Education in Britain
Education in Britain
MOSCOW STATE TEACHER`S TRAINING UNIVERSITY
Education in the United Kingdom
Written by Isaeva Tatiana
Checked by Makhmuryan K.
1. Primary and secondary education
1. The story of British schools
1. Arguments aboout the purpose of education
1. Changing political control
1. The public system of education (a table)
1. The private sector
1. Further and higher education
1. Conclusion (Education under Labour)
ducation in England is not as perfect as we, foreigners think. There are
plenty of stereotypes, which make us think, that British education is only
Oxford and Cambrige, but there are also many educational problems.During
the last fifteen years or so, there have been unprecedented changes in the
system of education in England and Wales. I’ll try to explain the changes
and the reasons for them. In my work I will also give a description of the
system of education, which differs from that in Russia very much.
Primary and secondary education
chooling is compulsory for 12 years, for all children aged five to 16.
There are two voluntary years of schooling thereafter. Children may attend
either state-funded or fee-paying independent schools. In England, Wales
and Northern Ireland the primary cycle lasts from five to 11. Generally
speaking, children enter infant school, moving on to junior school (often
in the same building) at the age of seven, and then on to secondary school
at the age of 11. Roughly 90 per cent of children receive their secondary
education at 'comprehensive' schools. For those who wish to stay on,
secondary school can include the two final years of secondary education,
sometimes known in Britain (for historical reasons) as 'the sixth form'. In
many parts of the country, these two years are spent at a tertiary or sixth-
form college, which provides academic and vocational courses.
Two public academic examinations are set, one on completion of the
compulsory cycle of education at the age of 16, and one on completion of
the two voluntary years. At 16 pupils take the General Certificate of
Secondary Education (GCSE), introduced in 1989 to replace two previous
examinations, one academic and the other indicating completion of secondary
education. It was introduced to provide one examination whereby the whole
range of ability could be judged, rather than having two classes of
achievers; and also to assess children on classwork and homework as well as
in the examination room, as a more reliable form of assessment. During the
two voluntary years of schooling, pupils specialise in two or three
subjects and take the General Certificate of Education (always known simply
as 'GCE') Advanced Level, or 'A level' examination, usually with a view to
entry to a university or other college of higher education. New
examinations. Advanced Supplementary (AS) levels, were introduced in 1989,
to provide a wider range of subjects to study, a recognition that English
education has traditionally been overly narrow. The debate about the need
for a wider secondary level curriculum continues, and Labour is likely to
introduce more changes at this level. These examinations are not set by the
government, but by independent examination boards, most of which are
associated with a particular university or group of universities. Labour
may replace these boards with one national board of examination.
A new qualification was introduced in 1992 for pupils who are skills,
rather than academically, orientated, the General National Vocational
Qualification, known as GNVQ. This examination is taken at three distinct
levels: the Foundation which has equivalent standing to low-grade passes in
four subjects of GCSE; the Intermediate GNVQ which is equivalent to high-
grade passes in four subjects of GCSE; and the Advanced GNVQ, equivalent to
two passes at A level and acceptable for university entrance.
The academic year begins in late summer, usually in September, and is
divided into three terms, with holidays for Christmas, Easter and for the
month of August, although the exact dates vary slightly from area to area.
In addition each term there is normally a mid-term one-week holiday, known
The story of British schools
or largely historical reasons, the schools system is complicated,
inconsistent and highly varied. Most of the oldest schools, of which the
most famous are Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Westminster, are today
independent, fee-paying, public schools for boys. Most of these were
established to create a body of literate men to fulfil the administrative,
political, legal and religious requirements of the late Middle Ages. From
the sixteenth century onwards, many 'grammar' schools were established,
often with large grants of money from wealthy men, in order to provide a
local educational facility.
From the 1870s local authorities were required to establish elementary
schools, paid for by the local community, and to compel attendance by all
boys and girls up to the age of 1 3. By 1900 almost total attendance had
been achieved. Each authority, with its locally elected councillors, was
responsible for the curriculum. Although a general consensus developed
concerning the major part of the school curriculum, a strong feeling of
local control continued and interference by central government was
resented. A number of secondary schools were also established by local
authorities, modelled on the public schools.
The 1944 Education Act introduced free compulsory secondary education.
