Monday, 11 April 2016

British Education

The Fic Writer's Guide To Britain

This tongue in cheek installment looks at the British education system - in all its glory! You can find the rest of this series, originally written as a Britpicking guide for fanfic writers - HERE.

Note: Where stats aren’t sourced they came from Wikipedia. It serves our purpose. Links out included where possible for clarification and further reading. This was written in July 2014, and stats have not been updated.




Education has been around a long time, about as long as human civilisation, in fact. Formal education on the other hand is quite another matter. England first started establishing independent schools in the sixth century. More followed, and by Tudor times Edward VI was moved to set up a system of free grammar schools, to educate the great unwashed. (Or, you know, the children of relatively successful tradesmen and the minor nobility.)

The system remained largely unchanged, despite the best efforts of reform minded eighteenth century types of the Robert Raikes variety, until the Victorian period. Formal schools taught the well off and the gifted, and the likes of dame schools, charity schools, Sunday schools, and informal village schools taught the rank and file how to sign their name, and count out their goods at market. Then, in the nineteenth century, moral reform and philanthropy and reading Dickens became positively de rigeur. The problem was that you couldn’t better the lot of the working classes while they remained ignorant inbreds. Some of them didn’t even understand the importance of gender appropriate clothing! The answer was education. Or middle class indoctrination. Tomato, tomato.

Elementary (primary) education was the beneficiary of this drive, and by 1860 over 95% of children received at least some basic education. The Elementary Education Act of 1880 finally made attendance compulsory between the ages of 5 and 10 years old, later raised to 11 in 1893 and 12 in 1899.

School life as we know it was beginning.

(Note: Victorian education is an endlessly fascinating topic to the British. Children can even go and be a Victorian school student for the day at any number of ‘living history’ centres across the country.)



Private AKA Public AKA Independent Schools

Don’t let the names confuse you, they all mean basically the same thing: a fee-paying school. They have been around since the sixth century, and became particularly important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, churning out generation after generation of the British elite. There are currently around 2,600 independent schools in the UK, educating about 7% of all children. They also produced over 50% of the current Cabinet (the top table of UK government) but, hey, who’s counting?

The independent sector can be broadly split into two sections: prep[aratory] schools which take children aged 8-13, and independent schools proper which take children aged 13-18. Some schools will take children all through from ages 3-18, though few will accept boarders under the age of 8. The best known of the independent schools are Eton and Harrow, which currently charge around £35,000 (c. $59,500) per student, per year. To help put that in perspective, the average annual wage in the UK is £26,500 (c. $45,000). Your average independent school will still charge around £12,000 (c. $20,000) for day pupils, and £28,000 (c. $48,000) for boarders, so you can be sure to keep your child away from the riff raff.

My Life: Most Famous School in the World
Scholarship boys at Eton from CBBC (Children's BBC) show 'My Life: Most Famous School in the World'. 

Life at an independent school, particularly as a boarder, will be very different from at a ‘typical’ school. Eg. A day in the life. Some people love it, some hate it - it all boils down, as a wiser man once said, to the psychology of the individual.



As we entered the 20th century, education got serious. The Balfour Act of 1902 set up local education authorities (LEAs) to oversee schools. It meant schools had regular income from the rates, and many LEAs focused on opening secondary schools for further study. Over a 1000 new secondary schools had been opened by 1914, including 349 for girls. In 1918 the school leaving age was raised to 14, and the idea of compulsory full-time secondary education took a great step toward becoming reality.

Fast forward to a few decades later, and the second world war had changed the way Britons saw the world. What ought to be rewarded was ability and merit, not money and inherited title. Fortunately Conservative MP Rab Butler had been busy triumphing the new tripartite system since his appointment as President of the Board of Education in 1941. The Butler Act passed in 1944, committing the nation to providing free secondary education for all children up to the age of 15, and was finally implemented in 1947. (The leaving age was eventually raised to 16 in 1972.)

Tri-whatsit, you say? Basically, the secondary school system was split into three. Children would sit an exam at the end of their elementary education, eventually regularised as the Eleven Plus, which would decide what kind of secondary education would suit them best. The most academically capable would go to a grammar school. Those with an aptitude for maths, science and engineering would go to a technical school. Everyone else would go to a secondary modern where they would learn essential skills like brick laying (boys) and the delicate art of home making (girls).

Channel 4 ran a series called That’ll Teach ‘Em which recreated 1950s style grammar and secondary modern schools between 2003 and 2006. They’re good fun and provide all the insight you’d need for 99% of fic if you can get hold of it.

To Sir, With Love
To Sir, With Love depicted a rough inner city Secondary Modern school in 1967.

The problems with the tripartite system soon became obvious. Firstly, very few technical schools were ever built, meaning the system essentially created winners and losers. Secondly, people began to question whether a single exam taken at 11 was enough to determine a child’s future - especially when those who failed were children of the educated middle classes. The reasons for failure were many and varied - children might not want to be marked out as different to their peers, or in some cases were even encouraged by parents to fail as they couldn't afford the uniform, books, sports equipment, bus fare, etc for the grammar school. By the swinging sixties people were ready for a new kind of education.

A comprehensive education.

Comprehensive schools, i.e. inclusive schools, had been operating on an experimental basis since the 1950s. The liberal left wingers who dominated the British intellectual scene of the 1960s were heavily in favour - Ralph Miliband, celebrated member of the ‘New Left’ and father of the former leader of the UK Labour party, (in)famously sent both his sons to their local comprehensive. In 1965 the Labour government took the plunge, with just a little push from then Education Secretary, Anthony Crosland.

