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United Kingdom - Educational System—overview

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceUnited Kingdom - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


The credit for the establishment of an educational system in England usually goes to Saint Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, and an Italian clergyman who worked for the conversion of the English between 597 and (circa) 605. An important part of his ministry was teaching. He trained priests and worked to increase the knowledge of converts.

Saint Augustine's belief in education was strong, and other monks inhabiting monasteries shared his passion for learning and for writings, both religious and secular, for many hundreds of years. This was long before schools were a reality in England, and so the place of learning might be a church bench or a cleared space of ground in a monastery. Priests and educators were often one and the same then. Eventually, teachings of Latin language, writings, and scholarship were thought of as an elevated form of learning to be taught in grammar schools. Unfortunately, the Romans since the first century had downplayed the need to understand Greek, and these first schools would have produced students better versed in science and imaginative literature had they learned the language. In the twelfth century, it is true that certain scholars expressed enthusiasm for Greek writings, but the established Church tended to look with suspicion on such works, lest scholars be drawn to heresy. It was not until the fourteenth century that the great Italian thinker, poet and humanist Petrarch and other Renaissance scholars saw the true importance of widespread study in the universities of Platonic thought and the work of Greek writers such as Aristotle.

Nonetheless, in the twelfth century, a great surge in the copying of manuscripts and zealousness for learning emerged from the explosion in the number of monasteries—some lavish and some bare and plain—established in England. By 1154, there were some 300 monasteries from various religious orders established in England. At the time of William the Conqueror's invasion, there had been but 48, according to author Sir Roy Strong, who notes that nearly all these new monasteries were places for learned men to study. At first, becoming a scholar was the accepted path to become a priest or monk; quite rapidly, professionals in other serious endeavors saw the need for advanced training and study. Royal kings and nobles were often the last to seek an education, seeing it as beneath them and employing royal secretaries for such chores, according to Strong. However, reading and writing in the language of England next became essential for students who sought knowledge, as did rhetoric and, occasionally, training in theology. Some twenty-first century grammar schools, such as the King's School and Canterbury, had their roots planted even in Saxon times. Nonetheless, as medieval scholars such as Joseph Strayer and Dana C. Munro have pointed out, the native tongue was so undeveloped that scholars and thinkers alike had to do crystallize their thoughts in Latin. In addition, they needed existing models of clear thinking from established authors, and for this they had to turn to the great Roman writers such as Vergil and Cicero.

Lesser subjects were taught in the equivalent of vocational classes. Song classes, for example, were taught in Song Schools in the seventh century until shortly before the Middle Ages; these classes trained those with excellent voices who sang as an accompaniment to church services. At some indefinite point in the Middle Ages, an early version of primary schools began. They preceded the twelfth-century founding of universities, creating a small number of literate citizens. The building of universities coincided with great developments in architecture by certain monks and other geniuses with stone. As the great cathedrals went up, it became only natural that education and the Church, being so inter-related, should result eventually in the building of great universities whose buildings were nearly as grand as places of worship.

Just as the only clergy at that time were males, so too was a university education kept out of the reach of women during the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, believing that a university education was the way to assure the greater glory of God, many women, and higher-status clergy as well, became benefactors of early universities in England, according to historian Michael Van Cleave Alexander. By the early 1600s, at a time when economic conditions in England were such that a wide gap separated the poor and wealthy, many young males saw the clergy as a worthwhile and satisfying profession to enter, particularly since celibacy was not an issue as it had been in the Catholic Church since the eleventh century. For families with comfortable means and some money, grammar schools were in easy reach for their children, and the rise of a merchant class gave rise to the popularity in bookkeeping classes. For the very wealthy, tutors continued to be popular well into the eighteenth century.

Schools took much longer to gain acceptance in Wales. The first main thrust for nationwide education occurred in that nation in 1650 as some five dozen schools were established, according to H.C. Dent.

The nineteenth century saw a proliferation in public schools, a label in the United Kingdom that refers to what U.S. citizens know as private schools. Many of the elite public schools charged considerable tuition fees that only the privileged and the wealthy can afford. These public schools included Eton, Harrow, and Westminster, and though independent, they were required to submit to government inspections. Their curriculum was steeped in the classics, and the ancient languages of Greek and Latin were taught. Religion and rhetoric were also an important part of classroom teachings, and athletic prowess afforded a student considerable status. Clothing styles at these schools for men were either military style uniforms or classic, elegant dress. Much earlier, in the 1770s, the clothing was the ostentatious look of the times, according to Sir Roy Strong.

