The educational system of Great Britain is heavily class-conditioned, both historically and actually. Inequalities in schooling cause differences in the internal structure of schools themselves and in the content of teaching. This reflects the differences in the social class composition of the student bodies. Not surprisingly, the results of schooling differ greatly for children of different social classes, and class inequalities in university attendance are also to be expected. The problem of obtaining equal education for the children of privileged classes and those of the wide masses of working people remains one of the most acute.
The educational system of the country has developed for over a hundred years. It is a complicated system, full of confusing detail, and there are wide variations as between one part of the country and another.
The British education system operates on the basis of the distribution of responsibility between the three sections: central government (the Department of Education and Science — DES), local education authorities (LEAs) and schools themselves. In other words, it is a national system locally administered, with the DES a major operational partner rather than its sole controller. The legal basis for this partnership is supplied by the 1944 Education Act. The Department of Education and Science is almost entirely concerned with the formation of national policies for education rather than with executive functions. Decisions by the Secretary of State under the various legal provisions can be challenged in the courts. To exercise its responsibility for the maintenance of minimum national standard of education, the DES is assisted by members of Her Majesty's Inspectorate whose primary function is to give professional advise to the Department, local education authorities, schools and colleges, and discuss day-to-day problems with them.
The day-to-day running of the education service is in the hands of the local education authorities. It is their duty to provide and run the schools and colleges in their areas. However, the choice of text-books and timetable are usually left to the headmaster, with the content and method of day-to-day teaching decided by the individual teacher. Local education authorities are charged with the provision and day-to-day running of the schools and colleges in their area and with the recruitment and payment of the teachers who work in them. They are responsible for the provision of buildings, materials and equipment. The administrative functions of education in each area are in the hands of a Chief Education Officer, who is assisted by a deputy and by a number of assistant education officers and other professional and administrative staff.
Each school has its own board of governors, consisting of teachers, parents, local politicians, members of the local community, businessmen. Though all schools have a large measure of freedom, religious instruction, by law, is compulsory for all of them.
Compulsory education in Great Britain begins at the age of 5, and the minimum school leaving age for all pupils is 16. Education is provided both in publicly maintained (by state) schools (no tuition fees are payable in any of them), which belong to the so-called 'public sector', and in private independent schools — 'private sector', where the parents have to pay for their children. Education within the maintained schools system normally comprises two stages, i. e. primary and secondary, or, in a growing number of areas, especially in England, three stages — first (schools), middle (schools) and upper (schools). These both arrangements are often preceded by nursery education on a non-compulsory basis.
Great Britain has a great number of various types of schools. These are nursery schools (day nurseries, kindergartens, creches, play groups), primary schools (the infant department, junior department); middle schools; secondary schools (grammar, technical, secondary modern, special); independent (private) schools, public schools, preparatory schools.
Britain's 35,500 schools of all types are attended by nearly 9,5 million pupils (1989). In most primary schools and in an increasing number of secondary schools boys and girls are taught together. About 85 per cent of pupils in maintained secondary schools in England and Wales and nearly 62 per cent in Northern Ireland attend mixed schools. In Scotland nearly all secondary schools are mixed. Most independent schools for younger children are coeducational, but the majority providing secondary education are single-sex.
Two recent Acts of Parliament have embodied measures to improve the quality and breadth of education and to extend parental choice and decisionmaking in state-maintained schools. The Education (No. 2) Act 1986 makes provision for reform of the composition of school governing bodies and reallocation of functions between school governors, local education authorities and head teachers; appraisal of the performance of teachers and more effective in-service training of teachers. The Education Reform Act, passed in 1988, contains wide-ranging measures covering both school and post-school education.
It provides for the establishment of national curriculum in schools and for regular assessments of performance. The 1988 Act gives all secondary as well as larger primary schools responsibility for managing the major part of their budgets, including staffing costs, in addition to the option to withdraw from local authority control. It also makes provision for the development of a network of city technology colleges in disadvantaged urban areas. These colleges will be sponsored by industry and commerce and will offer broadly based secondary education with a strong technological and business element. The colleges are to be state-aided but independent of local education authorities.
Teachers in publicly maintained schools are appointed by local education authorities or school governing bodies. There are about 540,000 teachers in maintained and independent schools, and the average pupil-teacher ratio for all schools is 17 to 1. Teachers in maintained schools must hold qualifications approved by the appropriate education department.