The state comprehensive school is the personification of the ‘typical’ British school from the late 1960s onwards, and we’ll return to look at it later in more (much more) detail. Because comprehensive education isn’t the end of the journey. Some counties still operate grammar schools and the 11+ system today, over 50 years later, and a whole new system was introduced in 2000 ‘to break the cycle of low expectations.’ These are Academy Schools, schools which are state funded but run independently. (Though most are former comprehensives, and the differences in school experience are not generally substantial.) The Academy banner also encompasses Free Schools, founded by the likes of parent groups, religious groups and education charities. By the end of 2013 there were around 3,500 Academies in England, including 174 Free Schools.



A word on other ‘atypical’ schools

Faith Schools. The source of endless controversy, these are schools which aren’t that far removed from the norm. They teach the regular curriculum, but supplement it with religious teaching of their own particular slant. They make up around a third of all state funded schools, and the majority are CofE (Church of England) biased. Find out more about them and why they’re such a hot topic HERE, HERE, and HERE.

SEN Schools. Special schools are there to meet the needs of children with special educational needs. Most children will complete at least part of their education in mainstream schooling, but some will need the extra support of a specialised school. Find out more HERE.

Non-English Medium Schools. In some parts of the country you don’t have to learn through the medium of English. In Wales the LEA has a legal requirement to provide Welsh medium school places should parents want them, and around 20% of children now attend Welsh medium schools. In Scotland there are a number of schools (mostly primary) providing education through the medium of Scots Gaelic and in Northern Ireland there are around 5,000 pupils currently in Irish medium education. You can learn in Manx on the Isle of Man, and in Cornwall there are even a couple of Cornish medium pre-school settings.

Pupil Referral Units. These are educational settings for children unable to attend mainstream school, perhaps for medical reasons (teenage mums often end up finishing their school lives at the PRU), or because they have been excluded (the modern word for ‘expelled’) from their regular school. On the one hand a PRU can transform a child’s chances of leaving school with qualifications, offering small class sizes and one-on-one support. On the other, there can be a lot of stigma surrounding it, with the PRU often seen as a ‘dumping ground’ for lost causes.

Secure Children’s Homes, Secure Training Centres, and Young Offenders Institutions. There are 10 SCHs housing just over 200 children aged 10 to 17. Some will be there on welfare placements (ie. they are a risk to themselves), most will have been placed there because they are a risk to others. High profile child criminals will also tend to be held at a SCH because of the high security and levels of confidentiality. Then there are 4 STCs, holding children aged 12 to 17, including a mother and baby unit. Finally there are twelve YOIs, nine for boys aged 15-17 and three for girls aged 17. If your story is set pre-1982 and takes a custodial bent, try reading up on borstals HERE.

The controversy surrounding the 1979 film 'Scum' helped rid Britain of the Borstal system.

Home schooling. There are an estimated 35,000 children being home schooled in the UK. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of home schooling - one provided by the LEA for children who are unable to go to school for various reasons, and the other arranged by parents without any real LEA intrusion. Although the latter is seeing an increase, home schooling is seen as relatively newfangled and, while suitable for children with SEN or emotional needs who are struggling to cope in a formal school setting, toxic to average Joe Bloggs Jr’s social and academic development.

Stage School. There are a number of full time performing arts schools in the UK, the most famous is probably the Sylvia Young Theatre School.



Finally, before we move on to that mythical, ‘typical’ school, depending on when and where your fic is set it might be as well to be aware of devolution. No, not humans returning to the primordial slime, but the statutory granting of powers from central government to government at a subnational level. In the UK that (for the most part) means the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Welsh Assembly.

Scotland. The Scottish education system is quite substantially different to the rest of the UK, with more emphasis on covering a breadth of subjects and a different exam system. My own knowledge of the Scottish system is mostly limited to primary level, so I'll just link you over to the Wiki page. Find out more about the Scottish curriculum HERE.

Northern Ireland. One of the big unique features of the Northern Irish system, compared to the rest of the UK, is the proliferation of church schools. 95% of pupils attend either a maintained (Catholic) or controlled (Protestant) school. For more info click HERE. For more on the NI curriculum, go HERE.

Wales. Living and working in Wales, I don't need to just link you out. The main difference between Wales and England is that state schools in Wales are all comprehensives or faith shcools. There are no academy schools, and grammar schools were fully ousted in the 1970s (except in the minds of the Welsh Conservative Party who make their reinstatement a manifesto pledge at every election). Wales sets its own curriculum (see HERE) and is about to start administering its own exam system.



The 'Typical' School - Primary Edition

Young children in the UK may attend a pre-school playgroup from age two, or a nursery from age three. The latter is somewhat more formal, and places are provided free of charge by the government. There are also private (i.e. fee-paying) daycare facilities available for babies and toddlers, aimed at the children of working parents.

Most children start school proper at the age of four - in spite of some research claiming it's 'too much too young' - in the 'reception' class. ('Kindergarten' is not in common usage in the UK.) Some children will only begin when the law makes it compulsory, in the term beginning after their fifth birthday. They then spend a further two years at infant school.

Year 3, or age 8, marks the move to junior school. For some children this will mean a completely new school site, but in the majority of instances the infant and junior school is on the same site, under the banner of 'primary school'. They will attend junior school through to Year 6, ready to begin secondary school at the age of 11.

