Education in Britain

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Education in the United Kingdom

Written by Isaeva Tatiana

group 301

Checked by Makhmuryan K.




Primary and secondary education

The story of British schools

Arguments aboout the purpose of education

Changing political control

The public system of education (a table)

The private sector

Further and higher education

Conclusion (Education under Labour)




ducation in England is not as perfect as we, foreigners think. There are
plenty of stereotypes, which make us think, that British education is
only Oxford and Cambrige, but there are also many educational
problems.During the last fifteen years or so, there have been
unprecedented changes in the system of education in England and Wales.
I’ll try to explain the changes and the reasons for them. In my work I
will also give a description of the system of education, which differs
from that in Russia very much.

Primary and secondary education


chooling is compulsory for 12 years, for all children aged five to 16.
There are two voluntary years of schooling thereafter. Children may
attend either state-funded or fee-paying independent schools. In
England, Wales and Northern Ireland the primary cycle lasts from five to
11. Generally speaking, children enter infant school, moving on to
junior school (often in the same building) at the age of seven, and then
on to secondary school at the age of 11. Roughly 90 per cent of children
receive their secondary education at ‘comprehensive’ schools. For those
who wish to stay on, secondary school can include the two final years of
secondary education, sometimes known in Britain (for historical reasons)
as ‘the sixth form’. In many parts of the country, these two years are
spent at a tertiary or sixth-form college, which provides academic and
vocational courses.

Two public academic examinations are set, one on completion of the
compulsory cycle of education at the age of 16, and one on completion of
the two voluntary years. At 16 pupils take the General Certificate of
Secondary Education (GCSE), introduced in 1989 to replace two previous
examinations, one academic and the other indicating completion of
secondary education. It was introduced to provide one examination
whereby the whole range of ability could be judged, rather than having
two classes of achievers; and also to assess children on classwork and
homework as well as in the examination room, as a more reliable form of
assessment. During the two voluntary years of schooling, pupils
specialise in two or three subjects and take the General Certificate of
Education (always known simply as ‘GCE’) Advanced Level, or ‘A level’
examination, usually with a view to entry to a university or other
college of higher education. New examinations. Advanced Supplementary
(AS) levels, were introduced in 1989, to provide a wider range of
subjects to study, a recognition that English education has
traditionally been overly narrow. The debate about the need for a wider
secondary level curriculum continues, and Labour is likely to introduce
more changes at this level. These examinations are not set by the
government, but by independent examination boards, most of which are
associated with a particular university or group of universities. Labour
may replace these boards with one national board of examination.

A new qualification was introduced in 1992 for pupils who are skills,
rather than academically, orientated, the General National Vocational
Qualification, known as GNVQ. This examination is taken at three
distinct levels: the Foundation which has equivalent standing to
low-grade passes in four subjects of GCSE; the Intermediate GNVQ which
is equivalent to high-grade passes in four subjects of GCSE; and the
Advanced GNVQ, equivalent to two passes at A level and acceptable for
university entrance.

The academic year begins in late summer, usually in September, and is
divided into three terms, with holidays for Christmas, Easter and for
the month of August, although the exact dates vary slightly from area to
area. In addition each term there is normally a mid-term one-week
holiday, known as ‘half-term’.

The story of British schools


or largely historical reasons, the schools system is complicated,
inconsistent and highly varied. Most of the oldest schools, of which the
most famous are Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Westminster, are today
independent, fee-paying, public schools for boys. Most of these were
established to create a body of literate men to fulfil the
administrative, political, legal and religious requirements of the late
Middle Ages. From the sixteenth century onwards, many ‘grammar’ schools
were established, often with large grants of money from wealthy men, in
order to provide a local educational facility.

From the 1870s local authorities were required to establish elementary
schools, paid for by the local community, and to compel attendance by
all boys and girls up to the age of 1 3. By 1900 almost total attendance
had been achieved. Each authority, with its locally elected councillors,
was responsible for the curriculum. Although a general consensus
developed concerning the major part of the school curriculum, a strong
feeling of local control continued and interference by central
government was resented. A number of secondary schools were also
established by local authorities, modelled on the public schools.

The 1944 Education Act introduced free compulsory secondary education.
Almost all children attended one of two kinds of secondary school. The
decision was made on the results obtained in the ’11 plus’ examination,
taken in the last year of primary school. Eighty per cent of pupils went
to ‘secondary modern’ schools where they were expected to obtain
sufficient education for manual, skilled and clerical employment, but
where academic expectations were modest. The remaining 20 per cent went
to grammar schools. Some of these were old foundations which now
received a direct grant from central government, but the majority were
funded through the local authority. Grammar school pupils were expected
to go on to university or some other form of higher education. A large
number of the grammar or ‘high’ schools were single sex. In addition
there were, and continue to be, a number of voluntary state-supported
primary and secondary schools, most of them under the management of the
Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church, which usually own the
school buildings.

