*This is a guest post written for OM by my lovely English husband.
England is renowned for having one of the best education systems in the world, but is this really the case? Today, we are going to look at the English education system and whether it is all it’s cracked up to be.
Children in England begin education when they are four to five years old. Typically, children of this age begin attending ‘Reception’ classes which are aimed to prepare children for more formal schooling. In Scotland, there is no reception class with children entering full time schooling a year later.
After having completed a year in reception, children enter ‘Key Stage 1’, the legal term for children in Year 1 and 2 of primary education. This is the first time that children will be required to study from the government’s mandated ‘National Curriculum’.
The national curriculum is a common programme of study which is aimed to ensure that there is uniformity across the education system. The national curriculum has come in for a fair amount of criticism with many feeling the curriculum doesn’t give teachers and schools enough freedom regarding the content delivered and the manner in which it is delivered.
At the end of Year 2 children are required to complete a series of relatively rigorous tests colloquially known as SATs. These tests are aimed to gauge the level at which the pupils are performing across several areas but with a primary focus on key language and maths skills. Key Stage 1 SATs have again been consistently criticised by some, with many saying these exams are too pressurised for the relatively young children sitting.
After having completed the Key Stage 1 exams, children typically spend another four years at primary school. This is known as Key Stage 2 and yet again children have another round of tests at the end of Key Stage 2 to determine how they are performing against government expectations.
These Key Stage 2 SATs take place towards at the end of Year 6 and take on a greater level of importance with school performance in part being measured by how well children perform in this set of exams. The exams also tend to impact the education of children directly with Primary School’s passing on student performance to their respective secondary schools. This can ultimately lead to children being placed into different English, Maths and Science classes based on their performance in these exams.
Again, these Year 6 SATs exams have come in for significant amounts of criticism with many feeling they lead schools to primarily teach towards exams leading to children missing out on receiving a wider education.
In Year 6 while at primary school children and their parents begin the difficult choice of choosing a secondary school. Typically, children will not be guaranteed to get into the school of their choice. Local authorities normally run ballots which will see children allocated spaces to schools based on their proximity to the school. This whole process can be very stressful with the quality of secondary schools in England being very diverse, and parents being keen to avoid sending their children to poorly performing schools.
This assumes that a child continues in state education. Private Schools will have their own entrance requirements and will typically make children sit an exam. This makes most private schools doubly selective both on ability and parents’ ability to pay school fees which are likely to be in excess of £10,000 a year.
In Secondary school, children are assigned to a ‘form’ class but will have many lessons with children outside of their form class. This due to most secondary schools organising children into sets. Those children with the best ability levels in a certain subject will be grouped with other high performers. While those less able children are grouped with their less able counterparts. This has received criticism from some in the education establishment as leading to a two-tiered system.
For the first three years of secondary school students have no choice in the subjects they take. Though it is likely that students will take a wider range of subjects than on offer in most primary schools. At the end of Year 9 they are internally marked and rated to determine how the school and its pupils are performing against the government’s national curriculum. Prior to 2009, children were required to sit another round of SATs at the end of Year 9.
During the final two years of a student’s mandatory schooling the student begins to have more freedom over the subjects they study. Of course, students don’t have total freedom, but the system does allow them to decide which foreign language or humanities subject they want to pursue further.
These two years lead up to the students GSCE exams. These exams are the first to have a real impact on a student’s future. Poor performance in these exams might see children not admitted to their school’s sixth form and can impact University applications. Students who perform poorly in these exams tend to be pushed into more vocationally forms of studies, while those who perform well tend to be pushed towards A-Levels and further education.
GSCE’s themselves have been controversial as they were introduced to replace what many consider the superior O-Level. Too many appear that successive governments have allowed for significant grade inflation, making the qualification relatively meaningless with an ever increasing number of students achieving top grades in the examination.
After completing GSCEs students are not required to remain in the education system, with many entering the world of work.
Sixth Form / College
After completing GSCE’s students are presented with two main choices in continuing their pre-University education. They can either study towards A-Levels or take more vocational courses typically at a local college.
In the UK, there is a certain amount of snobbery to the more vocational courses offered by the college’s which is something that the government is trying to change. With the goal to achieve something along the lines of the German system where skilled apprenticeships and vocational education is highly respected.
A-Levels are most commonly taken by those considering attending University. A-Levels require two years of further study, with the student having complete control over the subjects which they take. A typical student will take three to four A-Level subjects, with the student having complete control over their choices. Typically, A-Level students will no longer have a complete day of study but will have sections of the school day which are no longer taken up by lessons.
A student’s performance at A-Level’s will determine whether they get into the University of their choice or whether they attend University in general. A student’s A-Level results will also attend to appear on their CV during the first few years of their professional career until the individual has built up sufficient professional experience.
Personal Reflections on the English Education System
While the English education system is held in very high regard, there are several serious issues. The system does a good job at educating those who come from professional middle-class homes, but seriously fails those from less advantaged backgrounds. There is a significant correlation between academic performance and socio-economic status, with this likely to continue into the foreseeable future.
Additionally, successive governments have tried to push an ever-increasing number of students towards University, regardless of whether this the right path for the student themselves. The UK needs to make efforts to provide high quality relevant vocational training for those who aren’t likely to gain as much from traditional academic education. As trying to push 50% of students through to University seems to be of questionable economic and educational value, and has certainly played a part in the consistent grade inflation endemic in the system.