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The Naming of Schools

The absence of a single centralised system of names for understanding educational terminology can cause considerable misunderstandings. Below is a brief description of what names are applied to what establishments.

Pre-School Education

There are a number of different types of pre-school education; they all offer pretty much the same thing but are governed by different rules. Interestingly, this is seen as the first stage of the National Curriculum, though the level of education on offer varies. There is little formal teaching but lots of play, stories and educational games.

State Nursery Schools

These are for three to four year olds and are open during the school terms. Children attend for five half day sessions per week.

Private Nursery Schools

Accept children from the ages of 2-5 and offer full or half day sessions and may be open during the school holidays.

Nursery in State Primary Schools

Accept children from the age of 3 or 4 and are open during term time.

Play groups

Pre-school playgroups generally take children between the ages of 3-5. Most are open for half days at least and depending on parents’ needs may stay open longer.

Day Nurseries

These accept children under 5 for the whole working day depending on the needs of the parent.

Primary School

Usually from the age of 5 (the key date in the UK is September 1st not January 1st). All 5 year olds must be in education so some start at 4½. It is divided into:

·         Infant school   5-7 year olds     

·         Junior School  7-11 year olds  

Secondary Schools

Usually from the age of 11 and compulsory until the age of 16. Mostly mixed schools (officially co-educational) but there are still many single sex schools to be found. (commonly know as boys/girls schools) Some Local Education Authorities (LEAs) have middle schools from age 9 or 10 until 13 or 14. The school before this may be known as first school.

Some recent history

After the war most pupils in secondary education in England and Wales were divided according to a test taken at the age of 11 called, unsurprisingly, the 11 plus. The successful candidates, about 30% of entrants, went on to grammar schools whilst those who were not successful went to secondary modern schools. These did not offer A -levels and did a different final school exam, CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education), rather then the O-levels (ordinary as opposed to Advanced level, an exam for 18year olds) taken at grammar schools. Thus, most people had to take a test to see if they would eventually be clever enough to go to university at the very young age of 11 - at least seven years before university started.

From the mid sixties most LEA’s changed to comprehensive schools where children of all abilities were mixed together. Although there was more flexibility in this system children were still placed in classes according to ability. In terms of exams and final leaving certificates these were altered in the mid eighties. GCSE’s (General Certificate of Secondary Education) were introduced which were taken by all pupils at the age of 16. A greater emphasis on coursework rather than on final exams has resulted in increasing numbers of students leaving with better qualifications. Similar ideas were adopted at A-level (courses studied from the age of 16-18) and again, since the changes, standards appear to be rising.

Other State Sector Terms:

  • Sixth Form Colleges

These are for pupils aged 16 -18 and offer A levels. Most are attached to secondary schools and in this case most of the pupils will be from that school, although others can apply to enter.

  • Further Education Colleges are for the same age group but usually offer a wider range of courses including vocational courses and generally students have more freedom (no uniforms etc.)
  • Special Schools – these are for children who cannot be fully integrated to their advantage in everyday schools for mental and sometimes physical reasons.
  • Young Offender Institutions – “schools” for those under 18 (when legally still a juvenile) who have broken the law in such a way that if they were old enough they would go to prison. Formerly known as borstal.
  • Community Schools – these are schools which allow their facilities to be used by the “community” outside normal school hours. This could mean evening classes, use of sports facilities or classrooms. It is seen as a way of improving recreational facilities in an area without duplicating resources.
  • Church Schools as the name suggests these are schools with a strong connection to the church. In the UK this is usually Church of England but there are schools tied to all the main religions. They are very popular because they are believed to lead to higher educational standards. Generally speaking, they are primary schools although some secondary schools do exist. Most church school stem from the nineteenth century when churches were highly involved in education. Roman Catholic schools, primary and secondary, operate in the same way as state secondary schools except for the right of a priest to give religious instruction. Pupils do not have to be Catholic.      Tony Blair sent his children to a Catholic school in London.
  • City Technological Colleges - City Technology Colleges are independent schools which charge no fees as their costs are paid by the DfES (Department for Education and Skills) and businesses within the private sector. City Technology Colleges specialise in teaching mainly technology based subjects such technology, science and maths. CTCs also forge close links with businesses and industry and often governors are directors of local or national businesses that are supporting or have supported the colleges.
  • High School – often used as a name for a particular comprehensive but it has no contemporary meaning in the UK (unlike the US).
  • Grammar School – there are still 166 state-maintained grammar schools which select pupils based on high academic ability. Children must usually pass a test (often called the 11-plus) in their last year of primary school to gain a place.
  • Schools in the UK never have numbers. The school is usually named after a local dignitary, often the founder or after a local district.

Private Schools

Private schools are fee paying establishments that have to conform to the same standards as state schools. Some of them are day schools and some of them are boarding schools where pupils live at the school. Many of these are single sex schools. The more exclusive schools are known as public schools. Famous examples of these are Eton and Harrow. Princes William and Harry went to Eton.

For those youngsters who wish to go on to private secondary school prep school (preparatory school) are an option. These are private schools for 8-13 year olds.

Grant Maintained Schools

These are schools which although within the state system, receive private money and have considerable independence.  If they wish they may change their status and become grammar schools, admitting only the brightest students.


Further Reading

The Oxford Guide to British and American Culture is a good starting point with clear explanations of the schools systems in the UK and the US.

Some extra notes

  1. A Liceum is not a grammar school and a Gimnazjum has no clear equivalent in the UK. Gymnasium is a place to practice sport in English and has nothing to do with education.
  2. In the UK specialist state music, language or sport schools do not exist in the way they do in Poland.
  3. The use of the term college is very confusing and unhelpful. Many people in university will talk about going to college just like those at an FE college (further education) – but completely different people and institutions.

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