Education in Britain
MOSCOW STATE TEACHER`S TRAINING UNIVERSITY
Education in the United Kingdom
Written by Isaeva Tatiana
Checked by Makhmuryan K.
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
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
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
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
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
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
and the church schools.
However, the changing economic, social and cultural conditions
outlined in the previous section caused the government to reexamine the
nature and the composition of that partnership. The questions being asked
during the 1980’s included the following:
Has central government the power to make the system respond to the
changing context? Are the local authorities too local for administrating a
national system and too distant for supporting local, especially parental,
involvement in school? Have the parents been genuine partners in the system
that affects the future welfare of their children? And what place, if any,
in the partnership has been allocated to the employers, who believe they
have a contribution to make to the preparation of young people for the
1) New governing bodies
Various Acts of Parliament since 1980 have made schools more
Teachers, employers and parents have been given places on the governing
bodies. Governors have to publish information about the school that enables
parents to make informed choices when deciding to which school they should
send their child. Each LEA has to have a curriculum policy that must be
considered and implemented by each governing body. Schools also must have a
policy on sex education and must ensure that political indoctrination does
not take place. This accountability of schools and LEAs has to be
demonstrated through an annual report to be presented to a public meeting
of parents. The government gave parents the right to enrol their children -
given appropriate age and aptitude - at any state school of their choice,
within the limits of capacity. Parents already sent their children to the
local school of their choice. The decision to publish schools' examination
results, however, gave parents a stark, but not necessarily well-informed,
basis on which to choose the most appropriate school for their child.
Increasingly parents sought access to the most successful nearby school in
terms of examination results. Far
from being able to exercise their choice, large numbers of parents were now
frustrated in their choice. Overall, in 1996 20 per cent of parents failed
to obtain their first choice of school. In London the level was 40 per
cent, undermining the whole policy of 'parental choice' and encouraging
only the crudest view of educational standards. Schools found themselves
competing rather than cooperating and some schools, for example in deprived
urban areas, faced a downward spiral of declining enrolment followed by
reduced budgets. Thus the market offered winners and losers: an improved
system for the brighter or more fortunate pupils, but a worse one for the
'bottom' 40 per cent. Schools in deprived parts of cities acquired
reputations as 'sink' schools. As one education journalist wrote in 1997,
'There is a clear hierarchy of schools:
private, grammar, comprehensives with plenty of nice middle-class children,
comprehensives with fewer nice middle-class children and so on.'
2) Central control
The government has looked for ways of exercising greater influence
over what is taught in schools. New legislation gave the government powers
to exercise detailed control over the organization and content of
education. The 1988 Education Act legislated a National Curriculum and a
system of National Assessment. In addition, significant changes were
enacted to make possible the central financing and thus control of schools
through creating a new kind of school outside LEA control (first, the
provision of City Technology Colleges 9CTC), and, second, the creation of
Grant Maintained Schools (GMS)). The government also significantly reduced
the power of local authorities by transferring the management of schools
from the LEA to the schools themselves (known as the local management of
schools or LMS).
At the same time, within this more centralized system, parents have
been offered greater choice through the establishment of different kinds of
schools (GMS and CTC), through the delegation of management to the
governing bodies of the schools (LMS) and through the granting of parental
rights to send their children to the school of their choice.
The various Parliamentary Acts (but especially the 1988 Act) gave
legal force to a massive change in the terms of the education partnership.
First, the Secretary of State now has powers over the details of the
curriculum and assessment. Second, a mechanism has been created whereby
there can be more participation by parents (and to a much smaller degree by
employers), in decisions that affect the quality of education. Third, the
LEAs have been required to transfer many decisions over finance, staffing,
and admissions to the schools and colleges themselves. Fourth, the LEA
responsibility for the curriculum has been transferred to the Secretary of
3) Employer involvement
The voice of the consumers will be heard more, and the consumer
includes the employer. Several initiatives encouraged employer
participation. First, and possibly the most important in the long run, has
been the encouragement of business representatives on governing bodies of
schools. Second, there has been a range of initiatives which have given
employers a greater say in the purposes which schools are expected to serve
and in the means of attaining them.
4) The role of assessment
The government decided to develop a reformed system of examinations
which would specify the standards against which the performance of
individual schools and of pupils might be measured.
