Wednesday, 7 October 2015

TANDQ 06: Around the World: England

In 2014-2015 I wrote an education column called "There Are No Dumb Questions" for the website "MuseHack". As that site has evolved, I have decided to republish those columns here (updating the index page as I go) every Wednesday. This sixth column originally appeared on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

What is the education system like in… England?

This marks the first of a semi-regular set of columns that will look at education systems in different parts of the world. My belief is that this is useful not merely to learn about them, but might also help a writer whose fictional characters originate from another country. And while I’d like to say that this column coincides with the start of “back to school”, I know of some in the US who returned to the classroom almost a month ago. The school year really isn’t as universal as some might think.

Before we begin, a quick geography lesson. The United Kingdom (UK) is made up of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As such, when I talk about England, don’t confuse it with the rest of the UK (though Wales is similar). In particular, I was in Scotland earlier this month, where I learned that their focus is more on breadth than depth, and their post-secondary education is publicly funded (though you will still have to pay for it if you’re not a Scottish resident). With that in mind, let’s focus back on England.

Education is free (and compulsory) for children aged 5 through 17 (this will rise to 18 in 2015). Primary school lasts for 6 years (ages 5-11) and secondary school for 5 years (ages 11-16), with a possible extension of another two years (see below). School uniforms are typical, and decided on by individual schools. Full time teachers work 195 days in a school year, teaching children for no more than 190 days. The school year begins in early September and runs until late July, with breaks in between the six terms (in October, December, February, April and May).

Ability Grouping

The national Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) are given at the end of year 2 (age 7), year 6 (before secondary) and year 9 (this last set is no longer compulsory). These evaluations help to separate what is referred to as the “Key Stages” (KS) in education. With regard to classes, there is research to indicate that one in six UK children is “taught in ability streams by age 7”, and that those born in September are more likely to be in the top streams. The first SATs taken involve literacy and maths, and the SATs which end KS2 (in year 6) involve English, Maths, and often Science. Moving from there into KS3 (high school), students will get a different teacher for each subject, rather than one teacher for the day, which is similar to the system in North America.

The optional SATs in year 9 occur in third year secondary (around age 14, before KS4). It is at this point that students choose their Options, or which additional subjects outside of the core three (English, Maths, Science) that they will be looking at in more depth going forwards. After two years of that focus, at the end of KS4 (age 16), we reach the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams. (These have replaced O-levels, which existed back in the 1980s.) Writing the GCSE exams for the core subjects is required, while other GCSE exams are liable to be the subject specializations decided in year 9. It is possible to retake GCSEs, though it may cost, and school ratings are influenced by the student results. Notably, in light of the 2013 increase in compulsory education to age 17, there are renewed arguments being made against the GCSE.

Moving into KS5 (Ages 16-18), students can continue working in their school towards A-Levels, assuming the school has that capability, or study at a college of Further Education (FE). This is where the academic focus narrows further, such that in the second year of KS5, only three subjects are studied in depth. The A-levels (or GCE Advanced levels) will occur at age 18, and are mostly assessed through written examinations. It is A-levels that determine acceptance into a University. Post-secondary itself (ages 18-21) would involve looking at one subject, resulting in a final degree. It’s worth noting that independent private schools also exist in England, as do boarding schools. Some boarding schools are state sponsored in terms of the courses, but you still have to pay for the accommodation.

All that said, some political issues surrounding education may seem familiar to an American (or Canadian). The former Secretary of State for Education in England, Michael Gove (who held the position until last July), came under fire during his time in office for some of his reforms. In particular, he made revisions to the GCSEs, and his name has been back in the news now that the overall results are out. So, what do you think of the British Education System? Feel free to comment below!

With thanks to Nik Doran, for a conversation we had at “Twitter Math Camp”. Any errors here are my own; if you know of one, please advise, so that I can make a correction.

For further viewing:

1. Schools in Britain (video)

2. Project Britain’s Introduction to School Life

3. “Global Education” by Global Math Dept

Got an idea or a question for a future TANDQ column? Let me know in the comments, or through email!

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