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Britain's educational system is somewhat different from that of the United States.
For a start, uniforms are obligatory in nearly all schools (although variations are allowed in many for religious reasons), with different uniforms for each school, which is useful for identifying troublemakers on the buses - state run schools don't usually use their own transport to pick up students. The general rules for these are:
- Skirts must be no more than two inches above the knee
- Shirts are to be tucked in and top button done up
- Earrings are only allowed for girls and must be one stud per ear.
- Ties are to be a decent length
Of course, the number of kids who keep these rules is rather low...
There are fairly regular "non-uniform days" where pupils give money to charity, say Children in Need, in return for being allowed to wear (within reason) normal clothes, while the teachers may turn up in fancy dress.
- More common in primary schools, since some secondary headteachers seem to think that non-uniform days will result in a mass invasion from outsiders and therefore state that they are a security risk.
England and Wales have one system, but Scotland and Northern Ireland are somewhat different.
England and Wales
Compulsory schooling starts at 5 years old, but most children will attend Reception classes from age 4. After one year in Reception, they enter Year 1 (quick guide for those wanting to translate into the US grade system: US grade = UK grade - 1).
After two or three years in what is called Infant School, children will move up to Junior School. Often these schools will be in the same building and joined into a single Primary School.
At the end of Year 6 (5th grade), children used to take what were known as the Key Stage Two SATs (short for Standard Assessment Tests, and pronounced like the past tense of "sit", not spelled out like the US university entrance exam), but were scrapped in most schools fairly recently. They had no bearing on the child's future education, unlike the now outmoded 11-plus examinations (which are still used in Northern Ireland and a few English counties). They are mainly for government league tables (school performance rankings).
Then children are required to attend Secondary School. Parents will try to get said children into the best school (often a Faith School, i.e. a parochial school, which unlike in the US can be state schools). This allows for some comparison between schools and a sort of competition between them. Many good schools are highly oversubscribed. As school admission involves something called "geographical catchment areas", though these are often of an eccentric shape and a family may not be in the catchment area for the school they are geographically closest to. Families may claim they live half a mile down the road from where they actually do, or claim to live at a Grandparents address in order to qualify to attend a better school. Many schools also require you to have lived in the area for a certain amount of time.
At the end of Year 9, pupils also used to take the Key Stage Three SATs, which again were solely for league table purposes. These exams were abolished after a huge marking problem in 2008.
Pupils then go on to doing what are known as GCSEs (formerly known as O-Levels - there's a Harry Potter reference to these in the "OWLs"). These tests are done over two years (it is possible to do them in one) and these do count. They affect your chances of going on further and your job prospects. Most pupils take between 8 and 12 depending on what kind of school they go to (private schools do more, state schools do fewer). The "pass" mark (and the one the media focuses on) is 5 A* -C grades. There are further GCSE grades going down all the way to G (an outright fail is labelled "U" for "Ungraded"), but a D grade or below is usually regarded as effectively the same as totally failing the course, and getting below a C in English, Maths and/or Science can be the kiss of death to your career prospects. Most A-Level colleges, assuming that they don't just tell you to get lost, will insist that you resit these three GCSEs in order to get a C or above.
This is, of course, unless you happen to live in one of the local authority areas, such as Bedfordshire, Northumberland, Worcestershire, the Isle of Wight, Leicestershire or Poole, which introduced Middle Schools in the 70s and 80s. In these areas, someone will attend first a primary school, then a middle school, then a high school. The age ranges of each institution differ depending on where you happen to be, and there are also two types of middle schools, primary and secondary. Some other areas that used to have middle schools still call their secondary schools high schools. Luckily, Britain Is Only London so you don't have to worry about all that.