Males were expected to bond and to form lifelong close associations with other young males expected to become persons of consequence in the United Kingdom. In this male-oriented society, the finer English schools accepted a hazing practice called fagging. Older lads required a new boy to perform acts of servitude in the residence hall and on the athletic field. Any new boy who refused could expect a beating or ostracizing, losing the very respect of his peers he had come to the public school to form. The system, although harsh, unfair, and even savage, carried into the twentieth century before public pressure led to its cessation.

According to a book on hazing, Wrongs of Passage, "fagging flourished in public schools because right-minded educators placed obedience and discipline first among all the virtues a schoolboy should display." In addition, the practice began in an era when the upper class fervently believed that every person should know his place. Only after the education system had evolved and expanded was education considered an opportunity to move upward in society; heretofore, a lower-class male might know his Greek and Latin as well as anyone, but without a prestigious public-school degree, he was socially handicapped.

A nineteenth-century English periodical proclaimed the virtues of fagging and trumpeted its rules. "There must be no nonsense about it, no evasion—the obedience must be complete and it must be instantaneous. The sanction is very near at hand, in the shape of the boot, the fist, or the wicket; there is no cumbersome process of court-martial or summons in the country court to compel it. It must follow on the command as the flash is followed by the thunder."

England's geographical separation from the rest of the European continent perhaps is symbolic of its pride in being independent of its neighbors. That fierce pride, independence, and geographical distance may have contributed to England's reluctance to be a part of sweeping, wide reforms that countries such as Prussia and France had instituted during the nineteenth century. While the United States, Prussia, and France purposely set out to reform its education system from the lower grades through higher education in the decades immediately before 1850, England had a hands-off, laissez-faire attitude toward education. The result was to keep education as a privilege of the wealthier classes who attended fine private institutions, the exceptions being those fortunate children of the working poor who were educated in hundreds of church schools in place during the 1800s. Even when the Parliament moved to send matching-funds stipends to church societies for the education of the poor in 1833, the amounts were so small as to draw criticism from educators, social activists, and members of church societies. Nonetheless, the 1833 action set a precedent for greater reforms to come. By 1840, the government stipends sent to church groups for the establishment of schools was 30,000 pounds.

The elite gentlemen's schools were the models that the church public schools looked to when developing their own curriculums. To be sure, a sort-of caste system was the rule, not the exception, in England. English schools were condemned by American educators who saw the huge numbers of ill-educated waifs quite rightly to be victims of human rights injustice. Some of the reasons provided as reasons that the poor should not be educated were illogical and fear-based, including assumptions that an educated poor might unite in uprisings and revolution. By 1861, famed English educators such as Matthew Arnold, an inspector of schools, poet, and Oxford University professor, penned social criticism urging educational reforms that benefited the children of working-class British toiling in the mines, factories, and shops. His criticisms included a claim that only the very elite schools of Britain compared favorably to many schools in France in quality. His attacks came nearly 30 years after French historian and social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville studied American society, noting how the children of shopkeepers and the wealthy alike possessed a type of social equality in the quality of their educations, an occurrence unheard of in the aristocratic environs of the United Kingdom.

Social activists belonging to various religious denominations formed important organizations providing the greatest, if not sole, opportunity for the children of the poor and working class to obtain an education. Among these important groups of volunteers were the British and Foreign Schools Society (originally the Royal Lancasterian Association) established by the Protestant Nonconformists in 1810 and the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church, established in 1817. The latter group stressed education of the children of Anglicans and children of members of other denominations willing to allow their children to receive religious instruction. These groups became quite sophisticated, powerful, and large. The National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church founded or oversaw 3,500 schools a little more than aa decade after its formation. The National Society became by far the most influential religious group possessing the power to build and run schools, a fact that began to draw criticism from many quarters since it put religious leaders effectively in charge of educational institutions partially aided by public funding.

In 1839, Parliament grants to education began to be regulated by a Committee of the Privy Council on Education, and by 1847, this group had started attempts to reduce the managerial powers of the National Society, a decision that was highly unpopular among Church of England clergy. In particular, the Anglicans fought against attempts to stifle their efforts for the conversion of pupils to the Anglican Church. The controversy and criticisms from the public led the government to conclude by the early 1850s that educational reform was crucial to take some of the wholesale power away from the church societies. The church societies, in turn, maintained that they found it unfair for their authority to be yanked after hard work and planning on the part of society members who had been responsible for the education of so many working-class citizens.

