14 tips for switching between British and New York schools

UK schools fond of cursive handwriting - London - New York - NYC - moving - expat

Moving your family overseas will most likely involve some big choices about your kids’ schools.  We’ve done it in each direction and lived to tell the tale.

  1. Narrow down the location first

First thing to think about is where to live. You need to know your area, then look at schools. You can’t apply for state schools in either country without an address there, anyway. Sites we’ve found useful to research areas in New York were StreetEasy.com and Mommy Poppins, and in London, try RightMove.com

  1. Next, choose the type of school you want

Once you know your area, next thing is to think through what type of school you want. What’s important to you and your family? Is it about creativity? Community? Religious? Academic excellence? Kids up to the age of 18, or one just for younger children? Sports facilities? We found a big part of it came down to logistics – are you going to be able to manage to drop off and still make your train to work? Find out whether the school provide wrap around care for working parents – think breakfast clubs and fun after school clubs. All these things will have a big impact on your family life.

These factors apply when choosing any school, but if you’re moving overseas you also want to think about whether you’re happy for your British kids to join the US Curriculum or go to a school following the British Curriculum. Similarly, American families moving to Britain will also need to decide whether the British Curriculum is right for them. If you don’t think it is, then there are always American schools in London such as ASL and TASIS and there’s a British International School in New York.

I’d also say to look at whether the school is both racially and nationally diverse. Chances are your kid will already feel conspicuous at a new school; if they’re the only ones who look or sound different, it could make things harder at first. Both London and New York are pretty diverse anyway, but it’s just something to bear in mind when you’re looking round.

All this can be hard to do from overseas if you’re researching ahead of your relocation. Consider using a schools broker to do the initial leg work for you.

  1. Ages for starting school

The US cut-off date for birthdays is done by calendar year vs the UK which cuts off for the school year.

In Britain, children start school the September after they turn four. It’s called Reception. Some schools offer a year before this called Nursery – it’s not obligatory but this is quite often the entry point for private (also known as Independent or fee-paying) schools. You risk not getting a spot if you wait for Reception. The application is fairly straightforward and you can do it online. Some schools will want to interview the child. State schools will offer children spaces with strict criteria based on how close you live to the school, whether you already have siblings there, sometimes on your church attendance record if it is a religious school.

In America, kids start school a year later. It’s called Kindergarten. A lot of schools offer two years before that, known as Pre-K, for children aged three – five. NYC offers free pre-K (called Universal Pre-K or UPK) to every child in public schools. It can be hit and miss, it’s also possible you’ll be allocated a UPK spot at one school but then a K spot somewhere completely different, which can be a massive upheaval for the whole family.

In both the UK and the US, if you’re doing public school, you’re usually zoned for certain schools according to the area you live. And in both countries, you can’t apply until you can prove you are a resident. Schools in both countries are likely to check up on this carefully, especially if the school in your zone or catchment area is known to be a good one.

State schools in NYC are all known by numbers, not names. Things like PS76, PS/IS 276…

  1. Different terminology

Schools areas are “zoned” in the US, “catchment” areas in the UK.

Oh, and one thing that really confused me at first – “public school” has a very different meaning. In the UK, it’s fee-paying. In the US, it’s free. “State” schools are free in both countries.

  1. Don’t miss key deadlines for applications

In all the fuss and upheaval of a relocation, make sure to set a reminder for the application deadlines for the new schools.

In both the US and the UK, application deadlines are generally in January for a September start. There are always exceptions, and sometimes you may get lucky for example if someone has recently dropped out and created a vacancy.

If your move doesn’t coincide with a September start, it’s called an In Year admission, and is at the school’s discretion as to whether they have a spot.

In the UK:

Open days and tours tend to happen in the Autumn term (September/October)

Applications tend to open at the start of the autumn term the year before your child is due to start school (i.e., a year in advance). In the UK, the deadline to apply for a primary school place is by 15 January, and for a secondary school place by 31 October. Places are generally announced in March-April for a September start.

The British  government website is a great source for this.

Timings are similar in New York. Check out Inside School‘s website for a good introduction to NYC’s state schools.

6.      Applying for British schools from abroad

Generally, dependent children entering Britain on their parents’ work visas have a right to attend a state-funded school. However, you need to look carefully about your immigration status as you don’t want to get this wrong. Click here to read the British Government’s stance on overseas children applying for British state schools.

British private (fee-paying) schools have different admissions processes to state-funded schools. If you’re considering going private, try to visit the school early on and start to build up a relationship with the admissions department and Head Teacher. This advice holds true whether you’re looking for a school as expats in your new country, or if you’re starting to line things up for your relocation back home again.