Education ceases being compulsory at this point, but many pupils who pass go to a Sixth Form or a College and later University, nicknamed "Uni". (a sixth form will be part of a school, a college is usually a seperate organisation, and Sixth Form lasts for 2 years, College and University last for 4 years). The name "Sixth Form" derives from the fact that Years 7-11 used to be called First to Fifth Forms. Years 12 and 13 used to be called Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth, and these terms are still used informally. There pupils do usually four AS Levels in Year 12 and then take three (or four) to do A Level, not least because its extremely common to despise and/or underachieve in one of your subjects by the end of the year. The pre-requisite for A-levels is usually 5 GCS Es at A*-C. Students who fared better in their GCS Es (i.e. as 5 A*s or more) tend to, but not always, choose to do five subjects at AS and drop one at A2, meaning they are doing 4 subjects in their second year, though five A-levels isn't uncommon, particularly if one of those subjects is another type of maths on top of existing maths or a subject like General Studies. The difference between college and V Ith Form is typically that colleges are seen as offering more vocational courses, and also allow their students more freedom than at Sixth Forms, which are attached to an existing Secondary School. Because of this, Sixth Form students frequently have a more restrictive dress code (though often relaxed from the uniform further down the school), and will be expected to attend the school for the entirety of the day (8:30-3:30, typically); whilst at college a student may leave during free periods, and the rules are less strict.
Uniforms disappear, cease to be obligatory or becomes considerably more relaxed. As a rule, separate colleges are more relaxed about appearance and attendance, whilst Sixth Forms attached to secondaries have less tolerance, because the older students should be setting an example. Students also lose a bit of their sanity.
During Year 13, pupils start applying to universities, generally online, via a body called UCAS. Different universities have different requirements. You can apply to five and will have to whittle down your offers to a first choice and an insurance place. If you are applying for medicine, you may only choose four universities, however you may choose a fifth to apply for a non-medical subject (typically something like Biochemistry). Also, a student may only apply to one of either Oxford or Cambridge (with a few exceptions: mature students, post-graduates, and potential organ scholars can apply to both). If you are applying for medicine or to Oxbridge, the deadline is mid-October; otherwise, it is mid-January, though private schools and successful state-schools often try to ensure that they have sent all of their applications off by the end of October/early November, as offers will start to come through by the end of October.
Should you fail to reach the requirements for either of your choices or choose to turn down all your offers, you may choose to go through "Clearing" - applying for any places that are left (advertised on-line or in the press). This was the subject of much contention in 2010, due to the sheer numbers of student applications made that year, and is likely to be the same in 2011. A similar system called UCAS Extra exists for students who get turned down by every single university they apply to, and allows them to find course places between February and July, before the main Clearing rush (though if your application fails that dismally, it's often a better idea to bite the bullet and start a new set of A-Levels the following September).
University degrees are usually three or four years. The first year often only counts in allowing you to do the other two or three. The completion of a degree course is usually the only time a typical Briton attends a graduation ceremony. Most schools and sixth form colleges simply don't have them. For UK students, a degree at an English university currently costs around £3,000 a year- in 2012, this will be raised to between £6,000 and £9,000 (a decision with which students were not happy). Most universities now charge the maximum rate of £9,000 per annum for tuition. However, this is not paid for upfront by the student or his or her family; rather the government Student Loans Company pays this, and the student only begins to pay off the debt after he or she is earning over £21,000 p.a. In addition, the SLC provides Living Costs loans and grants.
Scotland's education system differs from that of its fellow UK members. Uniform policy and compulsory schooling age (5-16, although at the time of writing the UK government is considering raising this to 18) remain the same, but the division of the system is different. The country generally prides itself on its traditions of a separate system and the provision of public education long before Parliament made it obligatory in 19th century.