Almost all children attended one of two kinds of secondary school. The
decision was made on the results obtained in the '11 plus' examination,
taken in the last year of primary school. Eighty per cent of pupils went to
'secondary modern' schools where they were expected to obtain sufficient
education for manual, skilled and clerical employment, but where academic
expectations were modest. The remaining 20 per cent went to grammar
schools. Some of these were old foundations which now received a direct
grant from central government, but the majority were funded through the
local authority. Grammar school pupils were expected to go on to university
or some other form of higher education. A large number of the grammar or
'high' schools were single sex. In addition there were, and continue to be,
a number of voluntary state-supported primary and secondary schools, most
of them under the management of the Church of England or the Roman Catholic
Church, which usually own the school buildings.
By the 1960s there was increasing criticism of this streaming of
ability, particularly by the political Left. It was recognised that many
children performed inconsistently, and that those who failed the 11 plus
examination were denied the chance to do better later. Early selection also
reinforced the divisions of social class, and was wasteful of human
potential. A government report in 1968 produced evidence that an
expectation of failure became increasingly fulfilled, with secondary modern
pupils aged 14 doing significantly worse than they had at the age of eight.
Labour's solution was to introduce a new type of school, the comprehensive,
a combination of grammar and secondary modern under one roof, so that all
the children could be continually assessed and given appropriate teaching.
Between 1965 and 1980 almost all the old grammar and secondary modern
schools were replaced, mainly by coeducational comprehensives. The measure
caused much argument for two principal reasons. Many local authorities,
particularly Conservative-controlled ones, did not wish to lose the
excellence of their grammar schools, and many resented Labour's
interference in education, which was still considered a local
responsibility. However, despite the pressure to change school structures,
each school, in consultation with the local authority, remained in control
of its curriculum. In practice the result of the reform was very mixed:
the best comprehensives aimed at grammar school academic standards, while
the worst sank to secondary modern ones.
One unforeseen but damaging result was the refusal of many grammar
schools to join the comprehensive experiment. Of the 174 direct-grant
grammar schools, 119 decided to leave the state system rather than become
comprehensive, and duly became independent fee-paying establishments. This
had two effects. Grammar schools had provided an opportunity for children
from all social backgrounds to excel academically at the same level as
those attending fee-paying independent public schools. The loss of these
schools had a demoralising effect on the comprehensive experiment and
damaged its chances of success, but led to a revival of independent schools
at a time when they seemed to be slowly shrinking. The introduction of
comprehensive schools thus unintentionally reinforced an educational elite
which only the children of wealthier parents could hope to join.
Comprehensive schools became the standard form of secondary education
(other than in one or two isolated areas, where grammar schools and
secondary moderns survived). However, except among the best comprehensives
they lost for a while the excellence of the old grammar schools.
Alongside the introduction of comprehensives there was a move away
from traditional teaching and discipline towards what was called
'progressive' education.-This entailed a change from more formal teaching
and factual learning tc greater pupil participation and discussion, with
greater emphasis on comprehension and less on the acquisition of knowledge.
Not everyone approved, particularly on the political Right. There was
increasing criticism of the lack of discipline and of formal learning, and
a demand to return tc old-fashioned methods.
From the 1960s there was also greater emphasis on education and
training than ever before, with many colleges of further education
established to provide technical or vocational training. However, British
education remained too academic for the less able, and technical studies
stayed weak, with the result that a large number of less academically able
pupils left school without any skills or qualifications at all.
The expansion of education led to increased expenditure. The
proportion of the gross national product devoted to education doubled, from
3.2 per cent in 1954, to 6.5 per cent by 1970, but fell back to about 5 per
cent in the 1980s. These higher levels of spending did not fulfil
expectations, mainly because spending remained substantially lower than
that in other industrialised countries. Perhaps the most serious failures
were the continued high drop-out rate at the age of 16 and the low level of
achievement in mathematics and science among school-leavers. By the mid-
1980s, while over 80 per cent of pupils in the United States and over 90
per cent in Japan stayed on till the age of 18, barely one-third of British
pupils did so.
I. Arguments about the purpose of education.
There is a feeling that the schools are not succeeding - that
standards are too low, that schools are not preparing young people with the
skills, knowledge and personal qualities which are necessary for the world
of work, and that schools have failed to instil the right social values.
These are the criticisms and therefore there have been changes to meet
However, the criticisms take different forms. First, there are those
who believe that standards have fallen, especially in the areas of literacy
and numeracy - and, indeed, unfavourable comparisons are made with the
other countries as a result of international surveys. For example, the
recent Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) placed in
England and Wales very low in mathematical achievement at 13 - although
very high in science. Therefore, these critics emphasize «back to basis»
and the need for more traditional teaching methods.
Second, there are those who argue for a rather traditional curriculum
which is divided into «subjects» and which calls upon those cultural
standards which previous generations have known - the study of literary
classics ( Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth) rather than popular multi-
cultural history, classical music rather than popular music, and so on.