By the 1960s there was increasing criticism of this streaming of
ability, particularly by the political Left. It was recognised that many
children performed inconsistently, and that those who failed the 11 plus
examination were denied the chance to do better later. Early selection
also reinforced the divisions of social class, and was wasteful of human
potential. A government report in 1968 produced evidence that an
expectation of failure became increasingly fulfilled, with secondary
modern pupils aged 14 doing significantly worse than they had at the age
of eight. Labour’s solution was to introduce a new type of school, the
comprehensive, a combination of grammar and secondary modern under one
roof, so that all the children could be continually assessed and given
appropriate teaching. Between 1965 and 1980 almost all the old grammar
and secondary modern schools were replaced, mainly by coeducational
comprehensives. The measure caused much argument for two principal
reasons. Many local authorities, particularly Conservative-controlled
ones, did not wish to lose the excellence of their grammar schools, and
many resented Labour’s interference in education, which was still
considered a local responsibility. However, despite the pressure to
change school structures, each school, in consultation with the local
authority, remained in control of its curriculum. In practice the result
of the reform was very mixed:

the best comprehensives aimed at grammar school academic standards,
while the worst sank to secondary modern ones.

One unforeseen but damaging result was the refusal of many grammar
schools to join the comprehensive experiment. Of the 174 direct-grant
grammar schools, 119 decided to leave the state system rather than
become comprehensive, and duly became independent fee-paying
establishments. This had two effects. Grammar schools had provided an
opportunity for children from all social backgrounds to excel
academically at the same level as those attending fee-paying independent
public schools. The loss of these schools had a demoralising effect on
the comprehensive experiment and damaged its chances of success, but led
to a revival of independent schools at a time when they seemed to be
slowly shrinking. The introduction of comprehensive schools thus
unintentionally reinforced an educational elite which only the children
of wealthier parents could hope to join.

Comprehensive schools became the standard form of secondary education
(other than in one or two isolated areas, where grammar schools and
secondary moderns survived). However, except among the best
comprehensives they lost for a while the excellence of the old grammar

Alongside the introduction of comprehensives there was a move away from
traditional teaching and discipline towards what was called
‘progressive’ education.-This entailed a change from more formal
teaching and factual learning tc greater pupil participation and
discussion, with greater emphasis on comprehension and less on the
acquisition of knowledge. Not everyone approved, particularly on the
political Right. There was increasing criticism of the lack of
discipline and of formal learning, and a demand to return tc
old-fashioned methods.

From the 1960s there was also greater emphasis on education and
training than ever before, with many colleges of further education
established to provide technical or vocational training. However,
British education remained too academic for the less able, and technical
studies stayed weak, with the result that a large number of less
academically able pupils left school without any skills or
qualifications at all.

The expansion of education led to increased expenditure. The proportion
of the gross national product devoted to education doubled, from 3.2 per
cent in 1954, to 6.5 per cent by 1970, but fell back to about 5 per cent
in the 1980s. These higher levels of spending did not fulfil
expectations, mainly because spending remained substantially lower than
that in other industrialised countries. Perhaps the most serious
failures were the continued high drop-out rate at the age of 16 and the
low level of achievement in mathematics and science among
school-leavers. By the mid-1980s, while over 80 per cent of pupils in
the United States and over 90 per cent in Japan stayed on till the age
of 18, barely one-third of British pupils did so.

I. Arguments about the purpose of education.

There is a feeling that the schools are not succeeding – that standards
are too low, that schools are not preparing young people with the
skills, knowledge and personal qualities which are necessary for the
world of work, and that schools have failed to instil the right social
values. These are the criticisms and therefore there have been changes
to meet these criticisms.

However, the criticisms take different forms. First, there are those
who believe that standards have fallen, especially in the areas of
literacy and numeracy – and, indeed, unfavourable comparisons are made
with the other countries as a result of international surveys. For
example, the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Survey
(TIMSS) placed in England and Wales very low in mathematical achievement
at 13 – although very high in science. Therefore, these critics
emphasize «back to basis» and the need for more traditional teaching

Second, there are those who argue for a rather traditional curriculum
which is divided into «subjects» and which calls upon those cultural
standards which previous generations have known – the study of literary
classics ( Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth) rather than popular
multi-cultural history, classical music rather than popular music, and
so on. Since there are many children who would not be interested in or
capable of learning within these subjects, there is a tendency for such
advocates of traditional standards to support an early selection of
children into «the minority» who are capable of being so educated,
separated off from «the majority» who are thought to benefit more from a
more technical or practical education.

