I don’t have much authority to be writing on the next section, seeing as how neither myself has gone through the British education system, nor have I put any children through it. Nevertheless, I will give it a go from my angle at least. If I’ve made mistakes, o munificent UK readers, please correct me.
You’re born in the UK and you spend the next few years in a pram. After that, you’re put on a leash (or as they say here, a lead). I know such things have existed from at least the age of Rubens, but I like to think I speak for all Americans in saying at least we don’t put toddlers on leashes! I’m being facetious, of course, and while it’s not a widespread practice, I was rather shocked the first time I saw it.
When you’re three, you get sent to nursery school. At four, you get sent to reception. (A very strange title for an educational age group bracket, in my opinion!) From ages four to six, you are in infant school (which seems a strange name since you are really an infant when you are a baby—though I wonder if it comes from the French enfant, which just means child?). At five, you start your Year 1 (whereas when you’re six in the US, you start first grade). From age seven to ten, you are in junior school. All of these composite years are referred to as primary school, a rough equivalent to the American elementary school, with kindergarten thrown in there somewhere. Confused?! Just wait. And this is also when your uniforms start! It’s true that some American schools use uniforms (typically what we call private schools, or Catholic schools) and I confess the idea grates on my sense of independence. Of course I had to wade through dozens of students at my high school in low rider jeans (even though we had a dress code of sorts) so maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. I find the rebelliousness hinted at in the subversion of the old school tie in principal laudatory, but in practice utterly ridiculous. I’m also quite creeped out by the fact so many clubbing girls in fancy dress are school girls with really short skirts (but we’ll talk about that more when we talk about pubs and clubs).
At age eleven, and when you start Year 7, you go into secondary school (which is, more or less, middle school). This lasts until you’re fifteen, or at Year 11. (Try reconciling this with the year system as used in Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels. Sink me if you’re not even more mind-boggled.) When you’re fourteen, you start something at the end of your secondary school years known as the GCSEs, which is your General Certificate of Secondary Education. (I always get the letters reversed and I always get this confused with A-Levels.) This is kind of like a high school diploma. Education is compulsory to age sixteen, at which point you can opt to go on into sixth form (Years 12 and 13, known sometimes as “lower sixth form” and “upper sixth form”—aaaaahhh!). Then you take tests to get your A-Levels.
I’ve heard that term batted around in countless British films and TV series. Rose had no A-Levels but got the bronze in gymnastics (which fortunately enabled her to save the Doctor’s life). Jesminder’s mum in Bend in Like Beckham was praying that her daughter would get acceptable A-levels so she could go to University. I don’t mind saying it makes filling out British job application forms very difficult for me, as I don’t have any GCSEs or A-Levels to note. I have a high school diploma, I have an SAT score (I can’t remember what it was, unfortunately, except that the English score was 800). I have an ACT score of 29 (which was almost high enough to get special commendation but not quite). I took Advanced Placement tests in English, French, US History, and World History (the English test, I smugly note, was a 5/5 and was a piece of cake as I recall). What this means to the average interviewer I’ve no idea.
You don’t have to go for an A-Level, you can get qualifications in GNVQ (I think, with my MA, I am NVQ level 7) or International Baccalaureate (that brings back memories of everyone busily studying in France for their Bacs). After A-Levels, when you go on to University, you generally do a three-year degree (again, I wonder if the fact my BA took four years reflects unfavorably on me—though it was often a joke at UNM that it was five-year school). It’s also confusing that a public school is actually what Americans think of as a private school and with it comes the connotation of old boys playing cricket, Eton, etc. Also, there are some religious-affiliated schools, such as the Church of England school for which I interviewed for a position. Fees (ie tuition) for BA and beyond degrees are, even allowing for the exchange rate, much more affordable than those in the US (unless you happen to be an international student in which case they are doubled or sometimes tripled). Oh, and by the way, the system is totally different in Scotland. :-P
Beyond those somewhat circumscribed circumstances, I don’t know much about the life of the typical British child. I assume s/he watches CBeebies (and if s/he has any taste, The Sarah Jane Adventures). All the small children I’ve met, either as friends’ children or whatnot, haven’t had much to say to me other than Doctor Who stuff when we found out we were both fans. I’ve known people who are either primary or secondary school teachers, and I used to work for a company that liaised between lecturers who did courses and secondary schools that went on the courses. That enabled me to learn a little bit more about the British school system (and rather randomly call up J’s old primary school to learn who their inset coordinator was!). When Donna Broome marries the Bostonian actor Geoffrey in Broome Stages, they eventually grow apart and even though they are an itinerant acting family, she prefers to have their son educated in Britain rather than “the American system.” I always wondered why!