Our City


Schools    in        BristoL 

Primary and secondary education

Schooling 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 examinationsAdvanced 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

For 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. Labours 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 Labours 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 schools.

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.

Written by Isaeva Tatiana