The basic features of the British educational system are the same as they are anywhere else in Europe: full-time education is compulsory up to the middle teenage years; the academic year begins at the end of summer; compulsory education is free of charge, but parents may spend money on educating their children privately if they want to. There are recognized stages, with children moving from the first stage (primary) to the second stage (secondary) at around the age of eleven or twelve. The third (tertiary) stage is ‘further’ education at university or college.
· Public means private! – Terminology to do with the school system in Britain can be confusing. Schools funded by the government, either directly or via local education authorities, are called ‘state schools’ and education provided in this way is known as ‘state education’. This distinguishes it from ‘private education’ which comprises ‘independent schools’. Some independent schools are known as ‘public schools’. The possibility of confusion is especially great because in the USA schools organized by the government are called ‘public schools’ and the education provided by the government is called the ‘public school system’. In Britain today, about 8% of children are educated outside the state system.
· Public schools used to educate the sons of the upper and upper-middle classes. At these public schools the emphasis was on ‘character-building’ and the development of ‘team spirit’ rather than on academic achievement. This involved the development of distinctive customs and attitudes, the wearing of distinctive clothes and the use of specialized items of vocabulary. They were all boarding schools, so they had a deep and lasting influence on their pupils. Their aim was to prepare young men to take up positions in the higher ranks of the army, in business, the legal profession, the civil service and politics. However, these days, there are a fairly large number of girls’ public schools, and more recently a few schools have started to admit both boys and girls. Many schools admit day pupils as well as boarders. There is less emphasis on team sport and more on academic achievement. Life for the pupils is more physically comfortable than it used to be. Among the most famous public schools are Eton, Harrow, Rugby and Winchester.
When the pupils from these schools finished their education, they formed the ruling élite, retaining the distinctive habits and vocabulary which they had learnt at school. They formed a closed group, to a great extent separated from the rest of society. Entry into this group was difficult for anybody who had had a different education. When, in the twentieth century, education and its possibilities for social advancement came within everybody’s reach, new schools tended to copy the features of the public schools.
Central government does not prescribe a detailed programme of learning or determine what books and materials should be used. Nor does it dictate the exact hours of the school day, the exact dates of holidays or the exact age at which a child must start in full-time education. It does not manage an institution’s finances either, it just decides how much money to give it. It does not itself set or supervise the markings of the exams which older teenagers do.
Universities, although financed by the government, have even more autonomy. Each one has complete control over what to teach, how to teach it, who it accepts as students and how to test these students.
Learning for its own sake, rather than for any particular practical purpose, has traditionally been given a comparatively high value in Britain. The balance has changed in the last quarter of the twentieth century (for example, there is now a high degree of concern about levels of literacy), but much of the public debate about educational policy still focuses not so much on how to help people develop useful knowledge and skills as on how education might help to bring about a better society – on social justice rather than on efficiency.
This approach has had a far-reaching effect on many aspects of the educational system. First of all, it has influenced the general style of teaching, which has tended to give priority to developing understanding rather than acquiring factual knowledge and learning to apply this knowledge to specific tasks. Primary schoolchildren do not have as much formal homework to do and university students have fewer hours of programmed attendance than students on the continent do. A second effect has been an emphasis on academic ability rather than practical ability.
Some of the many changes that took place in British education in the second half of the twentieth century simply reflected the wider social process of increased egalitarianism. The élitist institutions which first set the pattern no longer set the trend, and are themselves less élitist.
These days, most eleven-year-olds all go to the same local school, which are known as comprehensive schools.
Starting in the late 1980s major changes were introduced by the government. The first of these was the setting up of a national curriculum. For the first time in British education there is now a set of learning objectives for each year of compulsory school and all state schools are obliged to work towards these objectives.
The introduction of the national curriculum is also intended to have an influence on the subject-matter of teaching. At the lower primary level, this means a greater emphasis on what are known as ‘the three Rs’ (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic). At higher levels, it means a greater emphasis on science and technology. A consequence of the traditional British approach to education had been the habit of giving a relatively large amount of attention to the arts and humanities (which develop the well-rounded human being), and relatively little to science and technology (which develop the ability to do specific jobs).
· Learning for its own sake. One effect of the traditional British emphasis on academic learning as opposed to practical training can be seen in the way that people gain qualifications for certain professions. In many cases this has not traditionally been done within universities. Instead, people go to specialized institutions which are separate from any university. You can study architecture at university, but most architects have learnt their profession at a separate School of Architecture. You can study law at university but this alone does not qualify you to be a lawyer. You cannot get a teacher’s qualification by doing an ordinary university course – most teachers get theirs at teacher training colleges. Until recently, schools were not usually involved in helping people to get qualifications for skilled manual jobs such as bricklaying or carpentry or machine-operating.
· A nation of ignoramuses. Does the earth go round the sun or does the sun go round the earth? This was one of the questions a representative sample of 13,000 adults was asked in a study conducted by the European Commission. A third of those questioned in Britain got the sun – earth question wrong, and half of them did not know how long it takes for the earth to go around the sun. Most spectacularly, nearly half thought that early human beings were alive at the same time as dinosaurs. These results reinforced the feeling in Britain that people’s knowledge is unacceptably low. The survey also showed, contrary to what was supposed, that scientists are very highly respected.