Before compulsory education comes nursery school, which can either be public or private, with public ones usually being attached to a school. Kids can start from the age of three and stay for a morning or afternoon session or sometimes both. It's a mixture of playing and basic teaching with stuff like storytime and songtime so they can learn letters, numbers and colours as well as traditional toys and stuff that kids can't get at home such as sand and water pits. An alternative or precursor to nursery is playgroup, which is the same except for the fact that parents take part with their children on a rota, so they join their kids for some sessions and not others, helping them to cope with any separation anxiety they might have. Prior even to this are baby classes that usually start from 18 months and up and are held at sports or community centres. These have replaced "Mother and Toddler" groups which were similar to playgroups except more age-appropriate. Their successors were created with kids in mind but their real purpose is giving frazzled parents a chance to get out of the house and take a break for a few hours.
Primary school consists of seven years, with the classes labelled Primary 1 (four-and-a-half to five years old) to Primary 7 (11-12 years old). They have one teacher for the entire year, and all subjects will be taught by her/him. Teachers are addressed as Mr./Mrs./Miss./Ms. "Name". They stay in one classroom for the whole school day. However, some specialist teachers may come in for subjects like Art and Music or they may go to another room for a subject like IT, but this varies from school to school. National Tests are sat throughout Primary school, but, like the Key Stage Two tests, they have no bearing on future education. At the end of Primary 7, the child moves up to Secondary school.
Secondary school re-labels the classes, which are now known as either "X-year" or Secondary X (frequently shortened to SX) - the youngest class is S1 (12-13 years old), the oldest is S6 (17-18 years old). This is when classes are divided according to subject, and students must move from class to class. Pupils attend a wide variety of classes in First and Second Year. At the end of second year, this is narrowed down to eight subjects; three of which are compulsory (English, Maths and often French/German) and five chosen by the student, although these usually have to fulfill certain creteria that vary from school to school: e.g. the student's choice of one of the three science (Biology, Chemistry and Physics, although some may take combined Science) and the three social sciences (Geography, History and Modern Studies) At this point, classes will be split into ability levels: Credit, General and Foundation. These eight classes will be attended from Third to Fourth Year, and at the end of Fourth year, the Standard Grade exams will take place. The level of success attained in these exams pretty much dictates the pupil's options in Fifth Year. Unlike the A-F grading system used both elsewhere and in the Higher examinations, Standard Grades are marked 1-7, with 1 being the best mark and 6 being the worst pass -- the lowest possible mark, a 7, is a fail. Grades 1 and 2 are credit, and 3 and 4 are general, so if you sit a Credit test, 100% is a one and the lowest pass is a 6, whereas in a foundation exam you're a 5 or you're a 6. Standard Grades are in the process being scrapped, mostly because teachers feel that they are not relevant enough to further qualifications. Some schools are opting for Intermediate 1 and 2, courses which are modelled on the Higher formats and course material so kids have less difficulty when it comes to sitting them in S5 and 6. Int 1 is about General level, whereas Int 2 is just beyond credit level. Holyrood is considering getting rid of both of these and creating something entirely new instead.
- Some Scottish schools now begin the Standard Grade and Intermediate courses in S2 instead of S3, the Highers beginning a year early also but still ending at S5, making it a 2 year course.
In Fifth Year, the classes are narrowed down to five, and the Higher Still system comes into play. Strong performance in the Standard Grade level of a subject enables the student to take the Higher course, moderately good performance puts them into Intermediate level, while weak performance puts them into Access. (Note: this is determined not only by the student's grade in the exam, but what level of exam they sat -- for example, it is extremely unlikely that a Foundation student would get into a Higher class, no matter how well they did on the Foundation level test). English and Maths are no longer compulsory, leaving all five classes for the students choose themselves. In general, Highers are considered much harder than Standard Grade/Intermediates in proportion to age and the ability required. If the pupil wants to stay on until Sixth year, they can either "upgrade" their existing qualification (for example, an Intermediate student takes the Higher course, while a Higher student qualifies for the Advanced Higher course) or take an entirely different subject (a student who had to drop a subject in Standard Grade might decide to pick it back up in Sixth Year). Advanced Higher pretty much first year university work of a degree in the subject, so much so that students who achieve an A are allow to skip ahead to the second year of the degree course if they wish (sometimes).
