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Education in Britain

Education is seen to be something that affects all of us at some point in our lives, whether as school pupils, parents or lifelong learners (a distinction the present government has come up with to encompass those people beyond school age who take up education). It is also one of the government’s major areas of investment with increased and increasing funding. Education is seen as vital for the country’s future fortunes.

It’s not the same for everyone

Education in Britain is not the same for everyone. The authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland have some autonomy over education policy. Scotland in particular has a different set of exams and a different system for students applying to university in this country. England and Wales follow policies set in Westminster. However, the local education authorities (LEA’s) also have some input. They can add to the priorities set down by the Education department. National policy directives are not carried in full or in the same way across the country.

There is also a split between the state and the private education sector. In the UK, private education includes the famous “public schools” of Eton Harrow and Rugby (called public because when they were established they were not linked to the church) as well as numerous private or independent schools. What they all have in common is that they charge fees whereas state education is free. Private schools receive no funding or very little funding from the government but still have to follow national educational standards. In 2003 there were 650,000 pupils in independent schools. (2003 Annual Abstract of Statistics Table 6.1:77) 

Legal Requirements

Parents or legal guardians are obliged to ensure that children in their care from five to sixteen. Normally this is done at school but provided certain educational standards are met this can be done at home. This option whilst still rare has gained increasing popularity.

In 2002 there were 10,095,000 pupils ate primary and secondary levels attending Britain’s 36.37 (Annual Abstract of Statistics 2003 table 6.1:77) with around half of them under 10. Most primary schools are co-educational and as are 80% of secondary schools.

A History of the State Provision of Education

Successive governments in the nineteenth century were unwilling to invest money in a state educations system as they believed private providers and church schools were already doing a reasonable job. In 1870 this changed with the first Education Act known as Forster’s Act. This was expanded and developed over the years by a succession of Acts making it compulsory for young people to attend school for longer. This coincided with the gradual outlawing of child labour.

It was in 1944 that the current system was largely put in place. Under the Butler Act of this year education was made compulsory and free for everyone between the ages of five and fifteen. It also suggested that school leaving age should be increased to 16 as soon as possible but this did not happen until 1971. 1944 also saw the advent of the 11 plus examination. This was an exam sat by all 11 year olds which determined which type of school they would attend either grammar school secondary modern or technical. Generally, only grammar schools offered a route to university. The 11 plus then, effectively decided which type of education and therefore job one would receive.

During the 1960’s, the shortcomings of this system were too obvious to ignore and the 11 plus was phased-out. To compensate for this change comprehensive secondary education was extended resulting in the mixing of pupils of different abilities in the same school. Political parties disagreed about the merits of this system and it took some years for comprehensive education to become the norm in the state sector albeit with some local variations.

Comprehensive schools are often large establishments with several thousand pupils. Uniforms are still common in most secondary schools although there is less formality between teacher and pupil than there used to be. Some critics claim this has led to increased discipline problems and higher truancy rates. Between 1990and 1991 approximately 3,000 seriously misbehaved and disruptive pupils were expelled from school but this figure had risen to a high of 12,700 in 1996/7 and to 9,290 in 2003. (BBC report November 2004)

Reform in the 1980’s

In 1988 the government of Margaret Thatcher (a former education minister famous for abolishing free school milk) introduced the National Curriculum. Local variations had meant that up until this point children were taught subjects in different ways. National guidelines were set but there was no government demand for schools to teach to the national curriculum. The introduction of the 1988 reforms meant that all pupils were required to study broadly the same things at the same time. Nationally administered tests at regular intervals ensured that pupils reached the required standards for their ages – so called key stages.

The reforms were not universally welcomed, especially by teacher’s organisations as they brought more administration and testing and less autonomy over what was taught.

The National Curriculum in England and Wales has English, Maths and a Science subject as core skills which are compulsory.  Foundation subjects are history, geography, music, art, design and technology, physical education and a foreign language for 11 – 16 year olds. Religious education is also compulsory but other subjects tend not to be taught due to time constraints.

However, the government at the time also allowed schools to opt out of LEA control if enough parents and school governors were in favour of such a move. This allowed greater freedom for the school but was offset by a fall in the amount of funding received from the government. This meant that many of these schools started charging fees. A proportion of these schools became grant-aided whereby they had to raise some funds but also received money from the state.

To coincide with these reforms the examination system was also reformed. New exams were introduced for all 16 year olds. The former GCE O’ level and lower level CSE were combined to form the GCSE (General Certificate in Secondary education). A new emphasis on practical coursework and continuous assessment were the main changes to this exam. The change was not universally appreciated with some claiming a lowering of standards. Certainly pass rates have continued to improve, although whether this is due to a rise in standards, better prepared students or lower standards is debated every summer when exam results appear.

Since the reforms were put into place there has been some tinkering with the system and the present government is looking at ways of improving education standards which may result in wide scale changes but by and large the reforms of 1988 still govern education standards in the early twenty-first century.

Post-School Education

A big change in the last twenty years has been the expansion of the post compulsory sector. There are a variety of colleges, further education institutes and universities to attend. The government’s aim is for increasing numbers of people to receive further education and with the threat of unemployment for those without a decent education more people are taking up this option.

Until 1992 there were 46 British universities but in this year 31 polytechnics were permitted to join the university sector so, overnight, the university population increased. There are now 90 universities including the Open University and one private university. There are now 1,128,000 full time students in further education and 4,227,100 part time students. Just over half of these are women.

From October 1998 the formerly free university sector started to charge.  A basic rate of 1000GBP is charged as well as living and accommodation costs (most students in the UK choose to study away form home). Of course this is financially difficult for some people and has been criticised by some people. It means that many students have to work and/or leave university with huge debts. In 2004 the government looked into allowing the universities to charge up to 3000 GBP for their courses.

Nursery Education

 With more and more families now have both parents at work so the demand for nursery education is growing. At the moment there is little state provision but a large private sector. Standards are set by the government for nursery schools. Various reports in to this sector have been drawn up by various governments but as yet little concrete has been done.


Ÿ         “Annual Abstract of Statistics” (2003) London: the Stationary Office.

Ÿ         “Britain 2002: an Official Handbook” 2002 London Central Office of Information

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