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Education in Britain

When asked during the 1997 general election campaign about the Labour Party’s policy priorities, Prime Minister Tony Blair was frequently heard to answer ‘education, education, education.’ His Party put it at the top of their agenda, at least for the duration of the election campaign. Education is something that affects all of us at various points of our lives, whether as school pupils, parents or lifelong learners.1 It is also one of the major areas of government expenditure, with education being viewed as an investment for the country’s future wealth and well-being. It is, therefore, a political as well as a personal issue with many social and economic repercussions.

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
We need to make some distinctions between the education systems in England and Wales, which are nationally led by policy decisions made in Westminster and Scotland and N. Ireland where there has been some local autonomy which has resulted in some different practices, such as in the examination systems. Scotland in particular has long had strong educational traditions of its own. With increasing moves towards devolution2, these differences will probably increase.

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)

Legal Requirements
Parents or legal guardians of children are required to ensure children in their care receive an education between the ages of five to sixteen. Whilst this normally takes place at a school, it can be done at home by the parents themselves if they can prove to inspectors that their children are reaching set educational targets and are not disadvantaged by not attending school. For children living in remote areas, home education may be the only option. Some parents, however, decide to educate their children outside school for a variety of reasons, both social and personal.

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
Successive governments in the 19th century were reluctant to invest money in a state education system, believing demands were best met by private providers in addition to existing church schools. This was part of the so-called ‘laissez faire’ attitude prevalent at that time. The foundations of a state system were laid by the first Education Act in 1870, known as Forster’s Act. This was built on over the decades by a succession of Acts of Parliament which extended state education, making it compulsory for increasing numbers of young people to attend schools for longer periods of time. These moves were assisted by the gradual outlawing of child labour.

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 problem.
The Conservative Reforms of the 1980s
Mrs. Thatcher held the position of Secretary State for Education during the Conservative government of the early 1970s and was committed to changing education along with other areas of society. Her government introduced a number of reforms through a series of Education Acts. One of the most important of these is that of 1988, which laid down the basis for a National Curriculum.

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?
The current government also came into power with a well-publicised commitment to education. They have made it clear, however, that they are not going to reverse the reforms of their predecessors. The National Curriculum is here to stay, although there may be some fine-tuning and attention paid to some of the lingering problems. They are also not about to attack the private sector and abolish fee-paying schools. Private education does not fit in with the traditional image of the Labour Party nor their former policies but this is a new era of New Labour. There is a demand for, and  room for, both private and state education.

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.

Post-School Education
Pupils can leave school at 16 but the tertiary or post-compulsory sector has expanded and an increasing number of young (and not so young) people now participate in post-compulsory education.

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
At the other end of the scale is nursery education. This is often seen as the ‘Cinderella’3 of the system because there is very little state provision. Parents wishing to send their children to pre-school or kindergarten usually have to look to the private sector. Various proposals have been put forward but it does not appear to be a priority. Many of those who use nursery schools can or do find the money to go private. There may be some widening of state provision in years to come. Statistics for 1993-94 show that there were 62,000 children at nursery schools. (Britain: an Official Handbook 1996:447)

The Future
Problems of funding will persist as more people become involved in education at different levels and higher education in particular will probably have to be even more self-financing. The impact of new technology on learning practices and patterns is something to watch out for and may lead to a decline in the school as an educational institution. But for the time being, we still need teachers and we need increasing and more varied types of education.


  1. ‘Lifelong learning’ is an expression very much in vogue nowadays. It refers to the trend for people to be involved in various types of education throughout the whole of their lives and not just during school years. Adults may return to education in order to gain additional or new qualifications or to retrain in another occupational area due to technological and professional change. Older people may simply want to pursue an interesting course at their leisure during retirement years. Whatever the reason, increasing numbers of people are attending a wider variety of educational establishments.
  2. Devolution is a fact of life in present day Britain. Scotland will soon have its own national assembly with policy-making powers and Wales will follow with its own assembly. Greater autonomy for the regions may lead to the eventual break-up of the UK.
  3. ‘Cinderella’ refers to something neglected, badly-treated and hard done by.


  • ‘Annual Abstract of Statistics’ (1997) London: the Stationery Office.
  • ‘Britain 1997:an Official Handbook’ (1996) London: Central Office of Information
  • ‘Social Trends 27’ (1997) London: the Stationery Office
  • Williams, J. (1997)‘Education, Education, Education’ Sociology Review, November, p. 20.

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