Third, there are those who question deeply the idea of a curriculum
based on these traditional subjects. Many employers, for instance, think
that such a curriculum by itself ill – serves the country economically.
The curriculum ought to be more relevant to the world of work, providing
those skills, such as computer, numeracy and literacy skills, personal
qualities (such as cooperation and enterprise) and knowledge (such as
economic awareness) which make people more employable.

A very important speech which expressed those concerns and which is
seen as a watershed in government policy was that of Prime Minister
Callaghan at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1976.

«Preparing future generations for life» was the theme and he pointed to
the need for greater relevance in education on four fronts:

the acquisition by school leavers of basic skills which they lacked but
which industry needed;

the development of more positive attitudes to industry and to the
economic needs of society;

greater technological know-how so that they might live effectively in a
technological society;

the development of personal qualities for coping with an unpredictable

In what follows I give details of the different contexts in which this
concern for change was discussed.

Economic Context

It is generally assumed that there is a close connection between
economic performance and the quality and context of education and
training, and that therefore the country’s poor performance economically
since the second world war (compared with some other countries) is due
to irrelevant and poor quality education. During the thirty years from
the end of the Second World War not enough pupils stayed on beyond the
compulsory school leaving age. There were too many unskilled and
semi-skilled people for a much more sophisticated economy. Standards of
literacy and numeracy were too low for a modern economy. There was not
enough practical and technical know-how being taught.

As a result, it was argued that there must be much closer links between
school and industry, with pupils spending time in industry, with
industrialists participating in the governance of schools, and with
subjects and activities on the curriculum which relate much more closely
to the world of work.

Furthermore, there should be a different attitudes to learning. So
quickly is the economy that people constantly have to update their
knowledge and skills. There is a need for a «learning society» and for
the acquisition of «generic» or «transferable» skills in communication,
numeracy, problem-solving, computer technology, etc.

Social Context

There are anxieties not just about the future economy but also about
the future of society. Preparing young people for adult life was what
the Ruskin speech was about, and there is much more to adult life than
economic success – for example, living the life of a good citizen, of a
father or mother, of involvement in social and political activity.
Therefore, schools are required to prepare young people for a
multicultural society, to encourage tolerance between different ethnic
groups, to promote social responsibility, to encourage respect for the
law and democratic institutions, to develop sensibilities towards the
disadvantaged and to ensure girls enjoy equal opportunities with boys.
And schools have. Indeed, responded with programs of social education,
citizenship, and parenthood. Moreover, they have often done this in
practical ways such as organizing projects.


The need for educational change arises partly from a concern about
academic standards. The sense that Britain is declining has been
reinforced by statements from employers. According to them, Britain’s
workforce is under-educated, under-trained and under-qualified! These
criticisms of standards are pitched at different levels. First, there
are worries about low standards of literacy and numeracy. Second,
international comparisons give weight to misgivings about the
performance of British schoolchildren in mathematics and science. And,
therefore, the subsequent changes have tried to define standards much
more precisely, and o have regular assessment of children’s performance
against these standards.

II. Changing Political Control

After 1944

The key educational legislation, until recently, was the 1944 Education
Act. That Act supported a partnership between central government (Local
Education Authorities or LEAs), teachers and the churches – with central
government playing a minimal role in the curriculum.

The 1944 Education Act required the Secretary of State to promote the
education of the people of England and Wales and the progressive
development of institutions devoted to that purpose and to secure the
effective execution by local authorities, under his control and
direction, of the national policy for providing a varied and
comprehensive educational service in every area.

In the decades following the Act, «promotion» was perceived in very
general terms – ensuring that there were resources adequate for all
children to receive an education according to «age, ability and
aptitude», providing the broad legal framework and regulations within
which education should be provided (for example, the length of the
school year or the division of education into primary and secondary
phases), and initiating major reports on such important matters as
language and mathematics teaching.

Within this framework, the LEA organized the schools. The LEA raised
money through local taxation to provide education from primary right
through to further and indeed higher education, and made sure that the
schools and colleges were working efficiently. They employed and paid
the teachers. And ultimately they had responsibility for the quality of
teaching within those schools.

The Churches were key partners because historically they (particularly
the Church of England) had provided a large proportion of elementary
education and owned many of the schools.

The 1944 Act had to establish a new partnership between state, LEAs and
the church schools.

b)After 1980

However, the changing economic, social and cultural conditions outlined
in the previous section caused the government to reexamine the nature
and the composition of that partnership. The questions being asked
during the 1980’s included the following:

Has central government the power to make the system respond to the
changing context? Are the local authorities too local for administrating
a national system and too distant for supporting local, especially
parental, involvement in school? Have the parents been genuine partners
in the system that affects the future welfare of their children? And
what place, if any, in the partnership has been allocated to the
employers, who believe they have a contribution to make to the
preparation of young people for the future?

