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Education in Britain

Education in Britain



Education in the United Kingdom

Written by Isaeva Tatiana

group 301

Checked by Makhmuryan K.



1. Introduction

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

as 'half-term'.

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

these criticisms.

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

practical education.

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

technological society;

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


c) Standards

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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