This committee was headed by a lord president of the Council and filled out by a vice-president and ministers. At first, the committee regulated educational policy for England, Wales, and Scotland, but in 1872, Scotland formed its independent Committee on Education with similar powers to the Privy Council. In addition, in England and Wales, the 1870 Education Act permitted the founding of school boards to be operated with public money if local schools run by the voluntary church-related organizations were deemed inadequate. The 1870 Act also established schools in rural and poverty-stricken area where schools were absent. In time, the publicly funded schools, carefully regulated with inspections, generally were regarded as providing a better education for children than the church schools could provide. Education became a priority, and by the end of the nineteenth century, it was the government's largest budget line item for spending, according to historian Roy Strong.

The responsibility for carrying out the directives of the Privy Council was given to an Education Department under the supervision of a Privy Council secretary until 1856. In 1856, a revamped Education Department had its everyday affairs run by a vice-president operating as the equivalent of a superintendent and chief operating officer. There was a board in name only with responsibilities for overseeing the superintendent's duties carried out, although the board's powers increased substantially between 1902 and 1921 as perceived needs arose. The Committee of the Privy Council on Education supervised educational matters for 60 years, supplanted by a Board of Education similar to those in other industrial nations in 1899. The 1899 reformed Board of Education also encompassed oversight of art, Design, and technical schools in the United Kingdom.

During the nineteenth century, the task of keeping schools operating efficiently was assigned to local school boards. This proved unsatisfactory, and a decision was made by Parliament to pass the 1902 Act that put the schools under professional educators as overseers working collaboratively with these county and city education councils. These oversaw both primary and secondary schools at the local level. Another important aspect of the 1902 Act is that responsibility was taken away from more than 2,500 school boards and given to Local Education Authorities (LEAS) with power to appoint an education committee. Public schools were now called "provided" schools, contrasting with the "unprovided" church schools. In an effort to take some of the power away from the powerful church schools, the LEA was given the authority to appoint two of six church school board members. The compromise measure benefited the church schools, nonetheless, because the appointments enabled them to keep eligible for school funds financed by local taxes. It also gave parents who wanted a secular education more options because the number of secondary schools in the United Kingdom rapidly began to increase. During the twentieth century, the once-mighty church schools began to decline in number and influence.

Another influence of the LEAs was a growing reliance on examinations for school placement. As a result, many teachers complained that they were teaching to get their pupils through examinations, not teaching them to absorb knowledge and prepare for life's intellectual challenges.

The state bureaucracy evolved over time to oversee the schools, and a Board of Education kept control until 1944. That year an education act eliminated the Board and established the Ministry of Education under the supervision of a minister of education; the Ministry continued until 1964. In 1964, the Secretary of State for Education and Science Order combined the Minister of Education and Minister of Science into a single Department of Education and Science. The revamped Department of Education and Science was responsible for the promotion of education and higher education in England and Wales. National concern about educating the children of lower socioeconomic classes was spurred by research in 1963-1964 that determined that the offspring of professional persons were 20 times more likely to attend a school of higher education. In 1970, the overseeing of primary and secondary education in Wales and Monmouthshire fell to the Welsh Office by the Transfer of Functions Order, with additional responsibilities assigned in 1978.

Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland has school systems under a separate Department of Education from the schools of the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, educational funding comes through the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council (NIHEC). The two Departments of Education use different accounting systems, different financial years, different currencies, and different rates of inflation.

Northern Ireland officially has been in existence with a constitution since 1920, created by the British under Lloyd George with the Government of Ireland Act to head off a civil war. This political division of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland specifically applies to six counties in the Ulster region with the port city of Belfast as Northern Ireland's capital. Protestants are the dominant religious group. The 1998 Northern Ireland Act acknowledged the powers and responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Assembly, recognizing its power to enact and repeal existing statutes.

Scotland: Unlike other European nations, Scotland lacks a statutory curriculum. Nonetheless, the curriculum is close to standardized with schools following standards and instructions recommended by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. Recommendations include directives on the subjects of English, Gaelic, Latin, modern languages, mathematics and the sciences, religious, and character-building education.

Because Scotland has one examination board, not several, teachers tend to follow a similar curriculum for the standard and higher grade examinations.

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