The 1988 Education Act legislated for assessment of pupils at the
ages of 7, 11, 14 and 16, using attainment targets which all children
should normally be expected to reach at these different ages in different
subjects - especially in the «foundation subjects» of English, mathematics
and science. The assessments relied partly on moderated teacher-assessment,
but more importantly on national, externally administrated tests.
As a result of these national assessments, exactly where each child
was in relation to all other children in terms of attainment in each
subject. And it would be possible to say how each school was succeeding in
these measured attainments in relationship to every other school. These
assessments, have subsequently, provided the basis of national comparisons
and league tables of schools.
In the reform of National Curriculum in the early 1990’s, it was
decided that, because of public examinations at 16 , the national
assessment should finish at 14.
For over one hundred years, there had been an independent inspection
service. The inspectors were called Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) to
indicate that ultimately they were accountable to the Queen, not to the
government from whom they ardently preserved their independence. Until
about ten years ago, HMI numbered about 500. They inspected schools and
they advised the government.
Senior HMIs were based at the Department of Education and Science
(now the department for Education and Employment) but the big majority were
scattered over the whole country so that they could advise locally but also
be a source of information to central government. Indeed, they were known
as «the ears and the eyes of the Minister».
Much of this has now changed as government has sought greater central
control. HMI has been cut back to about one third of its previous size. The
Chief Inspector is now a political appointment, not someone who has arisen
from the ranks of an independent inspectorate. A new office has been
created, the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), to which HMI now
belong and which is much more at the service of government policy.
Under OFSTED a very large army of «Ofsted inspectors» has been
created - often teachers - who, after a brief training, are equipped to
inspect schools. The initial plan was to inspect all 25,000 schools every
four years and to publish a report which would be accessible to everyone.
Every teacher is seen and graded. OFSTED is able to identify «failing
schools» and «failing teachers».
It has been very difficult to get rid of very poor teachers. It is
now hoped that, with more regular inspection and with clearer criteria for
success and failure, it will be easier to sack teachers who are
consistently under performing.
The recent changes are increasingly redescribed in managerial and
business terms, as the educational system is managed as part of the drive
to be more economically competitive.
However, one must be aware of the doubts and dismay of many in this
«philosophy». First, there is little consideration of the aims of education
- the values which make the relationship between teacher and learner an
educational encounter, not one of «delivering a service». Second, the new
language of «education» is drawn from an entirely different activity, that
of business and management. The language of control, delivery, inputs and
outputs, performance indicators and audits, defining products, testing
against product specification, etc. Is not obviously appropriate to the
development of thinking, inquiring, imagination, creativity, and so on.
Third, the key role of the teacher is made peripheral to the overall
design; the teacher becomes a «technician» of someone else’s curriculum.
The changing economic and social context in Britain seemed to require
a closer integration of education, training, and employment; at the same
time, a sharper focus on personal development; greater concentration of the
partnership to include employers and parents; and a dominant position given
to central government in stipulating outcomes were all factors which led
the framework of the system is adapting to the new contexts.
a)The public system of education might be illustrated as follows:
|Age |Type of school |National exams and |
| | |assessments |
|4 |Nursery school | |
| |(optional and where | |
| |available) | |
|Beginning of | | |
|compulsory education | | |
|5 |Primary school |Baseline assessment |
|6 |Primary school | |
|7 |Primary school |Assessment Key Stage |
| | |1 |
|8 |Primary school of | |
| |Middle school | |
|9 |Primary school of | |
| |Middle school | |
|10 |Primary school of | |
| |Middle school | |
|11 |Secondary school of |Assessment Key Stage |
| |Middle school |2 |
|12 |Secondary school of | |
| |Middle school | |
|13 |Secondary school of | |
| |Middle school | |
|14 |Secondary School |Assessment Key Stage |
| | |3 |
|15 |Secondary School |Start of GCSE course |
|16 |Secondary School |GCSE exams |
|End of compulsory | | |
|education | | |
|17 |Secondary School |Start of A-level |
| |Sixth Form |course |
| |College of Further | |
| |Education |GNVQ |
| |Work Training Scheme | |
| | |NVQ |
|18 |Secondary School |A-level exams |
| |Sixth Form |GNVQ |
| |College of Further |NVQ |
| |Education | |
| |Work Training Scheme | |
b) Schools and the post-16 curriculum
The maintenance of such a curriculum has been a major function of the
examination system at 16, which was originally designed as a preparation
for the post-16 courses leading to A-level. It is taken in single subjects,
usually not more than three. These three subjects, studied in depth, in
turn constituted a preparation for the single or double subject honors
degrees at university. In this way the shape of the curriculum for the
majority has been determined by the needs of the minority aspiring to a
university place. Alongside «A» Levels, there have been, more recently,
«AS» (Advanced Supplementary) Level examinations. These are worth half an
«A» Level and they enable very bright students to broaden their educational
experience with a «contrasting» subject (for example, the science
specialist might study a foreign language).