Exams start in May and finish in early June. During this time, S4-6 go on study leave. Basically, they are off school for a whole month to cram and only have to put in appearances for the actual exams, whose times are standardized across the country to prevent cheating, with a few exceptions such Art practical exams, but can come in if they want to ask for help or just to get out of the house. The papers themselves last about an hour and a half on average at Standard Grade/Intermediate levels and about 2 hours at Higher. Some, such as Maths and Chemistry are straightforward and easy as long as you know what you are doing. Others, such as History and English, have an extremely specific exam technique which can make the subject twice as hard.
Students can leave school whenever they turn 16, so Fifth and Sixth year classes are much smaller than Fourth Year and younger. However, to gain entry into university, the Higher level of qualifications are required. If you wish to attend University but lack the proper Higher qualifications, the normal course is to get a Higher National Certificate (HNC) at a College in the relevant subject (there is also the more advanced Higher National Diploma (HND), which can sometimes get you into 2nd year University, but these are increasingly extinct); College, here, is basically High School for adults, perhaps slightly more advanced, and is not to be confused with University.
The UCAS system applies in Scotland -- however, entry requirements are different. A-Levels are a more advanced qualification than Highers, so it's actually the Advanced Higher (available only in sixth year after passing the initial Highers) that are roughly equivalent to the A-Levels, except that they're to a slightly higher level, which leads to utter confusion and outrageous requirements when a Scottish student applies to an English university. So a student in England or Wales might need 3 "B" grades at A-Level to get into a course, while a Scottish student will probably need 3/4 "A" grades at Higher (or 2 "B"s at Advanced Higher) to get into that same course. It should be noted that Scottish University courses are a year longer than in the rest of the UK and so minimum entry requirements are concurrently lower, for example the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) has a minimum requirement of "BBC" at Higher to enter Physics, the equivalent grade for English applicants being "CD" at A-level.
The Eleven Plus- Understanding The Pre-1976 System
Between 1944 and 1976, the British schooling system was in three tiers. At eleven, all pupils took a test and were allocated into the tiers as per the results. There were different emphasises in each:
- Grammar Schools - intellectual subjects.
- Secondary Technical Schools - maths and science. Few built.
- Secondary Modern - practical subjects.
The secondary modern was seen as the bottom tier and there were elements of class involved. Falling into the Grammar School category did not guarantee you a place there, as there were often fewer places than there were people passing the exam. The Wilson governments took exception to the whole thing and finally abolished it in 1976.
The whole issue of selection remains a controversial one in the UK, with calls for its return and equal calls against. Some schools retained interviewing until recently, but can only now do it on religious grounds.
This system remains in some locations in Northern Ireland and parts of England, but it is voluntary, and it is illegal to found new grammar schools.
- Sort of voluntary. The "11+" exam itself is voluntary, but in most areas which retain grammar schools, there is a big difference in the quality of grammar schools and regular secondaries. In most areas, your local comprehensive is fairly average or pretty good (with some obvious exceptions). Where grammar schools exist, the local comps are usually abysmal and most parents would force their children into taking the 11+ in the hope their children wouldn't end up there.
The UK has as many school dinner jokes as the US, if not more ("dinner" here means "lunch", in accordance with British English). There is no requirement to have a school dinner. Those with low incomes can get money from the state to pay for them and kids get tickets handed out to them (the numbers who get this are logged in the league tables).
There was a recent controversy over school dinners being unhealthy. This led to a change in their content, and a backlash from some parents who passed fast food through school fences.
The common media perception before that was of peas that were harder than bullets among other things. Possibly related to the fact that the budget per person was 57p and the lowest in Europe.
This is less prevalent than it was, but many schools used to be single-sex only. They're still there, though. See St. Trinian's for a famous fictional example.
