The United Kingdom: An Educator’s Guide

May 05, 2004 3 min read

The United Kingdom—covering England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—had just over 10 million students in 2002-03, with more than 90 percent enrolled in publicly financed schools, usually known as state schools. The vast majority of students—8.4 million—attended schools in England.

The Department for Education and Skills oversees education and training in England. In the late 1990s, Parliament devolved primary responsibility for education and training in Northern Ireland and Wales to their national assemblies, although the education systems in England and Wales are very similar. The Scottish Executive Education Department is responsible for setting education policy in Scotland.

Although the Education Reform Act of 1988 established a national curriculum for schools in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Scotland has no prescribed national curriculum.

Similarly, the testing systems differ across the United Kingdom. In England, children take National Curriculum tests in English, mathematics, and science at ages 7, 11, and 14, or Key Stages 1, 2, and 3. At about age 16, or the end of Key Stage 4, most students take General Certificate of Secondary Education exams, or GCSEs, available in a wide range of subjects. (There is also a system of vocational exams.) Grades from A* (the highest) to G are given based on work during the course and on end-of-course exams. If students choose to stay beyond the compulsory education age of 16, and prepare for higher education, they then take Advanced, or A-level, exams. Teachers at the school mark tests for 7-year-olds. But tests for older children are marked externally, and a school’s results are published nationally.

Wales and Northern Ireland do not test 7-year-olds. And after they received greater control over education policy in the late 1990s, under Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor government, both decided to drop the national publication of test results in performance tables. Both also are considering replacing tests for 11- and 14-year-olds with ongoing teacher-designed assessments.

Although Scotland has national tests for its students, children take them when they are ready, at teachers’ discretion, rather than on the basis of age. The results are marked at the school and remain private. The government there is pursuing “more effective, pupil-focused assessment procedures.”

Public Financing

So it is really only in England where the Labor government’s education strategies are in full force. Children in England attend primary schools from age 5 to age 11, although many primary schools also provide “nursery” classes for those younger than 5. Secondary schools serve students from 11 to 16 or beyond.

Moreover, England has different types of publicly financed schools. The most common, called “state-maintained schools,” receive their support from the state and are part of the local education authority, or LEA, although they are largely self-governing when it comes to matters like staff appointments and allocation of resources.

Church-related or “voluntary” schools are largely financed by the state. The churches (or other voluntary bodies, mainly groups associated with churches) typically provide the physical facilities and maintain control over religious instruction. A voluntary school’s independence from the LEA depends on how much financial support it receives.

The most prestigious private, or independent, schools are called “public” schools. They include such internationally known schools as Eton and Harrow.

Unlike in the United States, the national government bears more than 80 percent of the costs for publicly financed precollegiate education, with per-pupil expenditures typically higher in the more disadvantaged areas. Although government spending is broadly redistributive, a well-to-do area can choose to spend more per student if the local education authority decides to do so.

—Lynn Olson