The present «A» and «AS» Level system, however, is thought to be in
need of reform. First, it limits choice of subjects at 16 and 17 years, a
time, when a more general education should be encouraged. Second,
approximately 30% of students either drop out or fail - a mass failure rate
amongst a group of young people from the top 30% of academic achievement
who find that after two years they have no qualification. Third, the
concentration on academic success thus conceived has little room for the
vocationally relevant skills and personal qualities stressed by those
employers who are critics of the education system. Fourth, there are over
600 «A» Level syllabuses from eight independent examination boards often
with overlapping titles and content, making comparability of standards
between Boards difficult.
The private sector
y 1997 8 per cent of the school population attended independent fee-paying
schools, compared with under 6 per cent in 1979, and only 5 per cent in
1976. By the year 2000 the proportion may rise to almost 9 per cent, nearly
back to the level in 1947 of 10 per cent. The recovery of private education
in Britain is partly due to middle-class fears concerning comprehensive
schools, but also to the mediocre quality possible in the state sector
after decades of inadequate funding.
Although the percentage of those privately educated may be a small
fraction of the total, its importance is disproportionate to its size, for
this 8 per cent accounts for 23 per cent of all those passing A levels, and
over 25 per cent of those gaining entry to university. Nearly 65 per cent
of pupils leave fee-paying schools with one or more A levels, compared with
only 14 per cent from comprehensives. Tellingly, this 8 per cent also
accounts for 68 per cent of those gaining the highest grade in GCSE
Physics. During the 1980s pupils at independent schools showed greater
improvement in their examination results than those at state schools. In
later life, those educated at fee-paying schools dominate the sources of
state power and authority in government, law, the armed forces and finance.
The 'public' (in fact private, fee-paying) schools form the backbone
of the independent sector. Of the several hundred public schools, the most
famous are the 'Clarendon Nine', so named after a commission of inquiry
into education in 1861. Their status lies in a fatally attractive
combination of social superiority and antiquity, as the dates of their
foundation indicate: Winchester (1382), Eton (1440), St Paul's (1509),
Shrewsbury (1552), Westminster (1560), The Merchant Taylors' (1561), Rugby
(1567), Harrow (1571) and Charterhouse (1611).
The golden age of the public schools, however, was the late nineteenth
century, when most were founded. They were vital to the establishment of a
particular set of values in the dominant professional middle classes. These
values were reflected in the novel Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes,
written in tribute to his own happy time at Rugby School. Its emphasis is
on the making of gentlemen to enter one of the professions: law, medicine,
the Church, the Civil Service or the colonial service. The concept of
'service', even if it only involved entering a profitable profession, was
central to the public school ethos. A career in commerce, or 'mere money
making' as it is referred to in Tom Brown's Schooldays, was not to be
considered. As a result of such values, the public school system was
traditional in its view of learning and deeply resistant to science and
technology. Most public schools were located in the 'timeless' countryside,
away from the vulgarity of industrial cities.
After 1945, when state-funded grammar schools were demonstrating equal
or greater academic excellence, the public schools began to modernise
themselves. During the 1970s most of them abolished beating and 'fagging',
the system whereby new boys carried out menial tasks for senior boys, and
many introduced girls into the sixth form, as a civilising influence. They
made particular efforts to improve their academic and scientific quality.
Traditionally boarding public schools were more popular, but since the
1970s there has been a progressive shift of balance in favour of day
schools. Today only 16 per cent of pupils in private education attend
boarding schools, and the number of boarders declines on average by 3 per
cent each year.