New governing bodies

Various Acts of Parliament since 1980 have made schools more

Teachers, employers and parents have been given places on the governing
bodies. Governors have to publish information about the school that
enables parents to make informed choices when deciding to which school
they should send their child. Each LEA has to have a curriculum policy
that must be considered and implemented by each governing body. Schools
also must have a policy on sex education and must ensure that political
indoctrination does not take place. This accountability of schools and
LEAs has to be demonstrated through an annual report to be presented to
a public meeting of parents. The government gave parents the right to
enrol their children – given appropriate age and aptitude – at any state
school of their choice, within the limits of capacity. Parents already
sent their children to the local school of their choice. The decision to
publish schools’ examination results, however, gave parents a stark, but
not necessarily well-informed, basis on which to choose the most
appropriate school for their child. Increasingly parents sought access
to the most successful nearby school in terms of examination results.
Far from being able to exercise their choice, large numbers of
parents were now frustrated in their choice. Overall, in 1996 20 per
cent of parents failed to obtain their first choice of school. In London
the level was 40 per cent, undermining the whole policy of ‘parental
choice’ and encouraging only the crudest view of educational standards.
Schools found themselves competing rather than cooperating and some
schools, for example in deprived urban areas, faced a downward spiral of
declining enrolment followed by reduced budgets. Thus the market offered
winners and losers: an improved system for the brighter or more
fortunate pupils, but a worse one for the ‘bottom’ 40 per cent. Schools
in deprived parts of cities acquired reputations as ‘sink’ schools. As
one education journalist wrote in 1997, ‘There is a clear hierarchy of

private, grammar, comprehensives with plenty of nice middle-class
children, comprehensives with fewer nice middle-class children and so

Central control

The government has looked for ways of exercising greater influence over
what is taught in schools. New legislation gave the government powers to
exercise detailed control over the organization and content of
education. The 1988 Education Act legislated a National Curriculum and a
system of National Assessment. In addition, significant changes were
enacted to make possible the central financing and thus control of
schools through creating a new kind of school outside LEA control
(first, the provision of City Technology Colleges 9CTC), and, second,
the creation of Grant Maintained Schools (GMS)). The government also
significantly reduced the power of local authorities by transferring the
management of schools from the LEA to the schools themselves (known as
the local management of schools or LMS).

At the same time, within this more centralized system, parents have
been offered greater choice through the establishment of different kinds
of schools (GMS and CTC), through the delegation of management to the
governing bodies of the schools (LMS) and through the granting of
parental rights to send their children to the school of their choice.

The various Parliamentary Acts (but especially the 1988 Act) gave legal
force to a massive change in the terms of the education partnership.
First, the Secretary of State now has powers over the details of the
curriculum and assessment. Second, a mechanism has been created whereby
there can be more participation by parents (and to a much smaller degree
by employers), in decisions that affect the quality of education. Third,
the LEAs have been required to transfer many decisions over finance,
staffing, and admissions to the schools and colleges themselves. Fourth,
the LEA responsibility for the curriculum has been transferred to the
Secretary of State.

Employer involvement

The voice of the consumers will be heard more, and the consumer
includes the employer. Several initiatives encouraged employer
participation. First, and possibly the most important in the long run,
has been the encouragement of business representatives on governing
bodies of schools. Second, there has been a range of initiatives which
have given employers a greater say in the purposes which schools are
expected to serve and in the means of attaining them.

The role of assessment

The government decided to develop a reformed system of examinations
which would specify the standards against which the performance of
individual schools and of pupils might be measured.

The 1988 Education Act legislated for assessment of pupils at the ages
of 7, 11, 14 and 16, using attainment targets which all children should
normally be expected to reach at these different ages in different
subjects – especially in the «foundation subjects» of English,
mathematics and science. The assessments relied partly on moderated
teacher-assessment, but more importantly on national, externally
administrated tests.

As a result of these national assessments, exactly where each child was
in relation to all other children in terms of attainment in each
subject. And it would be possible to say how each school was succeeding
in these measured attainments in relationship to every other school.
These assessments, have subsequently, provided the basis of national
comparisons and league tables of schools.

In the reform of National Curriculum in the early 1990’s, it was
decided that, because of public examinations at 16 , the national
assessment should finish at 14.


For over one hundred years, there had been an independent inspection
service. The inspectors were called Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) to
indicate that ultimately they were accountable to the Queen, not to the
government from whom they ardently preserved their independence. Until
about ten years ago, HMI numbered about 500. They inspected schools and
they advised the government.

Senior HMIs were based at the Department of Education and Science (now
the department for Education and Employment) but the big majority were
scattered over the whole country so that they could advise locally but
also be a source of information to central government. Indeed, they were
known as «the ears and the eyes of the Minister».