The average primary school has around 200 pupils, with about 25 pupils per class. The emphasis is on teaching pupils the basics of the 'Three R's': reading, writing, and arithmetic, and formal testing is generally reserved for the upper years of junior school. School uniform is the norm for primary age pupils, and the picture below is typical. In the summer months girls might wear checked school dresses.

Here's one of the first pictures I found on google images for 'primary school assembly'. Primary school pupils spend a lot of time sitting cross legged on the floor, whether that be in the dining hall for assembly as shown here, or in their own classrooms during 'story time' and the like.



The ‘Typical’ School

By virtue of being the most common type of school, educating about 90% of British children, this is the comprehensive school, or more specifically the imaginatively named 'Joe Bloggs Comprehensive'. Many - if not most - schools have dropped the 'comprehensive' from their names these days, preferring 'secondary' or 'high' school. Clearly Joe Bloggs Comprehensive, or JBC for short, has no such hang-ups.

The painfully average comprehensive has around 1,000 pupils, but to show state education in all its glory, let's make JBC an 11-18 establishment with attached sixth form college in a decent sized town. It has around 1,600 pupils, the vast majority of whom attended one of of JBC's feeder primaries - i.e. a primary school within JBC's catchment area. This includes primary schools in the middle of council (social) housing estates, and primary schools serving leafy middle class suburbs, full of minor professional types for whom one of their main reasons for moving to that particular house was to get into JBC's catchment area. It's not topping any league tables, but it's got a better reputation than the other comprehensives in the town. (For schools that are topping the league table, some parents will go to any length to get their kids in.)

Some pupils live outside the catchment area, but have been given dispensation because older siblings already attended the school, or perhaps have switched from another secondary school within the LEA because of bullying. Sometimes pupils will be taken at parental request, if there are surplus places available.

Compulsory secondary school education lasts five years, taking pupils through from Year 7 to Year 11. Some local education authorities do operate a three tier school system, like you see in the US, but they don't represent the 'typical' school experience. For children born after 1997 in England compulsory secondary education actually lasts seven years, until they turn 18, but those last two years won't necessarily be spent at a school. More on that later.

(Using 2013-14 dates for one of my local comprehensives.) JBC pupils will turn up for the start of autumn term on September 2nd. They'll be on break for half term between October 28th and November 1st, then will be back at school until they break up for the Christmas holidays on December 20th. Spring term will begin on January 6th, with half term holiday the week beginning February 24th. They'll be back in until April 11th, when they break up for Easter holidays. Summer term begins on April 28th, half term is the week beginning May 26th, and then they'll be at school from May 30th until they break up for the summer holidays ('six week holidays') on July 21st.

They will also be off on bank holidays, for four or five INSET (teacher training) days, for stormy / cold / snowy weather that puts health and safety requirements at risk, and if any of the major teaching or school staff unions decide to strike.

It's a hard life.



School Uniform

Students at JBC, as at most schools in the UK, are expected to turn up dressed in school uniform. Their parents or guardian likely received a letter from JBC ahead of time, advising what is and isn’t allowed. It probably looked something like this...

Girls’ Uniform:  

  • Plain white blouse with shirt style collar. 
  • Plain black skirt (knee length) / plain black trousers (no jeans). 
  • Black ‘v’ neck jumper / black cardigan. 
  • Black shoes with heels no higher than 1&1/2”. (Trainers (i.e. Sport shoes) are not allowed.) 
  • Socks/Tights in plain white, black or neutral (No patterns). 
  • School tie. 
  • Coat/Jacket - no denim or hooded sweatshirts.
  • Jewellery - limited to one watch, one signet ring and one pair of small stud earrings.
  • Make up - is not to be worn.
  • Headscarves - may be worn in black/grey/navy to respect religious observance.

Boys’ Uniform: 

  • Plain white shirt. 
  • Plain black trousers (no jeans). 
  • Black ‘v’ neck jumper. 
  • Black shoes. (Trainers are not allowed.) 
  • Socks - white/black/neutral (no patterns). 
  • School tie. 
  • Coat/Jacket - no denim or hooded sweatshirts.

Pupils in years 7, 8 and 9 may wear a white polo shirt in place of shirt/blouse and tie during the summer term. Extreme haircuts will not be permitted.

There is some variation in the primary colour of schoolwear, from grey to bottle green. Check any schoolwear site for the usual combinations. Many schools also require students to wear a school blazer, a throwback to the smart uniform insisted on by the old grammar schools. Although plenty of comprehensives only required boys to wear blazers, and a lot of them had dispensed with blazers completely by the 1990s because of the extra expense it put on parents.

The Demon Headmaster
The Demon Headmaster ensured the pupils at St Champions were always well turned out. This image is from the CBBC version broadcast between 1996 and 1998, and the uniform is meant to look old fashioned (note the pleated school skirts and knee socks, more usually seen in primary schools since the 1970s).

For the pupils of JBC it’s not so much about what they wear, as how they wear it. All school uniform rules will be pushed to their limits - what constitutes an 'extreme haircut' exactly, does lip gloss count as make up, is a cardigan with a hood a cardigan or a hoodie? The most important element of school uniform for 'cool' points is the school tie. Only first years and the dweebiest dweebs wear their tie properly - with their top shirt button done up - don't you know? Some schools will favour thick knots and short lengths of tie, other's will be all about the tiny knot and skinny side showing. It's best to check what the year above you are doing.