Demand for public school education is now so great that many schools
register pupils' names at birth. Eton maintains two lists, one for the
children of 'old boys' and the other for outsiders. There are three
applicants for every vacancy. Several other schools have two applicants for
each vacancy, but they are careful not to expand to meet demand. In the
words of one academic, 'Schools at the top of the system have a vested
interest in being elitist. They would lose that characteristic if they
expanded. To some extent they pride themselves on the length of their
waiting lists.' This rush to private education is despite the steep rise in
fees, 31 per cent between 1985 and 1988, and over 50 per cent between 1990
and 1997 when the average annual day fees were £5,700 and boarding fees
double that figure. Sixty per cent of parents would probably send their
children to fee-paying schools if they could afford to.
In order to obtain a place at a public school, children must take a
competitive examination, called 'Common Entrance'. In order to pass it,
most children destined for a public school education attend a preparatory
(or 'prep') school until the age of 13.
Independent schools remain politically controversial. The Conservative
Party believes in the fundamental freedom of parents to choose the best
education for their children. The Labour Party disagrees, arguing that in
reality only the wealthier citizens have this freedom of choice. In the
words of Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader in 1953, 'We really cannot go on
with a system in which wealthy parents are able to buy what they and most
people believe to be a better education for their children. The system is
wrong and must be changed.' But since then no Labour government has dared
to abolish them.
There can be no doubt that a better academic education can be obtained
in some of the public schools. In 1993 92 of the 100 schools with the best
A-level results were fee-paying. But the argument that parents will not
wish to pay once state schools offer equally good education is misleading,
because independent schools offer social status also. Unfortunately
education depends not only on quality schools but also on the home
environment. The background from which pupils come greatly affects the
encouragement they receive to study. Middle-class parents are likely to be
better able, and more concerned, to support their children's study than low-
income parents who themselves feel they failed at school. State-maintained
schools must operate with fewer resources, and in more difficult
circumstances, particularly in low-income areas. In addition, the public
school system creams off many of the ablest teachers from the state sector.
The public school system is socially divisive, breeding an atmosphere
of elitism and leaving some outside the system feeling socially or
intellectually inferior, and in some cases intimidated by the prestige
attached to public schools. The system fosters a distinct culture, one
based not only upon social superiority but also upon deference. As one
leading journalist, Jeremy Paxman, himself an ex-public schoolboy remarked,
The purpose of a public school education is to teach you to respect people
you don't respect.' In the words of Anthony Sampson, himself an ex-pupil of
Westminster, the public school elite 'reinforces and perpetuates a class
system whose divisions run through all British institutions, separating
language, attitudes and motivations'.
Those who attend these schools continue to dominate the institutions
at the heart of the British state, and seem likely to do so for some time
to come. At the beginning of the 1990s public schools accounted for 22 out
of 24 of the army's top generals, two-thirds of the Bank of England's
external directors, 33 out of 39 top English judges, and ambassadors in the
15 most important diplomatic missions abroad. Of the 200 richest people in
Britain no fewer than 35 had attended Eton. Eton and Winchester continue to
dominate the public school scene, and the wider world beyond. As Sampson
asks, 'Can the products of two schools (Winchester and Eton), it might be
asked, really effectively represent the other 99.5 per cent of the people
in this diverse country who went to neither mediaeval foundation?' The
concept of service was once at the heart of the public school ethos, but it
is questionable whether it still is. A senior Anglican bishop noted in
1997, 'A headmaster told me recently that the whole concept of service had
gone. Now they all want to become merchant bankers and lawyers.'
There are two arguments that qualify the merit of the public schools,
apart from the criticism that they are socially divisive. It is
inconceivable that the very best intellectual material of the country
resides solely among those able to attend such schools. If one accepts that
the brightest and best pupils are in fact spread across the social
spectrum, one must conclude that an elitist system of education based
primarily upon wealth rather than ability must involve enormous wastage.