Much of this has now changed as government has sought greater central
control. HMI has been cut back to about one third of its previous size.
The Chief Inspector is now a political appointment, not someone who has
arisen from the ranks of an independent inspectorate. A new office has
been created, the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), to which
HMI now belong and which is much more at the service of government

Under OFSTED a very large army of «Ofsted inspectors» has been created
– often teachers – who, after a brief training, are equipped to inspect
schools. The initial plan was to inspect all 25,000 schools every four
years and to publish a report which would be accessible to everyone.
Every teacher is seen and graded. OFSTED is able to identify «failing
schools» and «failing teachers».

It has been very difficult to get rid of very poor teachers. It is now
hoped that, with more regular inspection and with clearer criteria for
success and failure, it will be easier to sack teachers who are
consistently under performing.

The recent changes are increasingly redescribed in managerial and
business terms, as the educational system is managed as part of the
drive to be more economically competitive.

However, one must be aware of the doubts and dismay of many in this
«philosophy». First, there is little consideration of the aims of
education – the values which make the relationship between teacher and
learner an educational encounter, not one of «delivering a service».
Second, the new language of «education» is drawn from an entirely
different activity, that of business and management. The language of
control, delivery, inputs and outputs, performance indicators and
audits, defining products, testing against product specification, etc.
Is not obviously appropriate to the development of thinking, inquiring,
imagination, creativity, and so on. Third, the key role of the teacher
is made peripheral to the overall design; the teacher becomes a
«technician» of someone else’s curriculum.

The changing economic and social context in Britain seemed to require a
closer integration of education, training, and employment; at the same
time, a sharper focus on personal development; greater concentration of
the partnership to include employers and parents; and a dominant
position given to central government in stipulating outcomes were all
factors which led the framework of the system is adapting to the new

a)The public system of education might be illustrated as follows:

Age Type of school National exams and assessments

4 Nursery school (optional and where available)

Beginning of compulsory education

5 Primary school Baseline assessment

6 Primary school

7 Primary school Assessment Key Stage 1

8 Primary school of Middle school

9 Primary school of Middle school

10 Primary school of Middle school

11 Secondary school of Middle school Assessment Key Stage 2

12 Secondary school of Middle school

13 Secondary school of Middle school

14 Secondary School Assessment Key Stage 3

15 Secondary School Start of GCSE course

16 Secondary School GCSE exams

End of compulsory education

17 Secondary School Sixth Form

College of Further Education

Work Training Scheme Start of A-level course



18 Secondary School Sixth Form

College of Further Education

Work Training Scheme A-level exams



Schools and the post-16 curriculum

The maintenance of such a curriculum has been a major function of the
examination system at 16, which was originally designed as a preparation
for the post-16 courses leading to A-level. It is taken in single
subjects, usually not more than three. These three subjects, studied in
depth, in turn constituted a preparation for the single or double
subject honors degrees at university. In this way the shape of the
curriculum for the majority has been determined by the needs of the
minority aspiring to a university place. Alongside «A» Levels, there
have been, more recently, «AS» (Advanced Supplementary) Level
examinations. These are worth half an «A» Level and they enable very
bright students to broaden their educational experience with a
«contrasting» subject (for example, the science specialist might study a
foreign language).

The present «A» and «AS» Level system, however, is thought to be in
need of reform. First, it limits choice of subjects at 16 and 17 years,
a time, when a more general education should be encouraged. Second,
approximately 30% of students either drop out or fail – a mass failure
rate amongst a group of young people from the top 30% of academic
achievement who find that after two years they have no qualification.
Third, the concentration on academic success thus conceived has little
room for the vocationally relevant skills and personal qualities
stressed by those employers who are critics of the education system.
Fourth, there are over 600 «A» Level syllabuses from eight independent
examination boards often with overlapping titles and content, making
comparability of standards between Boards difficult.

The private sector


y 1997 8 per cent of the school population attended independent
fee-paying schools, compared with under 6 per cent in 1979, and only 5
per cent in 1976. By the year 2000 the proportion may rise to almost 9
per cent, nearly back to the level in 1947 of 10 per cent. The recovery
of private education in Britain is partly due to middle-class fears
concerning comprehensive schools, but also to the mediocre quality
possible in the state sector after decades of inadequate funding.

Although the percentage of those privately educated may be a small
fraction of the total, its importance is disproportionate to its size,
for this 8 per cent accounts for 23 per cent of all those passing A
levels, and over 25 per cent of those gaining entry to university.
Nearly 65 per cent of pupils leave fee-paying schools with one or more A
levels, compared with only 14 per cent from comprehensives. Tellingly,
this 8 per cent also accounts for 68 per cent of those gaining the
highest grade in GCSE Physics. During the 1980s pupils at independent
schools showed greater improvement in their examination results than
those at state schools. In later life, those educated at fee-paying
schools dominate the sources of state power and authority in government,
law, the armed forces and finance.

