Harry Potter Becomes A Cowboy: Differences in English & American Education

Max, my son, was 6 when we relocated to America. In his birth country of England, children start their school life at 5 years old, so Max had attended two years at an English school before our relocation. As Max began his first term in his new American elementary school, I was fascinated to see how the cultural differences between the U.K. and America manifested themselves in the different education systems.

At his English school, Max wore a school uniform of gray trousers, black shoes, white polo shirt, and a sweatshirt in the school colors, complete with the school emblem—a very traditional and formal approach, first introduced during the reign of Henry VIII. Today the U.K. government believes that traditional uniforms continue to play a valuable role, instilling pride, encouraging identity with and support for school ethos, and protecting children from social pressures to dress in a particular way. 

In contrast, Max’s American school had a “no uniform” policy, and the children can dress as they please—within reason! When the American founders created the Declaration and Constitution, they protected each individual’s right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The lack of school uniforms fits with this foundation of individuality.

At the start of each English school day, Max would join the rest of the school for morning assembly in the school hall and sing hymns and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Unlike the U.S., England does not separate church and state. The Church of England is the state church, and most state schools in our neighborhood included religious music in the school curriculum. Religious education is also part of the mandatory curriculum outlined by the U.K. government to be taught in state-managed schools. 

In the U.S., the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that school-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading are a violation of the First Amendment. Rather than recite a prayer, Max joins his American classmates to state the Pledge of Allegiance.

The British are known for their reserve and “stiff upper lip.” Running throughout English life is an underlying level of formality. Max’s English teachers were known to me by their family name only. To this day, I don’t know Miss Clarke’s first name. If I needed to speak to Miss Clarke, I had to formally contact the school office and schedule an appointment or speak to Miss Clarke by telephone. 

Since Americans value individualism, they tend to be extremely informal. At Max’s current school, I am always provided with his teacher’s personal email address, with an expectation that I will contact her directly whenever I have a query. The flow of information regarding behavior and performance is far more regular and informal, which I like, but I am still getting used to calling his teachers by their first names!

In the U.K., we lived in a suburb, 30 miles outside London. It had a quintessential English church and a windmill dating back to 1809. As is typical in the U.K., distances were short, and I walked with Max to school. Along the route we met with other mums and Max’s classmates. In the afternoon, I retraced my steps and waited at the school gates to take him home. During the “school run” and whilst waiting at the gates, I got to know the other parents and built relationships that continue to this day.

I missed this parent interaction when I first arrived in the U.S. Max walks to the bottom of our street to ride the yellow school bus, or he is driven to school by car. The process for dropping off children by car at the school is amazing. You drive into the school grounds and wait in a line that slowly moves forward. When you are in the official “drop-off zone,” children leave the car from the passenger side, leaving you to depart. Whilst the process is very efficient and most welcome in the middle of the cold winters, I miss the daily contact with other parents. 

The difference that Max noticed the most, when he compared his English school to his American school, is how often his American classmates change. Every year new families move into the area and their children join his year group, whilst other families move away. At first we found the departures heartbreaking, but we have become more used to the annual changes. Maybe we are becoming more transactional?!

I believe the desire of Americans to be mobile is in the nation’s genes, as the country was founded by immigrants. Officially the population of the U.S. is considered highly mobile. Each year, people move from their place of birth or current residence to live somewhere else in their city, county, state, or nation. In comparison, when I was growing up in the U.K., families often remained living in the same location for generations. Many of my school friends’ children now attend the same schools we attended. During my years of formal education, it was an extremely rare event for a classmate to leave.

When Max first arrived at his American elementary school, he was immediately known as the “Harry Potter kid.” His very English accent made him stand out from his classmates, as our town in Utah has minimal cultural diversity. It made us laugh when the parents of his first-grade classmates wondered why their children were all coming home from school speaking with an English accent. For a short period he was the “cool kid,” and the others wanted to emulate him. It did not take long for Max to fully acclimatize—sadly for me—and he now speaks with a strong American accent. As his English grandmother says with regret, “He is now a fully-fledged American cowboy.”

Although our family have noticed the differences between the two schools, each has its benefits and unique qualities, and we would not select one over the other. Both schools have provided Max with an excellent education, in a thriving environment, mirroring the culture in which they are located.

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