The other serious qualification regards the public school ethos which is so
rooted in tradition, authority and a narrow idea of 'gentlemanly'
professions. Even a century after it tried to turn its pupils into
gentlemen, the public school culture still discourages, possibly
unconsciously, its pupils from entering industry. 'It is no accident,'
Sampson comments, 'that most formidable industrialists in Britain come from
right outside the public school system, and many from right outside
Britain will be unable to harness its real intellectual potential
until it can break loose from a divisive culture that should belong in the
past, and can create its future elite from the nation's schoolchildren as a
whole. In 1996 a radical Conservative politician argued for turning public
schools into centres of excellence which would admit children solely on
ability, regardless of wealth or social background, with the help of
government funding. It would be a way of using the best of the private
sector for the nation as a whole. It is just such an idea that Labour might
find attractive, if it is able to tackle the more widespread and
fundamental shortcomings of the state education system.
Further and higher education
reparation for adult life» includes training in the skills required for a
job. These skills can be pitched at different levels - highly job-specific
and not requiring much thought in their application, or «generalisable» and
applicable to different kinds of employment.
Vocational courses are concerned with the teaching of job-related
skills, whether specific or generalisable. They can be based in industry,
and «open learning» techniques make this increasingly likely, although in
the past, they have normally been taught in colleges of further education,
with students given day release from work. Vocational training has not been
an activity for schools. But some critics think that schools should provide
it for non-academic pupils. One major initiative back in 1982, was the
Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) in which schools
received money if they were able to build into the curriculum vocationally-
related content ant activities - more technology, business studies,
industry related work and visits, etc. But all this got lost in 1988 with
the imposition of a National Curriculum was reformed, providing
opportunities for vocational studies to be introduced at 14.
But the real changes in vocational training were to be seen outside
the schools. The curriculum in colleges of further education has been
closely determined by vocational examination bodies which decide what the
student should be able to do in order to receive a qualification as, for
example, a plumber or a hairdresser. These qualifications were pitched at
different levels - from relatively low-skilled operative to higher-skilled
craft and technician. Obtaining these qualifications often required an
apprenticeship, with day release in a college of further education for more
Vocational training always has had a relatively low status in
Britain. The «practical» and the «vocational» have seldom given access to
university or to the prestigious and professional jobs.
Further education has traditionally been characterised by part-time
vocational courses for those who leave school at the age of 16 but need to
acquire a skill, be that in the manual, technical or clerical field. In
all, about three million students enrol each year in part-time courses at
further education (FE) colleges, some released by their employers and a
greater number unemployed. In addition there have always been a much
smaller proportion in full-time training. In 1985 this figure was a meagre
400,000, but by 1995 this had doubled. Given Labour's emphasis on improving
the skills level of all school-leavers, this expansion will continue.
Vocational training, most of which is conducted at the country's 550
further education colleges is bound to be an important component.
Higher education has also undergone a massive expansion. In 1985 only
573,000, 16 per cent of young people, were enrolled in full-time higher
education. Ten years later the number was 1,150,000, no less than 30 per
cent of their age group.
This massive expansion was achieved by greatly enlarging access to
undergraduate courses, but also by authorising the old polytechnics to
grant their own degree awards, and also to rename themselves as
universities. Thus there are today 90 universities, compared with 47 in
1990, and only seventeen in 1945. They fall into five broad categories: the
medieval English foundations, the medieval Scottish ones, the nineteenth-
century 'redbrick' ones, the twentieth-century 'plate-glass' ones, and
finally the previous polytechnics. They are all private institutions,
receiving direct grants from central government.
Oxford and Cambridge, founded in the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries respectively, are easily the most famous of Britain's
universities. Today 'Oxbridge', as the two together are known, educate less
than one-twentieth of Britain's total university student population. But
they continue to attract many of the best brains and to mesmerise an even
greater number, partly on account of their prestige, but also on account of
the seductive beauty of many of their buildings and surroundings.
Both universities grew gradually, as federations of independent
colleges, most of which were founded in the fourteenth, fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries. In both universities, however, new colleges are
periodically established, for example Green College, Oxford (1979) and
Robinson College, Cambridge (1977).
In the nineteenth century more universities were established to
respond to the greatly increased demand for educated people as a result of
the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of Britain's overseas empire.
Many of these were sited in the industrial centres, for example Birmingham,
Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, Liverpool and Bristol.