Young Dracula
The Dracula siblings show how it's done (and not done) in CBBC's Young Dracula. Bad girl Ingrid pushes Stokely Grammar's uniform policy to its absolute limit, while younger brother Vlad follows it to the letter. 

All schools will have pupils convinced that their school's uniform policy is draconian and unfair. This is particularly true during heat waves - girls have won the right to wear trousers to school, but few schools permit boys to wear shorts. Skirt protests are the usual way forward. The only other thing to do is to take your complaint right to the top. Yes, to your school council representative. The pupils of long running CBBC school drama, Grange Hill, successfully got rid of their uniform for a few years after negotiation between the Headmaster and the school council. Of course, as soon as a new Head was appointed, they were all back in uniform. An even less successful campaign against Neil Armstrong Comprehensive's uniform policy was launched by Britain's favourite teenage existentialist, Adrian Mole.

Adrian Mole
L-R: Adrian Mole, Pandora Braithwaite, Nigel Hetherington. They lead a uniform revolution by wearing red socks to school - and were temporarily suspended for their troubles.

Generally the only acceptable excuse for not being in uniform is that your parents can't afford it. There are limited school uniform grants available to parents on low incomes, but they only stretch so far.

Aside from themselves and their uniform, JBC pupils are expected to bring the necessary equipment for the school day. Although lockers are becoming more common, writing a US style high school scene with kids gathered around them remains pretty unrealistic for a UK fandom. You're expected to carry your stuff back and forth, leading to annual concerns come September about what the weight of it all is doing to children's spinal development. Back in the day (or, up to the 1980s), the school bag of choice was a leather satchel. Nowadays the backpack is more popular, or if you're like geeky Will McKenzie from The Inbetweeners, the briefcase.



The Typical School Day

The exact times will vary from school to school, but here's the timetable we followed back at my own comprehensive:

8:50 - School starts. Proceed to either your form room for registration and quiet reading (i.e. talking to your friends) or to the hall for assembly (i.e. a teacher rambling on about the state of behaviour, uniform adherence, the youth of today...)

9:10 - First Lesson. Probably the only lesson you'll be paying much attention in.

10:10 - Second Lesson.

11:10 - Break. This is the time to either use the toilet or queue up at the tuck shop, whichever urge is more pressing. Sweets and chocolates are about to be banned from English school tuck shops, so make the most of the sugar rush while you still can.

Grange Hill
Grange Hill's Roland 'Roly' Browning was always to be found at the school tuck shop.

11:25 - Third Lesson. You're being taught something, but all you can think about is lunch.

12:25 - Lunch. There are three kinds of luncher:

  1. The school luncher, including the holders of free school dinner tickets. You drew the short straw. Revel in your soggy state subsidised chips.
  2. The packed luncher. Favoured by fussy eaters nationwide.
  3. The off school premises luncher. Choose from the chip shop, Greggs, the local McDonalds - the world is your oyster. At least until the bell sounds for afternoon registration.

1:25 - Afternoon Registration.

1:30 - Fourth Lesson. The key to fourth lesson is to dawdle as much as possible on the way there. The longer it takes everyone to get there and settled down, the less of the lesson you have to actually endure.

Educating Yorkshire
A typical modern classroom layout on display at Thornhill Community Academy, the school featured in the popular Channel 4 reality show 'Educating Yorkshire'. For an up to date view of British school life, I highly recommend it.

2:30 - Fifth Lesson. Home time is so close, and yet so far.

3:30 - Home time! At last. You can now go home, eat your tea, not do your homework and watch TV until bedtime. Result.



What Is Being Taught?

As explained in the devolution section, the curriculum differs from region to region. But there are still enough similarities to provide a basic overview of the usual subjects taught at secondary level. If you want more detail on what exactly is being taught in these lessons, check out the BBC bitesize revision website and reduce years of learning into ten minutes of reading.

Note: If you do go check out Bitesize, 'National' refers to the Northern Irish curriculum, Scottish levels and highers are kind of self-explanatory, TGAU is in Welsh, and KS refers to 'key stage'. For typical, average purposes, go for the GCSE block. (The compulsory refers to the subject’s status past year 9 - i.e. The third year - when pupils take their ‘options’ for qualification level study.)

English - compulsory. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens. What more could you need? Able pupils will study both English Literature and English Language, less able pupils will focus on the latter.

Mathematics (Maths) - compulsory. Maths is maths is math. In some areas of the country there is a critical shortage of maths and physics teachers, and some will only have studied the subject to A-level, i.e. the exam typically taken at age 18, themselves.

Science - compulsory. There are three options at GCSE level (years 10 and 11). Single award science, double award science, or separate science for people who just love science.

ICT (Information and Communication Technology) - often compulsory. An amalgamation of two very different earlier subjects, typing and computing - ICT gives you all the monotony of typing without any of the fun of computing.

Welsh - compulsory (in Wales). Learn the language of your forefathers through the medium of poorly photocopied worksheets and VHS copies of S4C daytime programming.

The Welsh Not
Young Owen of olden days is punished for using Welsh on school grounds. Practices like these almost killed the language off - today it has joint status with English as the official language of Wales, but is notoriously hellish to learn and never likely to rank highly with pupils, particularly in the almost exclusively English speaking South.

Modern Foreign Languages - sometimes compulsory. Usually French, sometimes Spanish. German is still quite common, and in the 80s there was a vogue for Russian. You will learn little of any use beyond 'J'ai un chat. J'aime les chats.' This is expected and actively encouraged. God forbid you should start picking up foreign influences.

