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Education in Britain
In this article, I will outline briefly some key points about education in Britain as well as some of the ongoing issues that still lead to heated debates amongst diverse groups of people, from parents to politicians, who, it must be said, are usually parents themselves.
Some Key Distinctions
The system is also made more complex because of the local administration of educational initiatives and policies through Local Education Authorities. (LEAs) National policy directives are not carried out to the full or in quite the same way across the country.
There is also the split between state and private sector education. Private education includes the very old and famous ‘public’ schools of Eton, Harrow and Rugby. (In the USA, the term public school refers to state schools.) Private or independent schools, however, include a wide range of institutions from nursery to secondary level but the main point about them is that fees are charged whereas state education is free. Private schools are known, therefore, as fee-paying. They receive little, if any, funding from the government but have to adhere to certain national educational standards. Between 1993/94, there were 591,000 pupils in independent schools. (Britain 1997:an Official Handbook 1996:447)
In 1995, there were 9,707,000 pupils at primary and secondary levels attending Britain’s 34,800 state and independent schools with around half of them aged between 5-10. (Annual Abstract of Statistics 1997 table 5.2:103) Most primary schools are co-educational and approximately 80% of secondary schools are as well.
A Potted History of the State Provision of Education
The current education system is largely the result of the 1944 Education or Butler Act, which made education compulsory and free for everyone between the ages of 5-15. It stressed the need to raise the school leaving age to 16 ‘as soon as possible’ but this did not occur till 1971! It also brought in an examination known as the 11-plus for all eleven-year-olds to sit. The results of this intelligence test would determine which sort of secondary school they would go to: technical, secondary modern, or grammar. This was known as the 'tripartite' system but in most places only the latter two types of schools existed and it was predominantly the grammar schools that could offer examinations (matriculation) and possible university entrance. It is understandable, therefore, that the 11-plus was dreaded by pupils and parents alike because it determined to a large extent what sort of education and job a child would end up with. Ask any forty-something British person about the 11-plus and watch their faces grow pale as the bad memories come flooding back!
During the 1960s, the shortcomings of this selection procedure were too obvious to ignore and the 11-plus was phased out in most places. Accompanying this was the extension of comprehensive secondary education, with the aim of mixing pupils of all different types of abilities in the same school. The Conservative Party was largely against this trend and there were frequent arguments about the relative merits of a comprehensive system. Education, it seems, is often a ‘political football’ being kicked backwards and forwards between the political parties. Comprehensive education finally became the norm in the state system, albeit with local variations.
Comprehensives tend to be large schools, with several thousand pupils.
They can be anonymous and alienating places yet much good work goes on.
Few schools now insist on uniforms or addressing teachers formally.
Also, there is more free study time for older pupils especially around
exam time. The system is less rigid and more informal than in the past
which, some critics claim, has led to increasing discipline problems and
higher rates of truancy. Certainly figures for permanent exclusions from
schools have risen in recent years. Between 1990/91approximately 3,000
seriously misbehaved and disruptive pupils were expelled from their schools
but this figure had risen to nearly 14,000 by 1995/96. (Williams 1997)
The majority of expulsions are boys and there is growing concern about
This may not sound very radical because in many countries, a national curriculum is quite normal. However, there used to be many local variations permitted in educational subjects and themes across the UK. Some children had quite different educational experiences simply because of where they lived. There were national guidelines and standards but no national curriculum. This was changed after 1988. Nowadays young people broadly study the same subjects with fewer local differences. There are also nationally administered tests at regular intervals to ensure that pupils receive the relevant education and reach the correct standards for their age, the so-called ‘key stages.’
This reform was not brought about without debate and controversy. Many teachers were unenthusiastic because it reduced their autonomy about what gets taught and when. It also greatly increased their workload with more administration and testing to be done.
The question is often raised of what should be put into the curriculum and what should be left out. Even if ‘British History’, for example is included, what exactly should be taught? Should studying the work of Shakespeare always be included under English? And what about minority interest subjects which tend to get left out?
The National Curriculum in England and Wales has English, Maths and a Science subject as the core. These are compulsory. The foundation subjects are history, geography, music, art, design and technology, physical education and a foreign language for 11-16 year olds. These must all be included. Other subjects tend to be squeezed out because of time constraints and the importance of examinations. Religious education is also compulsory.
Another reform was allowing schools to ‘opt out’ of LEA control if sufficient parents and school governors were in favour. The advantage of this was increased freedom for the school but on the negative side, it meant less funding so they would have to find money elsewhere usually by charging fees. A certain proportion of opted-out schools became grant-aided, receiving some money from the central government and also charging fees.
Another major area receiving attention was the examination system. New examinations were introduced for all 16-year-olds at the end of their compulsory education. The former GCE ‘O’ level (General Certificate in Education Ordinary level) was combined with the former Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), which had always had lower status, to form the new GCSE. The main change with this was a new emphasis on practical coursework and continuous assessment and not just the final examination. This is seen as progress by some commentators but others view it more negatively, saying it is easier to pass and lowers educational standards.
Every August when the GCSE examination results are released this debate
resurfaces, especially as increasing numbers of school pupils gain passes
with higher grades. Between 1993 and 1994, the number of pupils obtaining
5 or more GCSE’s (or equivalent) rose from 288,000 to 315,000. Supporters
of this type of exam claim that pupils and teachers work harder and are
more result-oriented; hence the higher pass rates. The critics claim that
more pass simply because it is easier to do so. Girls tend to do better
than boys. In 1993/94 approximately half of 16-year-old girls gained five
or more GCSE’s compared with two fifths of boys. (Social Trends 1997:55)
And what of the New Labour government?
To change that would be seen as an attack on another phenomenon of the 1980s reforms: ‘parent power.’ Parents were given more say in their children’s education and more places made available for them on school governing bodies. The power may be limited but it exists nevertheless and it would be difficult to try to take that away.
There are a variety of colleges and institutes as well as universities to attend and the proportion of young people in further or higher education has risen consistently throughout the 1980s and 90s. The government aims to keep raising this proportion. The fear of unemployment keeps many young people in education these days, whereas in the past they may have taken their chances on the job market with few or no qualifications
There used to be 46 British universities but in 1992, the 31 polytechnics were permitted to join the university sector so, overnight, the university population increased. These newer universities still do not have the same status as the older universities such as London, Bristol and of course Oxbridge. Nor do they have the same funding. There are now 90 universities including the Open University and one private university. In 1984, there were some 254,819 undergraduates in the UK. This figure had risen to 946,919 in 1994. (1997 Annual Statistics Table 5.12:114)
The Dearing Inquiry was set up in 1996, headed by Sir Ron Dearing, to look at how the higher education sector could be expanded, modernised but also made more able to pay for itself. This long and heavy report (literally- it weighed 6.5 kilos!) was published and discussed in July 1997 with the Labour government amenable to the proposal of students having to pay fees. Until now, those accepted for undergraduate courses, if sufficiently qualified, did not have to pay fees. This was a very generous system, intended to help those lower down the social scale with little money but it also benefited those who could afford to pay.
From October 1998 fees were introduced, which effectively means that there is no longer free higher education in the UK. On top of the 1,000 GBP per year fees, students have to find accommodation and living costs. Many find it difficult to survive financially without taking on part-time work throughout term time as well as in the holidays. Most students also have to take out loans, which means they end up with a debt as well as a degree at the end of their studies. Most university degree courses last for 3 years, with language ones often 4 years, allowing for one-year practical training abroad. Some may be longer, such as dentistry, medicine and architecture.
The post-compulsory sector is set for further expansion in the coming years although problems of funding will still need more consideration.
A Note on Nursery Education
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