Initial teacher training courses in England and Wales are offered by universities departments of education as well as many polytechnics and colleges. Non-graduates usually qualify by taking a four-year Bachelor of Education (BEd) honours degree. There are also specially designed two-year BEd courses — mostly in subjects where there is a shortage of teachers at the secondary level. Graduates normally take a one-year Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGGE). Teachers of academic subjects at secondary schools must hold a degree containing two passes in the subject which they wish to teach. In certain non-academic subjects, a relevant specialist diploma has been acceptable in place of a degree, but this provision is being pushed out.
Education for the under-fives, mainly from three to five, is not compulsory and can be provided in nursery schools or in nursery classes attached to primary schools. In any case there are not enough of them to take all children of that age group. Although they are called schools, they give little formal instruction. The children spend most of their time in some sort of play, activity, as far as possible of an educational kind. A large proportion of children at this beginning stage is in the private sector where fees are payable. At the age of 5 they move to the following stage.
The primary school usually takes children from 5 to 11, although officially the primary stage also includes pre-school education. Over half of the primary schools take the complete age range from 5 to 11. About a quarter take infants only up to the age of 7. Most of the rest take juniors only, from the age of 7 to 11. The great majority of primary schools take both boys and girls.
As a rule children transfer from primary to secondary schools at 11, but there is a growing number of middle schools which follow the first schools taking children from the age of 5 to 8, 9 or 10.
The concept of middle schools forms the second stage of a three-tier system of first, middle and upper schools. Middle school education, which was introduced in 1965 by the Labour Government, is a sort of a compromise between primary and secondary education.
Right up to the year 1944 secondary education in Great Britain had existed in the form of fee-charging public schools and free grammar schools (the latter are called so because grammar, particularly Latin grammar, formed an important part of the curriculum of the original grammar schools, some of which were founded as early as the Middle Ages), the recruitment to which was based on the unfair selective principle.
With the introduction of compulsory secondary education for all, it did not become equal for everybody. The so-called secondary modern schools, which were opened later, became second-hand educational establishments, because, unlike grammar schools, they did not qualify the school-leavers, mostly at the age of 16, to enter the university.
To sort out the primary school-leavers between these two types of secondary schools, a notorious 'eleven plus (11+) examination' (Secondary Selection Examination) was instituted. Its aim was to separate at the age of 11 three quarters of school children as 'less able' and to retain the prospects of higher education only for the remaining quarter. The result of this examination affected the children's future. It consisted of an arithmetic paper, an English paper, and an intelligence test which played the dominant role because it was supposed to determine the children's inborn abilities and their intellectual potential. The pupils who could not cope adequately with the examination were labelled 'retarded' or 'less able', 'less clever', i. e. unpromising.
In the period after 1944 when selection predominated, girls' 11 —|— performances were weighted differently to boys' performances so that girls achieved fewer places than their examination results indicated, and boys achieved more places than their results merited. So girls in many areas had less chance of a grammar or technical school place than boys.
Sharp public protest and pressure of progressive parents, teachers and educationists against the 11+ examination made the Labour Government proclaim in 1976 the course to its gradual elimination and transition to the system of comprehensive schools, where children could only be transferred, depending on their ability, to a corresponding stream.
Alongside with the reorganization of schools on comprehensive lines, the idea of middle schools was developed in the light of the considerations mentioned above. Middle schools cover various age ranges between 8 and 14 (8—12, 9—13, 9—14). The school-leaving age in each group is beyond 11, i. e. outside the 11 + examination age, though the pupils are not guaranteed from other selective traps in the future.
Secondary education is equally compulsory for all up to the age of 16, but pupils can stay on at school voluntarily for up to three years longer. In many areas children moving from primary to secondary schools are still selected according to their current level of academic attainment and ability, for education in various types of school.
Grammar schools provide mainly academic education for selected pupils from the age of 11 to 18, and give their pupils an adequate level of academic instruction preparing them for higher education. The curriculum includes English language and literature, modern languages, Latin, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, history, geography and other subjects.
At the beginning of the century technical schools came into existence. Few in number they were planned as the academic selective equals of grammar schools but specialized in technical studies. Predominant subjects of their curricula are those of science and mathematics bias.
Secondary modern schools (1944) (the term 'modern' by contrast with the term 'classical') provide a general, non- academic education with a practical bias up to the minimum school leaving age of 16, the level, at which the school-leavers cannot enter the university but start work or do some vocational training. The general level of education in these schools is low.
These three types of school (grammar, technical, secondary modern) form the so-called tripartite system of education introduced in 1944. There exists as well a variety of combinations of grammar, technical and modern schools. However, as a result of comprehensive reorganization the number of grammar and secondary modern schools fell radically by the end of the 1970s.