Equivalent to an American Parochial school, a faith school (loosely synonymous with 'church school') is one linked with a specific religious organisation. Apart from slightly more emphasis on whichever belief the school is linked with, faith schools are required to follow the same curriculum as secular schools. Religious beliefs can be taught, but only in the context of religious education (which many schools with no religious affiliation do anyway). These schools are fairly controversial.
Any state school can apply to become a church school, which generally brings a little extra funding and a nicer sign. Faith schools generally have some extra funding from their affiliated religion of choice and faith secondary schools may collect a means-tested contribution from parents. Most faith schools prioritise places to those who can evidence that they are practising that faith (usually a letter from the appropriate community religious leader), they will then fill places with children who can evidence they practice any religion before leaving the remaining school places to children from families who practice no religion. For example a Catholic school will mostly have children from practicing Catholic families, but will also have children from Church of England families, Muslim Families, Sikh families etc.
A fairly recent invention, a Free School is an English school which is taxpayer-funded and free to attend, but is not under the direct control of the local authority and is set up by the people.
It is not possible to "drop out" of school before 16. If you, say, threw a pen at a teacher, you'd just have to find another school in the local area or elsewhere.
- Threw a pen? Takes a lot more than that to get you kicked out of most schools...
- True. When I was in primary two guys tried to beat up a teacher and swore at her. They only got a 2 week suspension.
- Expelling a pupil from a state school just means that the school has an empty place, often then filled by a child who has been expelled from another school. Schools are wary that if they permanently exclude a pupil, they might get forced to take someone worse instead.
- Also, it looks really bad when the inspectors come round and the school is scrutinised.
- While schools have to provide a child with an education, it doesn't necessarily have to be in school. Children can have work sent home if they are on fixed term exclusions, or are school refusers. They can have education provided at specialist centres or via online schools.
- Threw a pen? Takes a lot more than that to get you kicked out of most schools...
Privately funded schools can generally be much pickier.
Other things of British school culture
- The Bike Sheds - where people a) smoke, b) get intimate (snogging or higher) or c) both.
- Leaver's Service/Muck-Up - a religious service before people go off to revise (study) for their GCSE exams. This involves quite possibly the only time any girl who is not an adult will invoke Sexy Schoolwoman, much use of eggs, stink bombs, general pranks and sometimes the collective suspension of the entire year.
- Sports Day - More a primary school thing, it can be the source of some minor trauma and a lot of argument. The latter among the parents. However, some are just a bit of a laugh and a good way to leave early if you were lucky enough to get an adult belonging to you to come and watch. (UK state schools don't have the inter-school, or indeed inter-university sports scene to the same extent as the US).
- The Cane - Withdrawn since the 1980s, the only place you'll see one these days is in a BDSM context. This was used to punish naughty pupils, sometimes in front of the whole school.
- The Scottish equivalent was the tawse, a fiendish leather strap with a split end. Ow.
- The Teacher's Gowns - In the old days, you'd get teachers wearing their university gowns on Awards Day and sometimes in lessons. Even in the late seventies/early eighties some schools expected teachers to teach in their academic gowns, though most reserved them for ceremonies if they required teachers to have them at all.
- "John Smith" wears one in the Doctor Who episode "Human Nature".
- Some private schools still use them for assemblies and prize-giving ceremonies but never for teaching. Nowadays they are totally unheard of in state schools (excepting some of the older grammar schools). In Scotland, however, if a fairly standard academy is a tolerable example, the Rector and Heads of Department (Masters) still wear gowns for prize-giving and services at Christmas.
- Some private schools in England are "public schools", all public schools are private schools, but there are a lot of private schools that aren't public schools. Public schools are old and were founded to educate the gentry. Those who have attended public schools get tetchy if you refer to all private schools as public schools, or if you refer to them. Also rather confusingly, some of them are called "colleges", even though they're schools.
- When public schools were being founded, the children of peers were generally still educated by tutors (a deal more expensive) and children were sent on to university at a much younger age (the ancient universities' undergraduate degrees are M As because, traditionally, one would receive one's BA at as young as fourteen.)