P.E. (Physical Education) / Games - sort of compulsory. You don’t have to sit an exam in it - though it is offered as an exam subject - but you still have to submit to the humiliation of wearing gym knickers. (Well, if you're female, at least.)

R.E. (Religious Education) and PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) - sort of compulsory. Again, though you can take R.E. as an exam subject, you have to learn about other faiths, cultures, and social issues. PSHE covers things like citizenship, careers, drug abuse, and sex education. (Note: Academies, free schools, faith schools, etc have no obligation to teach sex education.)

The rest, alphabetically:

Art and Design. Don't expect to learn much about art history or theory, most art teachers see their job as sitting at the front of the class and reading while their students shut up and draw from a picture in a magazine.

Business Studies. Learn all about business. It will be invaluable when you've left school and are stacking shelves at Poundland.

Drama. It is only fairly recently that drama has stepped away from the shadow of the English department. The biggest task remains organising the Christmas school play.

Geography. For all that the British media likes to laugh at Americans who can't point out the UK on a map, the map-reading skills of the Brits aren't much better. Geography teachers no doubt shoulder some of the blame, preferring to focus on things like urban development which at least has an actual chance of interesting their pupils.

History. You’ll learn all about the important events in world history. Like Henry VIII’s love of the ladies, and World War Two. Actually, no, that pretty much covers the school history curriculum right there.

Home Economics / Food Technology / Child Development / Design & Technology (food tech & textiles) / etc. The stereotypical 'girl' subjects.

Construction and the Built Environment / Design & Technology (electronics and resistant materials) / etc . The stereotypical 'boy' subjects. In the past this list would have looked something like Technical Drawing, Woodwork and Metalwork, Horticulture, etc. These have since been subsumed into D&T for the most part.

The point of all this learning, as far as the LEA is concerned, is to churn qualified young adults out the other end of the system. The British school system loves exams. Tests are inflicted at the end of most terms, for no particular reason, with more formal 'end of year' exams in the summer. But they only really matter once you hit years 10 and 11 and are studying for your GCSEs. Most pupils will take around 10 GCSEs, and the baseline for success is 5 GCSE passes at A*-C grade, including English or Maths. On average, only 55% of pupils at JBC will actually achieve that. About 80% of them will achieve 5 GCSEs at A*-C grade - without English or Maths.

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education, and has been the standard qualification aimed for by 14-16 year olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland since 1986. They replaced O-levels which had been introduced in the 1950s, and the less demanding CSEs (Certificate of Secondary Education) which were introduced in 1965 to help address the fact that most people left school without any qualifications. The pass grades, from highest to lowest, are A*, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. However it is worth noting that if you are sitting a higher tier paper, anything below a D is a fail. Similarly, the highest grade you can get on a foundation level paper is a C.

In recent years there has been a lot of debate over the future of GCSEs, and other qualifications are now offered in schools like NVQs, the Bacc, etc. England is now planning to replace them altogether. Northern Ireland and Wales will retain GCSEs. Scotland uses a different system entirely, known as Highers.



Who Is Teaching It?

The actual chain of command within the school is something along the lines of Headteacher, deputy head, heads of department, heads of year groups, the rank and file, NQTs (newly qualified teachers), supply teachers, teacher trainees, teaching assistants, other school staff (caretakers, dinnerladies [i.e. lunch ladies], cleaners, etc). The head answers, in turn, to the board of governors. School governors are there to be a 'critical friend' to the headteacher, and are made up of parent governors (typically only concerned with what young Jimmy is doing), teacher governors (typically only concerned with complaining about everything the head usually just dismisses), and LEA appointed governors (typically local councillors because nobody else can be leaned on to do it).

The board of governors, in turn, answers to the local education authority - and both of them answer to the school inspectorate. That's Ofsted in England, Education Scotland in - you guessed it - Scotland, Etini in Northern Ireland, and Estyn in Wales.

Teaching is not a particularly well respected profession in the UK. It involves long hours, average to poor pay, and the hopeless task of educating children who don’t want to be educated. In recent years there has been talk of increasing the required qualifications for teachers in order to improve teaching standards but, as people rightly point out - why would someone who could get a different job willingly go into teaching?

Teachers
Before the zombie apocalypse, Andrew Lincoln was teaching English at Summerdown Comprehensive. Teachers was a popular Channel 4 comedy between 2001 and 2004. 

So, onto the most common teaching stereotypes:

The strict teacher. Think Severus Snape, Constance Hardbroom, Mr Bronson and his toupee. Corporal punishment has been illegal in state schools since 1986, and independent schools since 1998. But you aren't sure the strict teacher is aware of that...

The Worst Witch
Miss Hardbroom struck fear into the hearts of her potions' students in CITV's adaption of The Worst Witch.

The liberal teacher. Probably fresh out of teaching college (or, in more modern times, off a PGCE conversion course) and full of right on, progressive ideas. Prone to nervous breakdowns.

Please Sir!
 Please Sir!'s Mr Hedges refused to give up on Fenn Street School's form 5C, no matter hopeless their chances seemed. 

The one of the gang teacher. Sometimes they achieve it, most of the time they don’t.

Bad Education
 Mr Wickers in BBC3 sitcom Bad Education is a classic example.

The I’m just waiting to retire teacher. They don’t care, they really don’t. All they want is a quiet life until they can finally leave the nightmare behind them.