With the expansion of higher education in the 1960s 'plate-glass'
universities were established, some named after counties or regions rather
than old cities, for example Sussex, Kent, East Anglia and Strathclyde.
Over 50 polytechnics and similar higher education institutes acquired
university status in 1992. There is also a highly successful Open
University, which provides every person in Britain with the opportunity to
study for a degree, without leaving their home. It is particularly designed
for adults who missed the opportunity for higher education earlier in life.
It conducts learning through correspondence, radio and television, and also
through local study centres.
University examinations are for Bachelor of Arts, or of Science (BA or
BSc) on completion of the undergraduate course, and Master of Arts or of
Science (MA or MSc) on completion of postgraduate work, usually a one- or
two-year course involving some original research. Some students continue to
complete a three-year perio of original research for the degree of Doctor
of Philosophy (PhD). The bachelor degree is normal classed, with about 5
per cent normally gaining First, about 30 per cent gaining an Upper Seconi
or 2.1, perhaps 40 per cent gaining a Lower Second, or 2.2, and the balance
getting either i Third, a Pass or failing. Approximately 15 per cei fail to
complete their degree course.
In addition there are a large number of specialis higher education
institutions in the realm of the performing and visual arts. For example,
there a four leading conservatories: the Royal Academy Music, the Royal
College of Music, Trinity College of Music and the Royal Northern College
There are a large number of art colleges, of whi the most famous is
the Royal College of Art, where both Henry Moore and David Hockney once
studied. Other colleges cater for dance, film-making and other specialist
areas in arts.
In spite of the high fees, Britain's universities, Fl colleges and
English language schools host a number of foreign students, in 1996 there
were fewer than 158,000.
Female undergraduates have greatly increased proportionately in recent
years. In the mid-1960 they were only 28 per cent of the intake, became 41
per cent by the early 1980s, and were 51 per cent by 1996. There is still
an unfortunate separation of the sexes in fields of chosen study, arising
from occupational tradition and social expectations. Caring for others is
still a 'proper' career for women; building bridges, it seems, is not.
Unless one believes women's brains are better geared to nursing and other
forms of caring and men's to bridge-building, one must conclude that social
expectations still hinder women and men from realising their potential.
Students from poorer backgrounds are seriously underrepresented in higher
education. Although more in social categories C, D and E are now enrolled,
it is the more prosperous social categories A and B which have benefited
most from university expansion. For Labour there are two issues here:
equality of opportunity, and maximising all of society's intellectual
Ethnic minorities' representation is growing: 1 3 per cent in 1996
compared with only 10.7 per cent in 1990. It is noteworthy that their
university representation exceeds their proportion within the whole
population, a measure of their commitment to higher education.
In 1988 a new funding body, the University Funding Council, was
established, with power to require universities to produce a certain number
of qualified people in specific fields. It is under the UFC's watchful eye
that the universities have been forced to double their student intake, and
each university department is assessed on its performance and quality. The
fear, of course, is that the greatly increased quantity of students that
universities must now take might lead to a loss of academic quality.
Expansion has led to a growing funding gap. Universities have been
forced to seek sponsorship from the commercial world, wealthy patrons and
also from their alumni. The Conservative Party also decided to reduce
maintenance grants but to offer students loans in order to finance their
studies. However, the funding gap has continued to grow and Labour shocked
many who had voted for it by introducing tuition fees at 1,000 pounds per
annum in 1998. Although poorer students were to be exempted it was feared
that, even with student loans, up to 10 per cent of those planning to go to
university would abandon the idea. One effect of the financial burden is
that more students are living at home while continuing their studies: about
50 per cent at the ex-polytechnics, but only 15 per cent at the older
Today many university science and technology departments, for example
at Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Imperial College London, and Strathclyde,
are among the best in Europe. The concern is whether they will continue to
be so in the future. Academics' pay has fallen so far behinc other
professions and behind academic salaries elsewhere, that many of the best
brains have gon< abroad. Adequate pay and sufficient research funding to
keep the best in Britain remains a majo challenge.
As with the schools system, so also with higher education: there is a
real problem about the exclusivity of Britain's two oldest universities.