Exams and qualifications
First, the exams are not set by the government, but rather independent examining boards. Second, the boards publish a separate syllabus for each subject. In practice, nearly all pupils do exams in the English language, maths and a science subject, and most also do an exam in technology and one in a foreign language, usually French. Many students take exams in three or more additional subjects. Third, the exams have nothing to do with school years as such. They are divorced from the school system (formally it is individual people who enter for these exams, not pupils in a particular year of school).
- GCSE – General Certificate of Secondary Education. The exams taken by most fifteen-to sixteen-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Marks are given for each subject separately. The syllabuses and methods of examination of the various examining boards differ. However, there is a uniform system of marks, all being graded from A to G. Grades A, B and C are regarded as ‘good’ grades.
- A Levels – Advanced Levels. Higher level academic exams set by the same examining boards that set GCSE exams. They are taken mostly by people around the age of eighteen who wish to go on to higher education.
- Degree: A qualification from a university. (Other qualifications obtained after secondary education are usually called ‘certificate’ or ‘diploma’). Students studying for a first degree are called undergraduates. When they have been awarded a degree, they are known as graduates. Most people get honours degrees, awarded in different classes (Classes I, II, III). A student who is below one of these gets a pass degree. (i.e. not an honours degree).
- Bachelor’s Degree: The general name for a first degree, most commonly a BA (Bachelor of Arts) or BSc (Bachelor of Science).
- Master’s Degree: The general name for a second (postgraduate) degree, most commonly an MA or MSc.
- Doctorate: The highest academic qualification. This usually (but not everywhere) carries the title PhD (doctor of Philosophy). The time taken to complete a doctorate varies, but it is generally expected to involve three years of more-or-less full-time study.
The independence of Britain’s educational institutions is most noticeable in universities. They make their own choices of who to accept on their courses. There is not right of entry to university for anybody. Universities normally select students on the basis of A-level results and an interview. Those with better exam grades are more likely to be accepted. But in principal there is nothing to stop a university accepting a student who has no A-levels at all and conversely, a student with top grades in several A-levels is not guaranteed a place.
The availability of higher education has increased greatly in the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, universities only take the better students. Because of this, and also because of the relatively high degree of personal supervision of students which the low ratio of students to staff allows, nearly all university students complete their studies in three years. (It is only modern languages and certain vocational studies that students take more than three years.)
Another reason for the low drop-out rate is that ‘full-time’ really means full-time. A large proportion of students live ‘on campus’, (or, in Oxford and Cambridge, ‘in college’) or in rooms nearby, which tends to mean that the student is surrounded by a university atmosphere.
However, the expansion of higher education is putting a strain on these characteristics. More students means more expense for the state. The government’s response has been to abolish the student grants which, at one tome, covered most of a student’s expenses during the thirty-week teaching year. On top of that, most students have to pay fees. As a result, many more students cannot afford to live away from home. In addition, more than a third of students now have part-time jobs, which means that they cannot spend so much time on their studies. A further result of increased numbers of students without a corresponding increase in budgets is that the student/staff ratio has been getting higher. All these developments threaten to reduce the traditionally high quality of British university education. They also threaten to reduce its availability to students from low-income families.
Types of universities
- Oxbridge: This name denotes universities of Oxford and Cambridge, both founded in the medieval period. They are federations of semi-independent colleges, each college having its own staff, known as ‘Fellows’. Most colleges have their own dining hall, library and chapel and contain enough accommodation for at least half of the students. The Fellows teach the college students, either one-to-one or in very small groups (known as ‘tutorials’ in Oxford and ‘supervisions’ in Cambridge. Oxbridge has the lowest student/staff ratio in Britain. Before 1970 all Oxbridge colleges were single-sex (mostly for men). Now, the majority admit both sexes.
- The old Scottish universities: By 1600 Scotland boasted four universities. They were Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews. The last of these resembles Oxbridge in many ways, while the other three are more like civic universities (see below) in that most students live at home or find their own rooms in town. At all of them the pattern of study is closer to the continental tradition than to the English one – there is less specialization than at Oxbridge.
- The University of London started in 1836 with just two colleges. Many more have joined since, scattered widely around the city, so that each college (most are non-residential) is almost a separate university. The central organization is responsible for little more than exams and the awarding of degrees.
- The older civic (‘redbrick’) universities: During the nineteenth century various institutes of higher education, usually with a technical bias, sprang up in the new industrial towns and cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Their buildings were of local material, often brick, in contrast to the stone of older universities (hence the name ‘redbrick’). They catered only for local people. At first they prepared students for London University degrees, but later they were given right to award their own degrees, and so became universities themselves.
- The campus universities: They are purpose-built institutions located in the countryside but close to towns. They tend to emphasize relatively ‘new’ academic disciplines such as social sciences and to make greater use than other universities of teaching in small groups, often known as ‘seminars’.
- The new civic universities: These were originally technical colleges set up by local authorities in the first half the twentieth century. In the early 1990s most of these became universities. Their most notable feature is flexibility with regard to studying arrangements, including ‘sandwich’ courses (i.e. studies interrupted by periods of time outside education).
What are the basic features of the British educational system?
What kind of schools are public schools? What are the main characteristics of the public school system?
How is learning organized at different levels of education in Britain?
What is the effect of this approach to teaching?
What changes were introduced in the last quarter of the twentieth century?
How are exams taken? What exams do the majority of British students take?
What degrees are awarded after graduating from universities?
How do people gain qualifications for certain professions such as an architect, a lawyer, a teacher?
What are the characteristic features of institutions of higher education?
What developments threaten to reduce the traditionally high quality of British university education?