Pobol y Cwm
Ffion spent most of her career with this outlook, and still somehow ended up with a promotion to acting headteacher in S4C soap, Pobol y Cwm.

The ditzy teacher. Organisation is for other people.

Harry Potter
Professor Trelawney. Need I say more.

The sexy teacher. Featuring in adolescent wet dreams across the country.

Hollyoaks
Miss Hayton eventually lost her job over her affair with former pupil Justin in Channel 4 soap, Hollyoaks.

The PE teacher. Not recognised as a proper teacher by his or her peers, they are forced to take their frustration out on their pupils. It's what cross country running was invented for.

Grange Hill
'Bullet' Baxter gets ready to introduce the lads of Grange Hill to a whole world of pain.



Sporting and Social Life

If US high school movies are to be believed, school sport is a big deal in the life of the American teenager. The same does not apply in the UK. School sporting fixtures are not generally spectator events, and tend to be played during school hours or just after school to an audience of the games teacher (who is usually doubling as referee). Cheerleaders are all but unknown. Few schools have bleachers either in the gym or outdoors, though posher schools might have something like a cricket pavilion. Until very recently it was rare for changing rooms to have lockers, instead they had benches and pegs for clothes to be folded and school bags hung upon. Because school sport matters so much less, we don't have quite the same 'jock' stereotype - sporty kids may well be in the popular crowd, but it's not a given.

The traditional school team sports are football (soccer), rugby and cricket for the boys, and hockey and netball for the girls. These days there isn't quite as much gender division in school sport, but there's still a long way to go. P.E. isn't just about team sports, however. Gymnastics and athletics make up a big part of the school sport curriculum, plus dance (for the girls) and fitness and weight training (for the boys). Other common activities include tennis, rounders (about as close as we get to baseball), cross country running, and - if the school has access to the facilities - swimming. Most schools will also hold an annual Sports Day in summer term, with pupils competing to raise points for their respective houses in schools which still use them.

St Trinians
Though a constant in British school fiction, lacrosse is more likely to be played in independent schools like (the albeit fictional) St Trinian's.

Aside from sport, schools offer their pupils plenty of ways to get involved with school life. Perhaps the geekiest of these extra-curricular activities is involvement with the school council. Each year group will have one or two student representatives, and the council will liaise with the school leadership team. You could also aim to be made a prefect, Wikipedia tells me that a suitable US comparison would be hall monitor. They get to wear a special badge and tell other kids off for not wearing proper uniform, or loitering around inside when they ought to be out on the playground. Prefects will often be lead by the Head Boy and Girl - the latter are usually elected by pupils and in some schools might also be expected to chair the school council.

If that all sounds like too much hard work, you could try one of the school's social clubs. The school choir (i.e. glee club) and the school orchestra are there for pupils with musical ambitions, and lunchtime and after school sports clubs abound for those who just can't get enough sport. Other typical school clubs include the chess club, debate society, and subject specific lunchtime clubs - providing there is a teacher willing to sacrifice their sit-down in the staff room. Most schools will have attempted to establish a school newspaper at one time or another, but few manage to publish consistently.

Another activity the pupils at our imaginary Joe Bloggs Comprehensive might be involved in, is the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) award scheme. Founded in 1956 it was originally aimed at boys aged 15-18. Today their take-up is encouraged by most secondary schools to bolster pupils' chances of university places and/or employment. There are four elements to the award: physical (i.e. sport), skills, expedition (usually a camping trip) and volunteering. This links us into another institution of British school life: work experience. A two week block of work experience is usually undertaken by Year 10 pupils as part of their education. Placements are generally arranged by the pupils themselves, and are about as useless as you might expect. Torbay Council's page on the subject is as good as any.

Harry Enfield - Kevin the Teenager
Harry Enfield's 'Kevin the Teenager' dies of embarrassment as his parents meet his teachers at school parents' evening. Parents' Evening is an annual affair, with parents talking to teachers about how their kids are doing. Teachers generally can't remember who the kid they're talking about is, while parents fidget nervously and remember their own school days.

As a rule, UK schools don't have dances (at least not since the 1950s), proms, festivals, homecoming, etc. Teenage girls tend to find the idea of crowning a queen enthralling - coronations happen so rarely, after all - but it's not a concept that lends itself to the British school system. Still, in recent years many have begun to have a school leaver's prom, definitely for year 13 (last year of sixth form), possibly for year 11 (last year of compulsory schooling), but how big a deal it is and whether it takes place on school grounds or elsewhere will vary from school to school. Mostly the best you can hope for is the school disco held in the gym or assembly hall, which was a standard Friday night event in the past though today youth discos are usually the preserve of the local authority youth service. (Grange Hill had a Christmas disco special in 1981, not much has changed.) The British love of nostalgia means that many nightclubs also hold regular 'school discos', with men in their old school ties and women in skirts that would have had them sent home to change back in the day.

The final aspect to touch on is the school's charity events. 'Non-uniform' (sometimes known as 'mufti') days take place at most schools a couple of times a year to raise money for charity, with pupils paying £1 or so for the privilege of wearing their own clothes. This is the day to prove how cool you really are. They usually coincide with national charity events, like Jeans for Genes Day, Children in Need, Comic Relief, or Wear it Pink for breast cancer research. Some schools may also organise more involved events to mark these occasions, or have a summer fete selling bric-a-brac, cupcakes, and the like.



School Trips

The school trip is one of the highlights of school life. You might even be allowed to wear your own clothing for the day, that's how big of a deal it is.