The ‘public’ (in fact private, fee-paying) schools form the backbone of
the independent sector. Of the several hundred public schools, the most
famous are the ‘Clarendon Nine’, so named after a commission of inquiry
into education in 1861. Their status lies in a fatally attractive
combination of social superiority and antiquity, as the dates of their
foundation indicate: Winchester (1382), Eton (1440), St Paul’s (1509),
Shrewsbury (1552), Westminster (1560), The Merchant Taylors’ (1561),
Rugby (1567), Harrow (1571) and Charterhouse (1611).

The golden age of the public schools, however, was the late nineteenth
century, when most were founded. They were vital to the establishment of
a particular set of values in the dominant professional middle classes.
These values were reflected in the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays by
Thomas Hughes, written in tribute to his own happy time at Rugby School.
Its emphasis is on the making of gentlemen to enter one of the
professions: law, medicine, the Church, the Civil Service or the
colonial service. The concept of ‘service’, even if it only involved
entering a profitable profession, was central to the public school
ethos. A career in commerce, or ‘mere money making’ as it is referred to
in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, was not to be considered. As a result of such
values, the public school system was traditional in its view of learning
and deeply resistant to science and technology. Most public schools were
located in the ‘timeless’ countryside, away from the vulgarity of
industrial cities.

After 1945, when state-funded grammar schools were demonstrating equal
or greater academic excellence, the public schools began to modernise
themselves. During the 1970s most of them abolished beating and
‘fagging’, the system whereby new boys carried out menial tasks for
senior boys, and many introduced girls into the sixth form, as a
civilising influence. They made particular efforts to improve their
academic and scientific quality. Traditionally boarding public schools
were more popular, but since the 1970s there has been a progressive
shift of balance in favour of day schools. Today only 16 per cent of
pupils in private education attend boarding schools, and the number of
boarders declines on average by 3 per cent each year.

Demand for public school education is now so great that many schools
register pupils’ names at birth. Eton maintains two lists, one for the
children of ‘old boys’ and the other for outsiders. There are three
applicants for every vacancy. Several other schools have two applicants
for each vacancy, but they are careful not to expand to meet demand. In
the words of one academic, ‘Schools at the top of the system have a
vested interest in being elitist. They would lose that characteristic if
they expanded. To some extent they pride themselves on the length of
their waiting lists.’ This rush to private education is despite the
steep rise in fees, 31 per cent between 1985 and 1988, and over 50 per
cent between 1990 and 1997 when the average annual day fees were Ј5,700
and boarding fees double that figure. Sixty per cent of parents would
probably send their children to fee-paying schools if they could afford

In order to obtain a place at a public school, children must take a
competitive examination, called ‘Common Entrance’. In order to pass it,
most children destined for a public school education attend a
preparatory (or ‘prep’) school until the age of 13.

Independent schools remain politically controversial. The Conservative
Party believes in the fundamental freedom of parents to choose the best
education for their children. The Labour Party disagrees, arguing that
in reality only the wealthier citizens have this freedom of choice. In
the words of Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader in 1953, ‘We really
cannot go on with a system in which wealthy parents are able to buy what
they and most people believe to be a better education for their
children. The system is wrong and must be changed.’ But since then no
Labour government has dared to abolish them.

There can be no doubt that a better academic education can be obtained
in some of the public schools. In 1993 92 of the 100 schools with the
best A-level results were fee-paying. But the argument that parents will
not wish to pay once state schools offer equally good education is
misleading, because independent schools offer social status also.
Unfortunately education depends not only on quality schools but also on
the home environment. The background from which pupils come greatly
affects the encouragement they receive to study. Middle-class parents
are likely to be better able, and more concerned, to support their
children’s study than low-income parents who themselves feel they failed
at school. State-maintained schools must operate with fewer resources,
and in more difficult circumstances, particularly in low-income areas.
In addition, the public school system creams off many of the ablest
teachers from the state sector.

The public school system is socially divisive, breeding an atmosphere of
elitism and leaving some outside the system feeling socially or
intellectually inferior, and in some cases intimidated by the prestige
attached to public schools. The system fosters a distinct culture, one
based not only upon social superiority but also upon deference. As one
leading journalist, Jeremy Paxman, himself an ex-public schoolboy
remarked, The purpose of a public school education is to teach you to
respect people you don’t respect.’ In the words of Anthony Sampson,
himself an ex-pupil of Westminster, the public school elite ‘reinforces
and perpetuates a class system whose divisions run through all British
institutions, separating language, attitudes and motivations’.