  1. The interview process

Many expats end up going down the fee-paying school route, which means you won’t need to prove you live within the school’s zone/catchment area the January before the start of the new academic year in September.

If this is the case, the school’s admissions team will most likely want to meet your child before offering them a place. If flying them out to the country for an interview is unfeasible, I have heard of times when they will accept video footage of the child playing in their current school or a Skype call if the child is older and can be trusted to answer questions nicely rather than hide under the table!

To read my contemporary account of this interview process, click here. For my tips for expat families starting at New York school, click here.

  1. School uniforms

In our experience, New York schools tend to prefer home clothes for the kids, whereas British schools tend to have uniforms. There are pros and cons to both – one teacher specifically asked me to work on four year old B’s ability to do up her own shirt buttons!

  1. The social aspect

You and your children should try to make yourself available for new friendships. This is a fantastic chance to make new friends for your kids but also for you, the expat parents. I’d say 90% of my social contact in New York was through other school parents. When you are all waiting around at school pick up and drop off, it’s a great time to get to know local families.

Playdates after school in other friends’ homes or in the local playground are all good ways to help integrate the family into the school and the wider community.

Sometimes I catch myself looking round at pick up and drop off here in London, subconsciously expecting to see some parents from our previous school in New York. I still miss them.

  1. Literacy and numeracy start earlier in the UK 

The main academic adjustment for us has been literacy and numeracy. These are generally taught at a couple of years later in America than in the UK. There’s been a big homework push to catch up in reading, writing and maths.

British schools are big advocates of teaching reading through Phonics. They are also v keen on cursive (joined up) handwriting; something we hadn’t even considered practicing at home before the Big Move. I asked a couple of teachers why cursive handwriting is still taught (as surely handwriting is on the way out??). They all replied that they find it helps children with their spelling and general presentation.


  1. Show and Tell is big in both countries

We’ve noticed that Show and Tell is popular in both countries. This is a fun way for your child to bring something in from your home country to show their new classmates.

  1. American summer holidays are veeeeeeerrrrrrry long 

Although both countries have three terms and an academic year that starts in September, we found the actual term lengths to be surprisingly different. We couldn’t believe our ears when we heard US summer holidays are often TWELVE WEEKS LONG. Suddenly understand why summer camps are such a big thing in American TV shows and movies.

Each school is slightly different, but as a general rule, British schools have a month off over Christmas and Easter, and a month and a half off over the Summer. We also have longer half terms which are between a week and a fortnight long.

  1. Different countries have different vaccines

Britain and America have different vaccination requirements. You’ll need to get a local doctor to give your kids the necessary vaccines before they start at their new schools. In Britain this will be done through your GP (General Practitioner). In New York it’ll be through your kids’ Paediatrician. Click here for my futile attempts to get my two the Chicken Pox vaccine in England.

British vaccine schedule, here

New York vaccine schedule, here

  1. Pick up time sucks, no matter which country you’re in

A light hearted but true point – school pick up time is tough, whichever country you’re in. Your kids will be hungry and grouchy after keeping it all together all day at school, and no matter what snack you’ve brought along, it won’t be the right one. Even if you agreed it in advance.

Useful resources

Here are some useful online resources to help get information about NYC and UK schools.

  • New York City’s Department of Education has a useful overview of the NYC education system, from preschool and Kindergarten to middle and high schools
  • I also really rate Inside School’s introduction to NYC’s state (public) schools, it’s a good source of information when you’re trying to get your head round it all
  • The Government’s website has a good overview of the British education system, which helps break it down in simple terms
  • Click here for a good overview of the British school application process by the BBC
  • NYC Navigator can help you whether you’re American considering London schools, or British considering New York schools. Invaluable advice and legwork, but not cheap – worth negotiating this into your expat employment contract if you can
  • Parents League, I’ve heard it offers very good, truly impartial advice, but haven’t tried it myself. There’s a membership fee
  • British Mums NYC has an active Facebook group where lots of British expats living in New York will respond to your questions (they also do regular meet ups)


Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list – if you’ve got any questions, email me at hello@toddlingroundny.com, or leave a comment below.



Author: Alex

Hello. Toddling Round New York is my own little blog of our family's experience of moving young kids from London to New York... And of having a baby out here. They are my own baby steps of exploring this incredible city. I lived in five countries in four continents growing up, so you'd think I'd be good at this by now. Here you'll find stories and photographs of our adventures, the highs and the lows of expat parenthood, and some ideas I hope you'll find useful if you're in New York with young kids.

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