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Education in England

Posted by on December 30, 2007

Chapter 5

The British education system is different.

I taught science at a public college in Corby, England, called Brooke-Weston. All students still wear uniforms with ties (usually of their school colors with a school crest). Teachers are expected to dress professionally also, with male teachers wearing ties and female teachers encouraged to wear skirts or dresses. Customarily students address teachers as sir or madam. Schools do not have formal graduations from any level, including the final year. They also do not have proms or home comings (think less money parents). They can, however, have Christmas celebrations that are not disguised as holiday celebrations. Halloween is relatively unfamiliar and Thanksgiving, of course, is not celebrated.

The British system does not give grades, so they do not know what a GPA is. Instead, they rely on external testing. Scores on single exams determine students’ fates. Almost never is a student held back. They get what they get on the exams and move forward. Consequently, teachers teach to a test. The curriculum is mandated by the government, so there is little to no academic freedom.

Typically, school runs on a 6 week term followed by a 2 week break year round with a longer summer 4 week break. Hours run 8:00am to 4:00pm Monday through Friday. Grades start at age 5 with year 1 (not called kindergarten, that is a nasty German word) and end at age 16 with year 11.The goal is to get a GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education, the closest they get to a diploma).

Students who are able and willing can go for two more years of highly focused university prep education in their chosen subject areas, years 12 and 13 (called 6th form or A-level). Only 6th form completion with adequate test scores enable a student to enter a university. These students also can earn an A-GCSE.

University education for undergraduates, the B.S./B.A. programs, lasts 3 years. It finalizes in a capstone style project or thesis paper that must be orally defended. The British university degrees are highly specialized. Students rarely switch majors during their time. Also, only the final 2 years count for scoring. The top students may be selected for graduate level course work.

Adult education is a relatively new thing for Brits. Traditionally, you either went to university when you had a chance or tough luck. Believe it or not, your final exam scores stay with you for life and are even asked for on job applications.

In the U.K., public education is controlled by the Department of Education. However, an independent and impartial watchdog organization called OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) monitors performance. Additionally, there are five private examination boards that create, proctor, and assess required tests. Compulsory education only goes to age 16. Wealthier families and high performing students tend to go to private schools. Boarding schools are still very popular in England too.

Students tend to be very hard on foreign teachers. This is a cultural manifestation of the British sense of superiority. The students will be curious about you and America, but can also be quite rude and disparaging. Do not expect too much help from colleagues or administrators. The public schools can be a very hard place to work and miserable for foreign students (ask my boys). The “good” places to work and go to school are the private academies. However, a few years ago, the British DOE dumped a significant amount of money into updating the public schools.

In general, the cut-off point for ages is the end of August, so all children must be of a particular age on the 1st of September in order to begin class that month.

  • Primary Education
    • Infant School or Primary School
      • Reception, age 4 to 5
      • Year 1, age 5 to 6
      • Year 2, age 6 to 7 (KS1 National Curriculum Tests – England only)
    • Junior School or Primary School
      • Year 3, age 7 to 8
      • Year 4, age 8 to 9
      • Year 5, age 9 to 10
      • Year 6, age 10 to 11 (Eleven plus exams in some areas of England, Key Stage 2 National Curriculum Tests)
  • Secondary Education
    • Middle School, High School or Secondary School
      • Year 7, old First Form, age 11 to 12
      • Year 8, old Second Form, age 12 to 13
      • Year 9, old Third Form, age 13 to 14 (Key Stage 3 National Curriculum Tests, known as SATs (Standard Assessment Tests)
    • Upper School or Secondary School
      • Year 10, old Fourth Form, age 14 to 15
      • Year 11, old Fifth Form, age 15 to 16 (old O Level examinations, modern GCSE examinations)
    • Upper School, Secondary School, or Sixth Form College
      • Year 12 or Lower Sixth, age 16 to 17 (AS-level examinations)
      • Year 13 or Upper Sixth, age 17 to 18 (A2-level examinations. Both AS-levels and A2-levels count towards A-levels.)



Remember, since at one time the British Empire spanned the globe, you will see the British model in some variants throughout the planet, especially in old British colonies. Many international schools use the GCSE too, called the IGCSE. Overall, after having taught in both the U.S. and the U.K. system, I will take ours any day.


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