Those who attend these schools continue to dominate the institutions at
the heart of the British state, and seem likely to do so for some time
to come. At the beginning of the 1990s public schools accounted for 22
out of 24 of the army’s top generals, two-thirds of the Bank of
England’s external directors, 33 out of 39 top English judges, and
ambassadors in the 15 most important diplomatic missions abroad. Of the
200 richest people in Britain no fewer than 35 had attended Eton. Eton
and Winchester continue to dominate the public school scene, and the
wider world beyond. As Sampson asks, ‘Can the products of two schools
(Winchester and Eton), it might be asked, really effectively represent
the other 99.5 per cent of the people in this diverse country who went
to neither mediaeval foundation?’ The concept of service was once at the
heart of the public school ethos, but it is questionable whether it
still is. A senior Anglican bishop noted in 1997, ‘A headmaster told me
recently that the whole concept of service had gone. Now they all want
to become merchant bankers and lawyers.’

There are two arguments that qualify the merit of the public schools,
apart from the criticism that they are socially divisive. It is
inconceivable that the very best intellectual material of the country
resides solely among those able to attend such schools. If one accepts
that the brightest and best pupils are in fact spread across the social
spectrum, one must conclude that an elitist system of education based
primarily upon wealth rather than ability must involve enormous wastage.
The other serious qualification regards the public school ethos which is
so rooted in tradition, authority and a narrow idea of ‘gentlemanly’
professions. Even a century after it tried to turn its pupils into
gentlemen, the public school culture still discourages, possibly
unconsciously, its pupils from entering industry. ‘It is no accident,’
Sampson comments, ‘that most formidable industrialists in Britain come
from right outside the public school system, and many from right outside

Britain will be unable to harness its real intellectual potential until
it can break loose from a divisive culture that should belong in the
past, and can create its future elite from the nation’s schoolchildren
as a whole. In 1996 a radical Conservative politician argued for turning
public schools into centres of excellence which would admit children
solely on ability, regardless of wealth or social background, with the
help of government funding. It would be a way of using the best of the
private sector for the nation as a whole. It is just such an idea that
Labour might find attractive, if it is able to tackle the more
widespread and fundamental shortcomings of the state education system.

Further and higher education


reparation for adult life» includes training in the skills required for
a job. These skills can be pitched at different levels – highly
job-specific and not requiring much thought in their application, or
«generalisable» and applicable to different kinds of employment.

Vocational courses are concerned with the teaching of job-related
skills, whether specific or generalisable. They can be based in
industry, and «open learning» techniques make this increasingly likely,
although in the past, they have normally been taught in colleges of
further education, with students given day release from work. Vocational
training has not been an activity for schools. But some critics think
that schools should provide it for non-academic pupils. One major
initiative back in 1982, was the Technical and Vocational Education
Initiative (TVEI) in which schools received money if they were able to
build into the curriculum vocationally-related content ant activities –
more technology, business studies, industry related work and visits,
etc. But all this got lost in 1988 with the imposition of a National
Curriculum was reformed, providing opportunities for vocational studies
to be introduced at 14.

But the real changes in vocational training were to be seen outside the
schools. The curriculum in colleges of further education has been
closely determined by vocational examination bodies which decide what
the student should be able to do in order to receive a qualification as,
for example, a plumber or a hairdresser. These qualifications were
pitched at different levels – from relatively low-skilled operative to
higher-skilled craft and technician. Obtaining these qualifications
often required an apprenticeship, with day release in a college of
further education for more theoretical study.

Vocational training always has had a relatively low status in Britain.
The «practical» and the «vocational» have seldom given access to
university or to the prestigious and professional jobs.

Further education has traditionally been characterised by part-time
vocational courses for those who leave school at the age of 16 but need
to acquire a skill, be that in the manual, technical or clerical field.
In all, about three million students enrol each year in part-time
courses at further education (FE) colleges, some released by their
employers and a greater number unemployed. In addition there have always
been a much smaller proportion in full-time training. In 1985 this
figure was a meagre 400,000, but by 1995 this had doubled. Given
Labour’s emphasis on improving the skills level of all school-leavers,
this expansion will continue. Vocational training, most of which is
conducted at the country’s 550 further education colleges is bound to be
an important component.

Higher education has also undergone a massive expansion. In 1985 only
573,000, 16 per cent of young people, were enrolled in full-time higher
education. Ten years later the number was 1,150,000, no less than 30 per
cent of their age group.

This massive expansion was achieved by greatly enlarging access to
undergraduate courses, but also by authorising the old polytechnics to
grant their own degree awards, and also to rename themselves as
universities. Thus there are today 90 universities, compared with 47 in
1990, and only seventeen in 1945. They fall into five broad categories:
the medieval English foundations, the medieval Scottish ones, the
nineteenth-century ‘redbrick’ ones, the twentieth-century ‘plate-glass’
ones, and finally the previous polytechnics. They are all private
institutions, receiving direct grants from central government.

