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11th August 2021

Johanna Mitchell on the US families relocating to the UK

The global pandemic has sparked an increase in our cousins from over the pond relocating to London. Why?  To access in-person schooling for their children. In the US, in both 2020 and to date in 2021, education provision has been in flux.  When UK schools were re-opening in September of 2020, US schools remained firmly closed, with most operating some form of online learning. 

With the advent of Covid-19, it dawned on every parent and employer how much their livelihood and sanity depended on institutions placed too often in the background:  the nation’s schools.  

For parents with flexible workplaces, deep pockets, or those able to open an arm of their existing US-based company in the UK, relocation to London for their offspring’s schooling was a no-brainer. For some families, this will be amount to a sojourn of a year or so, until their US schools are fully open again.  Others will stay longer.  As in the UK, US parents found it tough to juggle home-schooling with the demands of work and career. Families buckled under the strain that online learning had placed on the mental health of their children, and themselves, and a move to London schools was a welcome relief. 

US families value London’s broad offering of schools and curricula.  Although the American School in London (ASL) in St John’s Wood is the holy grail for many US families, many are opting for British schools or English/ French bilingual schools.  This is particularly true of families with younger children, who are less concerned about changing curriculum and whose children are not close to exam years.  International schools offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) are sought after, not least because the IB has become the go-to curriculum for students on the scholarship route to US universities. All US colleges, including Ivy League, value the IB’s emphasis on research and its multidisciplinary focus. Some US colleges are offering top IB students a fast-track option to skip a year of their course, a huge draw for parents hoping to save a year of prohibitive college fees.  

As we have a shared language, it is often assumed that the UK and US education systems are similar. This is not the case. The UK has more nationally-assessed exams and the early years approaches are different.  For children from aged four upwards, the US system is more play-based, whereas the mainstream UK system is focused on learning to read and write at a young age. To guard against culture shock, we recently placed the five-year old daughter of a family relocating from Los Angeles in a Montessori school in Hampstead.  The gentler Montessori approach was more aligned with her early years’ US education experience.   

As I write, the expectation is that all US schools will be opened for the Autumn of 2021.  This current academic year has been inconsistent. Some schools opened, others operated a hybrid model (part in-person teaching, part online), some only offered remote learning. Generally speaking, the more “conservative” states, such as Texas, have been focused on maintaining, or even mandating, in-person instruction, while the more “progressive” states have offered hybrid options and made in-person learning optional. For example, on Long Island, most schools returned to some form of in-person instruction, but it was rarely mandatory and often hybrid with some online component.  

A year later, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed education in America in lasting ways. Although most US families expect a return to the uniform, in-person teaching model for the coming academic year 2021/2022, some US school districts are developing permanent virtual options in the expectation that, post-pandemic, families will plump for remote-learning – even for their younger elementary/primary school offspring.  

Relocation to London to access British schools has been the preserve of an élite, well-heeled tranche of US society. But we cannot ignore the reality that Covid-19 has been a tragedy for many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Stories of kids who have melted away from education, dropped out of college, or gone hungry abound equally in the UK and US. We have been forced to question the efficacy and relevance of our existing education systems.  The pandemic has unleashed a wave of accelerated change in education. This wave will continue to ripple out and to have a permanent and transformative effect on education systems in both the US and the UK.   

The writer is the Director of Lumos Education in London.  

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