- This is only partly correct. The very old ones (Eton, Roedean etc) are public schools. All the other fee-paying schools are private schools. Except if they're for 16-18-year-olds only, or just think it sounds better, and then they're colleges. It's kind of something you just have to know.
- Specifically the Public Schools are those that send a delegate to an organisation called the Headmasters Conference (although Headmistresses have been admitted for years). This is a club for senior (age 11 or 13 to 18) schools only. Prior to that an independent school is often Prep (short for Preparatory) - age 7 to 11/13 or Pre-preparatory (often part of a Prep school) - for children younger than 7.
- The year structure, selection and examination and exams taken can vary wildly from those in the state sector.
- And are also highly selective, as in Quis paget entrat (who pays gets in).
- Really the public/private school distinction depends on who you ask. Roughly, the older, posher and more expensive a school is, the more likely it is to be a public school. Public schools educated the gentry and so had no entry requirements beyond money and status (though most are selective now), whilst private grammar schools evolved from the need to educate the clergy and had entry requirements. If you went to one of the schools named in the Public Schools Act 1868, they are the only public schools, even for people who went to schools founded 9 centuries before Eton.
- There is almost an (unwritten) tier system in place for positioning what people accept/call/claim as public schools which, linked with potential markers such as HMC headmaster, East India Club membership priviliges or a tie on the wall of The Bear, can cause even more confusion and/or snobbery depending on what agenda is posessed by the person with whom you are speaking. Whilst it is (generally) accepted that Winchester, Eton, Harrow, King's Canterbury, Rugby and similar are the top tier and the older, more respected (depending on snobbery of course) Grammars are (sometimes)grudgingly allowed in the bottom one, where absolutely everyone else comes will probably entirely depend on whether you went to St Pauls, Charterhouse, Rodean, The Dragon/Malborough, Abingdon, Westminster, Ampleforth...
- Outward Bound (TM) trips - An entire year group goes away on a residential trip, usually 4 or 5 days, with their teachers, round about Year 6/Primary 7 to do teambuilding things - rock climbing, abseiling, archery, swimming in freezing cold lakes, illicit midnight feasts - sort of a marriage of Scouting and Enid Blyton, minus some of the racism (depending on where you are...). All to fuse the class(es) as a proactive unit of independent yet cooperative students ready to take on the exciting new challenges of high school as well creating a whole host of happy childhood memories... while your friends' school went Disneyland Paris to learn French.
- Prefects - Basically the British equivalent of Hall Monitors, typically Year 11s or Sixth Formers in the posher state schools and in private schools. Get a badge or, depending on the school, a cool robe Rarely exist in the rougher state schools, unless they're trying to be something they're not.
- Head Boy/Girl - Two senior students of some quality and respect that are chosen to represent the school, and set an example to the younger students. May or may not be in charge of the seemingly harmless School Council. Again, associated with posher state schools and private schools.
- School discos - A staple of school stories set in the '80s and '90s. Rather than the elegantly styled prom found in American schools, a British "School Disco" is an excruciatingly embarrassing event, chaperoned by teachers and with a bad DJ (sometimes the Headmaster, if no-one else can be found) blaring cheesy pop music. The ultimate horror is to have to be picked up by one's dad, or for him to come in and make his way to the dancefloor. These days most schools have a prom (although usually a modest one by American standards), so the trope is largely redundant.
- However, some schools do this for every year before a big break - Christmas discos, etc. They're typically the same thing but in a hall or something, rather than a booked venue.
- They're also just as grim.
- OFSTED - The regulatory body for child services, which carries out regular school inspections, sending teachers into a complete panic every time. There is a four-point results system: 1 (Outstanding), 2 (Good), 3 (Satisfactory) and 4 (Inadequate). If a school is given a '4' in too many areas, it is put into 'special measures' to improve, and may be shut down.
For a more in-depth discussion on British Higher Education, see British Unis.