Oxford and Cambridge, founded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries
respectively, are easily the most famous of Britain’s universities.
Today ‘Oxbridge’, as the two together are known, educate less than
one-twentieth of Britain’s total university student population. But they
continue to attract many of the best brains and to mesmerise an even
greater number, partly on account of their prestige, but also on account
of the seductive beauty of many of their buildings and surroundings.

Both universities grew gradually, as federations of independent
colleges, most of which were founded in the fourteenth, fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries. In both universities, however, new colleges are
periodically established, for example Green College, Oxford (1979) and
Robinson College, Cambridge (1977).

In the nineteenth century more universities were established to respond
to the greatly increased demand for educated people as a result of the
Industrial Revolution and the expansion of Britain’s overseas empire.
Many of these were sited in the industrial centres, for example
Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, Liverpool and Bristol.

With the expansion of higher education in the 1960s ‘plate-glass’
universities were established, some named after counties or regions
rather than old cities, for example Sussex, Kent, East Anglia and
Strathclyde. Over 50 polytechnics and similar higher education
institutes acquired university status in 1992. There is also a highly
successful Open University, which provides every person in Britain with
the opportunity to study for a degree, without leaving their home. It is
particularly designed for adults who missed the opportunity for higher
education earlier in life. It conducts learning through correspondence,
radio and television, and also through local study centres.

University examinations are for Bachelor of Arts, or of Science (BA or
BSc) on completion of the undergraduate course, and Master of Arts or of
Science (MA or MSc) on completion of postgraduate work, usually a one-
or two-year course involving some original research. Some students
continue to complete a three-year perio of original research for the
degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The bachelor degree is normal
classed, with about 5 per cent normally gaining First, about 30 per cent
gaining an Upper Seconi or 2.1, perhaps 40 per cent gaining a Lower
Second, or 2.2, and the balance getting either i Third, a Pass or
failing. Approximately 15 per cei fail to complete their degree course.

In addition there are a large number of specialis higher education
institutions in the realm of the performing and visual arts. For
example, there a four leading conservatories: the Royal Academy Music,
the Royal College of Music, Trinity College of Music and the Royal
Northern College of Music.

There are a large number of art colleges, of whi the most famous is the
Royal College of Art, where both Henry Moore and David Hockney once
studied. Other colleges cater for dance, film-making and other
specialist areas in arts.

In spite of the high fees, Britain’s universities, Fl colleges and
English language schools host a number of foreign students, in 1996
there were fewer than 158,000.

Female undergraduates have greatly increased proportionately in recent
years. In the mid-1960 they were only 28 per cent of the intake, became
41 per cent by the early 1980s, and were 51 per cent by 1996. There is
still an unfortunate separation of the sexes in fields of chosen study,
arising from occupational tradition and social expectations. Caring for
others is still a ‘proper’ career for women; building bridges, it seems,
is not. Unless one believes women’s brains are better geared to nursing
and other forms of caring and men’s to bridge-building, one must
conclude that social expectations still hinder women and men from
realising their potential. Students from poorer backgrounds are
seriously underrepresented in higher education. Although more in social
categories C, D and E are now enrolled, it is the more prosperous social
categories A and B which have benefited most from university expansion.
For Labour there are two issues here:

equality of opportunity, and maximising all of society’s intellectual

Ethnic minorities’ representation is growing: 1 3 per cent in 1996
compared with only 10.7 per cent in 1990. It is noteworthy that their
university representation exceeds their proportion within the whole
population, a measure of their commitment to higher education.

In 1988 a new funding body, the University Funding Council, was
established, with power to require universities to produce a certain
number of qualified people in specific fields. It is under the UFC’s
watchful eye that the universities have been forced to double their
student intake, and each university department is assessed on its
performance and quality. The fear, of course, is that the greatly
increased quantity of students that universities must now take might
lead to a loss of academic quality.

Expansion has led to a growing funding gap. Universities have been
forced to seek sponsorship from the commercial world, wealthy patrons
and also from their alumni. The Conservative Party also decided to
reduce maintenance grants but to offer students loans in order to
finance their studies. However, the funding gap has continued to grow
and Labour shocked many who had voted for it by introducing tuition fees
at 1,000 pounds per annum in 1998. Although poorer students were to be
exempted it was feared that, even with student loans, up to 10 per cent
of those planning to go to university would abandon the idea. One effect
of the financial burden is that more students are living at home while
continuing their studies: about 50 per cent at the ex-polytechnics, but
only 15 per cent at the older universities.

Today many university science and technology departments, for example at
Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Imperial College London, and Strathclyde,
are among the best in Europe. The concern is whether they will continue
to be so in the future. Academics’ pay has fallen so far behinc other
professions and behind academic salaries elsewhere, that many of the
best brains have gon

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