While Oxbridge is no longer the preserve of a social elite it retains its
exclusive, narrow and spell-binding culture. Together with the public
school system, it creates a narrow social and intellectual channel from
which the nation's leaders are almost exclusively drawn. In 1996 few people
were in top jobs in the Civil Service, the armed forces, the law or
finance, who had not been either to a public school or Oxbridge, or to
The problem is not the quality of education offered either in the
independent schools or Oxbridge. The problem is cultural. Can the products
of such exclusive establishments remain closely in touch with the remaining
95 per cent of the population? If the expectation is that Oxbridge,
particularly, will continue to dominate the controlling positions in the
state and economy, is the country ignoring equal talent which does not have
the Oxbridge label? As with the specialisation at the age of 16 for A
levels, the danger is that Britain's governing elite is too narrow, both in
the kind of education and where it was acquired. It is just possible that
the new Labour government, which itself reflects a much wider field of life
experience in Britain, will mark the beginning of significantly fuller
popular participation in the controlling institutions of state.
The educational system - its organization, its control, its content -
is changing rapidly to meet the perceived needs of the country - the need
to improve standards and to respond to a rapidly changing and competitive
economy. Those changes might be summarized in the following way.
First, there is much greater central control over what is taught.
Second, what is taught is seen in rather traditional terms - organized in
terms of subjects rather than in response to the learning needs of the
pupils. Third, however, there is an attempt to be responsive to the
economic needs of the country, with an emphasis upon vocational studies and
training. Fourth, there is a rapid expansion of those who stay in education
beyond the compulsory age, making use of the «three-track system» of «A»
Level, GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualifications) and NVQ (National
Vocational Qualifications). Fifth, although the content of education is
centrally controlled, its «delivery» pays homage to the «market» by
encouraging choice between different institutions so that funding follows
popular choice (i.e. the more popular the school with parents, the more
money it gets, thereby providing an incentive to schools and colleges to
improve their performance.
Education under Labour
ducation was the central theme of the new Labour government. It promised a
huge range of improvements: high-quality education for all four-year-olds
whose parents wanted it and lower pupil-teacher ratios, in particular that
children up to the age of eight children would never be in classes of over
30 pupils. It also declared that all children at primary school would spend
one hour each day on reading and writing, and another hour each day on
numeracy, the basic skills for all employment. When Labour took office only
57 per cent of children reached national literacy targets by the time they
left primary school, and only 55 per cent reached similar targets in maths.
The government pledged to raise these proportions to 80 per cent and 75 per
cent respectively. It also established a new central authority responsible
for both qualifications and the curriculum, to ensure that these were, in
the government's own words, 'high quality, coherent and flexible'. It
warned that it intended to evolve a single certificate to replace A levels
and vocational qualifications, and possibly to reflect a broad range of
study rather than the narrow specialism of the A-level system. Because 30
per cent of students who started A-level courses failed to acquire one, it
also wanted to create a more flexible system that would allow students
still to attain recognised standards of education and training on the road
to A levels. However, unlike France or Germany, an increasing proportion of
those taking exams at this standard were actually passing.
The government also promised to improve the quality of the teaching staff,
with a mandatory qualification for all newly appointed heads of schools, to
improve teacher training, to establish a General Teaching Council, which
would restore teacher morale and raise standards, and to introduce more
effective means of removing inefficient teachers. It also promised to look
at the growing problem of boys underachieving at school compared with
girls. Finally, Labour asked for its record to be judged at the end of its
first term in office, in 2002.
1. When do the british start their education?
2. Do you agree that the british education has problems?
3. What were the lacks of British education?
4. Who can study in public schools?
5. Does the word «public» reflect the real principle of that schools?
6. What political acts became a turning point in British education?
7. What is the most well-spread opinion about the vocational courses?
8. What do you think about the quality of higher education in Britain?
9. What are the main principles of the Labour Patry (concerning education)
10. How had the role of parents in the children’s education changed?
11. How did the changing economic and social situation influence the system
12. What are the most prestigeous schools in Britain?
13. Are there students from other countries in British schools and
14. Is the nursary school compulsory?
15. How do you think: do the Concervative principles of education differ
from that of Labour?
16. What are the aims of education in Britain today?
17. Did the level of education become higher after the reforms?
18. What is the GCSE?
19. What types of schools does the british system of education includes?
20. Would you like to study in Britain? (Give your argument for or against