the school day, and their ability to learn.

I do believe my children are learning more in school here than they were in their school in America.  It is NOT, however, because they’re going to a private school or because teachers here are better or because the curriculum is of a higher quality.  It is NOT because they are spending more hours in school or more school hours on instructional time. 

In fact, the opposite is true: they are learning more because the school day includes more of the physical activity that is absolutely crucial for children.  They are learning more because they are able to focus better during instructional time.  They are learning more because they’re not bored or fidgety.  They are learning more because the school day here is structured in such as way as to incorporate the play and movement that is most beneficial for children.

In short, my kids have fewer classroom hours here, but they are learning more.  And they are HAPPIER.  And that makes me happier.


Also, here are my other posts on school differences.


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