I knew coming over to England that the school system would be different, but I wasn't really sure what to expect. In what ways would it be different? My prior schema was based on snippets from TV shows/movies and books and those three don't really go into the nitty-gritty. They show classrooms with desks, pupils and teachers. Well, that's the same as Canada.
These last few days, I have in some ways been overwhelmed by the contrasts between the two systems.
The most noticeable difference, I think, is the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams which are national exams that all students have to take at the end of year 11 (equivalent to Canadian grade 10). These exams cover all material that students covered in respective subject areas from years 9 through years 11 (grades 8-10). That's three years of material on one exam! I remember complaining with friends about having full-year university courses and having to study all of that material.
Because of these exams, there is a lot more pressure in the earlier grades and even from years 7 and 8 (grades 6 and 7), everything is pointed and directed toward the coming GCSEs. Students are frequently told to study and to ensure that they grasp certain concepts/methodologies because they will need them for the exams. As a result, I would say that the students seem a lot more serious. The grade 10s I taught back in Canada are not under the same pressure as the year 11s and that is very clear in the differences of behaviour. The sections of years 12 and 13 (grades 11 and 12) that I have seen also seem very more driven. Their classes seem comparable to university seminars.
This pressure and drive is a benefit of the GCSE system, although it has its drawbacks as well. The main drawback, I think, is in the choice of courses. Because the GCSE are nation wide exams, students are limited in what areas they study. In my course of interest, that's history. So, in year 9 they look at the American West, in year 10 it is the history of Crime and Punishment and in year 11 it is protests and revision/study for the exams. In the Canadian system, after the generic history of Canada in grade 10, students can choose to take Ancient Civilizations, American History, Medieval, etc. (depending on the school and resources). I like that freedom of choice. Although, it might be nice to not have to write nor mark the final exam...
One of the students, upon learning that I come from Canada, asked me which system was better: the English or the Canadian. I smiled slightly and said that it's not the right question to ask. Both are different and each has it's own benefits and drawbacks. "Which is better," I asked him, "chocolate or butterscotch? Chocolate and butterscotch are two separate things. Both are sweets, but different kinds. It's hard to say one is better than the other. They are both good and desirable in their own way."
The group of boys nodded thoughtfully and the youth smiled and replied, "I like how you said butterscotch."