Since there are many children who would not be interested in or capable of
learning within these subjects, there is a tendency for such advocates of
traditional standards to support an early selection of children into «the
minority» who are capable of being so educated, separated off from «the
majority» who are thought to benefit more from a more technical or
Third, there are those who question deeply the idea of a curriculum
based on these traditional subjects. Many employers, for instance, think
that such a curriculum by itself ill - serves the country economically. The
curriculum ought to be more relevant to the world of work, providing those
skills, such as computer, numeracy and literacy skills, personal qualities
(such as cooperation and enterprise) and knowledge (such as economic
awareness) which make people more employable.
A very important speech which expressed those concerns and which is
seen as a watershed in government policy was that of Prime Minister
Callaghan at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1976.
«Preparing future generations for life» was the theme and he pointed
to the need for greater relevance in education on four fronts:
1. the acquisition by school leavers of basic skills which they lacked but
which industry needed;
2. the development of more positive attitudes to industry and to the
economic needs of society;
3. greater technological know-how so that they might live effectively in a
4. the development of personal qualities for coping with an unpredictable
In what follows I give details of the different contexts in which
this concern for change was discussed.
a) Economic Context
It is generally assumed that there is a close connection between
economic performance and the quality and context of education and
training, and that therefore the country’s poor performance
economically since the second world war (compared with some other
countries) is due to irrelevant and poor quality education. During the
thirty years from the end of the Second World War not enough pupils
stayed on beyond the compulsory school leaving age. There were too
many unskilled and semi-skilled people for a much more sophisticated
economy. Standards of literacy and numeracy were too low for a modern
economy. There was not enough practical and technical know-how being
As a result, it was argued that there must be much closer links
between school and industry, with pupils spending time in industry,
with industrialists participating in the governance of schools, and
with subjects and activities on the curriculum which relate much more
closely to the world of work.
Furthermore, there should be a different attitudes to learning.
So quickly is the economy that people constantly have to update their
knowledge and skills. There is a need for a «learning society» and for
the acquisition of «generic» or «transferable» skills in
communication, numeracy, problem-solving, computer technology, etc.
b) Social Context
There are anxieties not just about the future economy but also
about the future of society. Preparing young people for adult life was
what the Ruskin speech was about, and there is much more to adult life
than economic success - for example, living the life of a good
citizen, of a father or mother, of involvement in social and political
activity. Therefore, schools are required to prepare young people for
a multicultural society, to encourage tolerance between different
ethnic groups, to promote social responsibility, to encourage respect
for the law and democratic institutions, to develop sensibilities
towards the disadvantaged and to ensure girls enjoy equal
opportunities with boys. And schools have. Indeed, responded with
programs of social education, citizenship, and parenthood. Moreover,
they have often done this in practical ways such as organizing
The need for educational change arises partly from a concern
about academic standards. The sense that Britain is declining has been
reinforced by statements from employers. According to them, Britain’s
workforce is under-educated, under-trained and under-qualified! These
criticisms of standards are pitched at different levels. First, there
are worries about low standards of literacy and numeracy. Second,
international comparisons give weight to misgivings about the
performance of British schoolchildren in mathematics and science. And,
therefore, the subsequent changes have tried to define standards much
more precisely, and o have regular assessment of children’s
performance against these standards.
II. Changing Political Control
a) After 1944
The key educational legislation, until recently, was the 1944
Education Act. That Act supported a partnership between central government
(Local Education Authorities or LEAs), teachers and the churches - with
central government playing a minimal role in the curriculum.
The 1944 Education Act required the Secretary of State to promote the
education of the people of England and Wales and the progressive
development of institutions devoted to that purpose and to secure the
effective execution by local authorities, under his control and direction,
of the national policy for providing a varied and comprehensive educational
service in every area.
In the decades following the Act, «promotion» was perceived in very
general terms - ensuring that there were resources adequate for all
children to receive an education according to «age, ability and aptitude»,
providing the broad legal framework and regulations within which education
should be provided (for example, the length of the school year or the
division of education into primary and secondary phases), and initiating
major reports on such important matters as language and mathematics
Within this framework, the LEA organized the schools. The LEA raised
money through local taxation to provide education from primary right
through to further and indeed higher education, and made sure that the
schools and colleges were working efficiently. They employed and paid the
teachers. And ultimately they had responsibility for the quality of
teaching within those schools.
The Churches were key partners because historically they (particularly
the Church of England) had provided a large proportion of elementary
education and owned many of the schools.
The 1944 Act had to establish a new partnership between state, LEAs
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