The typical trip. Usually organised by the subject department, this could range from a trip on foot down to the local river to look at fauna for biology or erosion for geography, to a bus trip to look at castles for history.
Class Four-D’s Trip To The British Museum, as recorded by Adrian Mole, via the late Sue Townsend:
7am Boarded coach.
7.05 Ate packed lunch, drank low-calorie drink.
7.10 Coach stopped for Barry Kent to be sick.
7.20 Coach stopped for Claire Neilson to go to the Ladies.
7.30 Coach left school drive.
7.35 Coach returned to school for Ms Fossington-Gore’s handbag.
7.40 Coach driver observed to be behaving oddly.
7.45 Coach stopped for Barry Kent to be sick again.
7.55 Approached motorway.
8.00 Coach driver stopped coach and asked everyone to stop giving “V” signs to lorry drivers.
8.10 Coach driver loses temper, refuses to drive on motorway until “teachers control kids”.
8.20 Ms Fossington-Gore gets everyone sitting down.
8.25 Drive on to motorway.
8.30 Everyone singing “Ten Green Bottles”.
8.35 Everyone singing “Ten Green Snot-rags”.
8.45 Coach driver stops singing by shouting very loudly.
9.15 Coach driver pulls in at the service station and is observed to drink heavily from hip-flask.
9.30 Barry Kent hands round bars of chocolate stolen from self-service shop at service station. Ms Fossington-Gore chooses Bounty Bar.
9.40 Barry Kent sick in coach.
9.50 Two girls sitting near Barry Kent are sick.
9.51 Coach driver refuses to stop on motorway.
9.55 Ms Fossington-Gore covers sick in sand.
9.56 Ms Fossington-Gore sick as a dog.
10.30 Coach crawls along on hard shoulder, all other lanes closed for repairs.
11.45 Fight ends. Ms Fossington-Gore finds first aid kit and sees to wounds. Barry Kent is punished by sitting next to driver.
11.50 Coach breaks down at Swiss Cottage.
11.55 Coach driver breaks down in front of AA man.
12.30 Class Four-D catch London bus to St Pancras.
1pm Class Four-D walk from St Pancras through Bloomsbury.
1.15 Ms Fossington-Gore knocks on door of Tavistock House, asks if Dr Laing will give Barry Kent a quick going-over. Dr Lacing in America on lecture tour.
1.30 Enter British Museum. Adrian Mole and Pandora Braithwaite awestruck by evidence of heritage of World Culture. Rest of class Four-D run berserk, laughing at nude statues and dodging curators.
2.15 Ms Fossington-Gore in state of collapse. Adrian Mole makes reverse charge phone call to headmaster. Headmaster in dinner lady strike-meeting, can’t be disturbed.
3pm Curators round up class Four-D and make them sit on steps of museum.
3.05 American tourists photograph Adrian Mole saying he is a “cute English schoolboy.”
3.15 Ms Fossington-Gore recovers and leads class Four-D on sightseeing tour of London.
4pm Barry Kent jumps in fountain at Trafalgar Square, as predicted by Adrian Mole.
4.30 Barry Kent disappears, last seen heading towards Soho.
4.35 Police arrive, take Four-D to mobile police unit, arrange coach back. Phone parents about new arrival time. Phone headmaster at home. Claire Neilson has hysterical fit. Pandora Braithwaite tells Ms Fossington-Gore she is a disgrace to teaching profession. Ms Fossington-Gore agrees to resign.
7pm Coach leaves police station with police escort.
7.30 Police escort waves goodbye.
7.35 Coach driver begs Pandora Braithwaite to keep order.
7.36 Pandora Braithwaite keeps order.
8pm Ms Fossington-Gore drafts resignation.
8.30 Coach driver afflicted by motorway madness.
8.40 Arrive back. Tyres burning. Class Four-D struck dumb with terror. Ms Fossington-Gore led off by Mr Scruton. Parents up in arms. Coach driver charged by police. 
The reward trip. Most schools will operate some kind of merit system, be it stamps or stickers or gold stars. At the end of the year a group of those who have the most merits in each year group are taken on a fun trip to a theme park or similar. Generally such trips are a cause of great resentment, especially as pupils with the most merits are rarely the best behaved - they get handed out as encouragement for improvement, so the class swot, though the biggest goody-two-shoes you know, will rarely get on a reward trip.

Our Day Out
The Willy Russel 1977 TV play, Our Day Out, depicted a school trip to Conwy Castle for the 'Progress Class'. The kids run riot, shoplifting armfuls of chocolate bars and stealing a penguin from a north Walian zoo. You can watch it on YouTube HERE.

The ambitious trip. This is a trip which involves leaving the country and / or an overnight stay. It's a surefire recipe for disaster. Most TV shows involving schools will have a trip related story of this kind at some point. Somebody will get lost, somebody will break a leg, somebody will be left behind when the coach pulls off. This is Sod's Law in action.

The sport related trip. For those who play on the school sports' teams, travelling to other schools in the region for sports fixtures is a fact of life. If the school is doing well, they might be invited to take part in a tour, sometimes even internationally. My old comprehensive used to organise a rugby tour to South Africa each year, for example. Such trips will likely be subsidised by the school and the relevant sport council, but they still rely on raising most of the money from parents. Disappointment for half the team is almost a certainty.



What Happens Afterwards?