The trend towards the establishment of comprehensive schools began in the 1950s and has grown since. Comprehensive education became national policy in 1976, when the Comprehensive Education Act was passed under the Labour Government. However, with the arrival of the Conservatives to power in 1979 the new government removed from the LEAs the compulsion to adopt the comprehensive system. As a result approximately 75 per cent of LEAs have comprehensive secondary education, and the remaining 25 per cent (those who resisted the change until May 1979) have retained the old, tripartite system, i. e. grammar, technical and modern. Nevertheless over 90 per cent of the maintained secondary school population in England and Wales attended comprehensive schools by the end of the 1980s which take pupils without reference to ability or aptitude.
The word 'comprehensive' expresses not only the idea that the schools in question embrace all the children in a given area, without selection, but also that they offer all the courses taught in the three traditional types of school. For this reason they are much bigger than the latter.
Comprehensive schools take the following age ranges: from 11 to 18 years (following primary schools), from 12, 13 or 14 to 18 years (following middle schools), and from 11 to 16 years.
The pupils in the latter group, wishing to continue their education beyond the age of 16, may transfer to the sixth form of an 11 — 18 school, or to a sixth-form college, which, however, does not guarantee further education at the university. Furthermore, the contents of the curriculum, as well as the teaching methods, timetabling and the selection of text books are different even in the schools of the same type. This is the reason for general concern about the standards of pupils performance.
There are special educational establishments adapted to the needs of pupils who are handicapped by a disability of body or mind. Special education for the physically and mentally handicapped is provided in a variety of ways. A number of options exists, including withdrawal from ordinary classes for individual help, full and part-time special classes within ordinary school, separate (primary or secondary) special schools (day or boarding), boarding hostels with attendance at a day school, and teaching arrangements in hospitals. Special schools and classes provide, where appropriate and possible, physiotherapy, speech therapy and other forms of treatment. Attendance at school is compulsory from 5 to 16, though some handicapped pupils begin at an earlier age and stay on longer. Special schools are normally maintained by LEAs, but a large proportion of special boarding schools are private and fee-charging.
Though the number of comprehensive, state-maintained schools has increased considerably by the end of the 1980s, a large proportion of fee-charging schools within the category of secondary education is preserved for privileged classes, where children are instructed on advanced curricula. Outside the public sector such are independent (private) schools. There are about 2,300 registered independent schools catering for pupils of all ages. These schools, unlike state schools, are fee-paying. The majority of them are boarding, and pupils go home only for the holidays. However, there are some independent day schools. Most independent schools are single-sex, that is, for boys or girls only.
Though limited in number, the largest and most important of the independent schools are the public schools, which accept pupils at about 12 or 13 years of age usually on the basis of a strict selection. They are fee-charging and very expensive, their standards for entries are very high. They number about 500.
Most public schools were founded in Victorian times to provide recruits for the empire and the army. Nowadays they are less obsessed by team-spirit and character-building, and more concerned with examinations and universities, mostly Oxford and Cambridge. But they still give their pupils a very special sense of their mission and confidence. The public school pupils are the children of the rich, influential parents. For example, two thirds of Eton's pupils are sons of old Etonians, which makes it more than any other school a hereditary club for the rich and influential. The nine most ancient and aristocratic remain among the most important public schools: Eton (1440), Harrow (1571), Winchester (1382), Westminster (1560), St Paul's (1509), Merchant Taylors' (1561), Rugby (1567), Charterhouse (1611) and Shrewsbury (1552). In spite of changes that have taken place in the last six hundred years, they still retain a great influence on the British power-structure, reproducing the ruling elite.
A number of independent preparatory schools [prep schools) prepare children for entry to the public schools. They embrace children from 8 to 13. Nearly all preparatory schools are for boys and many of them are boarding.
The social boundary separating independent private schools from those maintained by state is insurmountable for the great majority of the British people.
The principal examination taken by secondary school pupils around the age of 16 are those leading to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which replaced the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary (0) level and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) in 1988. The GCSE is normally taken after five years of secondary education and has a seven-point scale of grades denoted by the letters A to G. The GCSE courses were introduced in 1986 with a view to improving the examination syllabus and raising standards of performance.
The GCE Advanced (A) level is normally taken after a further two years of study.
The Secondary Examinations Council has been established to co-ordinate and supervise systems of examination and assessment designed principally for pupils in secondary education.