You're 16, you've sat your GCSEs. School life as you knew it has come to an end. There is no graduation ceremony, and it has only recently become common to have a Year 11 prom. For most people, they went to school one last time to pick up their exam results in late July or August, and that was that.

So what happens next?

Well, traditionally you either stayed on for another two years in the sixth form to study for your A-levels. Or, and this was far more likely, you went out into the big wide world and started looking for a job. The third most common option is a further education college, which offers academic and vocational subjects, as well as the opportunity to wear your own clothes. (Note: 'college' is not an interchangeable term with 'university' in the UK.) Other choices include apprenticeships, part-time education or training, work-based learning, or a volunteering placement.

Tucker's Luck
Grange Hill spin-off, Tucker's Luck, followed popular character Peter 'Tucker' Jenkins and friends as they searched for work in 1980s Britain, having left school with only one English O-level pass between them. They all end up as 'dole boys', claiming state unemployment benefits. Today around 15% of all young people aged 16-24 are officially classed as NEET, Not in Education, Employment or Training. In economically struggling areas that figure can be more like 25% or higher.

If you're taking AS and then A-levels, the next step is likely to be university. You apply using the UCAS admission process, with the help of scores of prospectuses and the university league tables. The top universities in the UK are Oxford and Cambridge - collectively known as Oxbridge - and competition for places is fierce. You need at least A*AA for arts and humanities, and A*A*A for science subjects to get an interview. Though even an Oxbridge degree is no guarantee of getting a job these days.

(Note: In the past, you could have chosen between a university or a polytechnic (technical university, focusing on engineering, business, management, etc.) The latter were often seen as the less prestigious, less well respected option, and in 1992 they became universities in their own rights, with degree awarding powers.)

One of the big differences that springs to mind between higher education experiences in the US and the UK is accommodation. In US films everyone seems to have a room mate - that is a fairly alien concept in the UK. Most students will spend at least the first year, of their typically three year course, living in university run halls of residence. They will have their own room, but will probably share a bathroom with the rest of the corridor. Second and third year students will typically source their own accommodation, sharing a house or flat with other students. Again, it's very unusual to share a room unless you're planning on getting married to your roommate when your studies are over.

Linked to accommodation is the complete lack of fraternities and sororities in the UK. UK students socialise instead through clubs and societies - e.g. HERE's what's on offer at the University of Bristol. These societies will be under the general umbrella of the Student Union. At a national level there is the NUS, National Union of Students, which is mostly valued for its discount card. Each university's student union must decide whether or not to affiliate to the NUS on an annual basis - you can check out the currently affiliated SUs HERE.

With the legal drinking age 18 in the UK, student social life mainly revolves around getting drunk. This starts during Fresher's Week at the beginning of the academic year, continues throughout term time, and culminates in post exam celebrations. At Cambridge the latter begins on what is known as Suicide Sunday, the aim of the day being to drink yourself to death.

The other big difference is on the academic side of things. As I said before, the UK education system loves exams - continuous assessment that means anything is unusual, and end of year exams will account for at least 50% of your final grade. (For the UK grading system, click HERE.) Instead of going to 'class', students attend lectures and, generally speaking, they are not compulsory so turnout can be very low, especially for the 9am slot. You are also expected to specialise a lot more in the UK;, we hold no truck with taking random unrelated courses. If you were accepted to study history, you won't be majoring in it - history is essentially the only topic you will be studying. The only way to broaden it out in any meaningful sense is to take a joint honours degree.

Another difference is that while in the US students call their lecturers / supervisors / tutors 'professor', in the UK a teacher's title will depend on their highest qualification: a basic degree gets you Miss/Mrs/Mr, a PhD gets you Dr, and being the expert gets you 'professor'. (For more on how academic ranking works in the UK, click HERE.)

As for take up, the previous government's aim was to get 50% of young people through university, with tuition fees introduced for the first time in 1998 to help pay for this expansion. The recession and the hiking up of tuition fees to £9,000 (c.$15,000) a year has since put something of a dampener on the growth of the higher education sector. Devolved governments have done their best to cushion higher education - e.g. Scottish students studying at universities in Scotland do not pay any tuition fees, similarly the Welsh government covers the bulk of Welsh students' fees through a grant whether they're studying in Wales or not - but the outlook is pretty bleak for a lot of universities right now.

Way to end on a downer, eh?

6 comments:

  1. I am not a fiction writer, but I found this totally intriguing! The differences between your system and ours is noticeable. Unfortunately, one similarity is the overworked and underpaid teachers. Do yours get blamed for all of the problems with youth today like ours seem to in some circles?

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    1. Sadly, it's exactly the same here - teachers get blamed for everything, as though they're the only influence on children's lives!

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  2. Wow, this was fascinating for me to read! I've wondered about a lot of the things you'd mentioned, so you really answered a lot of my questions about UK education today!

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    1. So glad it was useful! :D It's getting a little out of date now, but it's mostly historical so I'm putting off updating it, lol.

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  3. I went to a Grammar School and on Speech Day, all the teachers wore their colourful degree hoods - except the PE teacher who didn't need a degree for his position. He always used to get involved in the field games and I'm sure that the pupils took advantage of this, because in Rugby he invariably came off the field witha torn shirt.

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  4. I started my Secondary education abroad for the first three years. The school was run by religious fathers and one feature that I only experienced, which perhaps had some merit upon reflection. You had a weekly report where your marks would be recorded and if you didn't get what they considered the standard, then you got detention. I always thought it was unfair because I couldn't do any better - at least I thought that.

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