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United Kingdom

Preprimary & Primary Education

Preprimary: Children in England, Wales, and Scotland may attend, at the parents' choice, various pre-compulsory schools until the age of five. In Ireland, pre-compulsory education is offered through age four. Variously, these schools are known as nursery schools or, in England and Wales, reception classes, which are held in primary schools.

With many families having both parents working or a single parent working, the government increasingly has gotten involved in attempts to improve the quantity and quality of pre-compulsory schools. Many pre-compulsory schools are run with no charge in England and Wales. Attendance is almost universal in England, with 94 percent of all students attending in 1995, according to government data.

On the average, children in Northern Ireland tend to begin primary education about one year later than do the children of the other United Kingdom countries, but this could change to a younger starting age as Northern Ireland examines and revamps its educational system.

Primary Education: England's government through much of the first half of the nineteenth century was reluctant to mix members of all classes in single primary schools. For better and worse, church schools run by the Dissenter and Anglican churches filled the void, raising funds for the poor and needy for education, and often for their meals as well. However, the church schools, even after accepting government stipends, put a heavy focus on Christian religious training in the schools that led to an outcry from those who wanted their children taught in secular schools.

The year 1862 is sometimes listed as a breakthrough year for reform in English schools as government contributions topped 840,000 pounds. Another important event was the passage of the Forster Education Act of 1870, providing educational opportunities to all elementary school children, seeing that many rural children and children of lower socioeconomic classes were missing out on an opportunity for an education. This was a systematic approach that, through this act of Parliament, created school districts to be staffed with elected school boards. In 1891, the government ruled that elementary education should be provided free to all children at public expense. In 1906, Parliament moved to pay for the meals of children not receiving adequate nutrition at home.

In 1918, attempting to remedy a situation in which children were slipping through the cracks of the system, Parliament passed the Education Act of 1918, also known as the Fisher Act, removing special circumstances that allowed many children between the ages of 5 and 14 to become dropouts. In addition, the LEAs were required, upon request, to show their development plans as a means of checking to make sure that a uniform national system of schools was in operation or in the process of being established.

While the government paid the costs of education, in the 1940s it also instituted a comprehensive examination given to all primary pupils at the age of 11. Those with the top test scores were allowed to attend academically challenging grammar schools that prepared students for eventual attendance at a university. Those with scores that were below passing were sent to secondary schools with technical and vocational emphases. The public schools paid for by tuition were unaffected by such legislation. Historian Roy Strong called the new system a "meritocracy dependent on talent." He also noted that education forever hence was put on the agenda of political parties as a key issue in election years.

By 2002, a government statute is to be enforced that primary school classes for children aged 5 to 7 contain no more than 30 pupils. No other age range has such limits, and complaints of overcrowding in the classrooms frequently are voiced by parents. In the primary grades, students are not segregated by abilities but rather are put collectively in classes regardless of aptitude test scores.

England and Wales have adopted a rigorous, prescribed curriculum for compulsory education with the 1998 Education Reform Act and earlier education acts. Northern Ireland also has a compulsory curriculum of its own. In the primary grades, students are broken into age group categories from ages 5 through 7 (4 through 8 in Northern Ireland) and from ages 7 through 11 in England (8 through 11 in Northern Ireland).

Although the curriculum is mandatory, teachers or local school committees choose school textbooks. Among the compulsory subjects in the English lower grades are history, geography, mathematics, science, design and technology, information technology, religious education, physical education, history, geography, art, and music. A foreign language is required for older students.

Wales, in addition to these subjects, requires the teaching of Welsh. Northern Ireland requires compliance from schools in the teaching of English, science and technology, environment and society, mathematics, and creative and expressive studies. Irish is compulsory.

Wales: In April 2001, the recently formed National Assembly of Wales identified a disturbing trend in illiteracy and ignorance of mathematics to be a top priority that the government and education officials must address. In 2001, approximately 27 million pounds was appropriated by the Assembly for a public relations effort and other campaigns.

In addition, tough testing standards have been required as of 2001 for all higher education institutions to evaluate entering students' levels of competence in reading, writing, and numeracy skills. More than a quarter of all adults (28 percent) is illiterate or has substandard literacy skills. Nearly one-third (32 percent) has subpar mathematical skills.

As a result, the Assembly has earmarked two priorities for education. It wants to reach older adults to begin enrolling them in comprehensive remedial programs. It also wants to establish a more efficient system of identifying and assisting children with reading, writing, and math deficiencies to systematically provide remediation to prevent them from dropping out, ill-prepared and frustrated.

In Wales, classes are taught in the English and Welsh languages as a mandatory part of the national curriculum. Welsh-medium schools are located in nearly all locales. In Northern Ireland, Irish-medium schools also are increasingly found. The learning of each country's language is tied to efforts to restore national pride.

Northern Ireland: Perhaps the greatest dissatisfaction with post-primary education in the United Kingdom expressed by parents and lawmakers alike is in Northern Ireland. In 2000 and 2001, the government established a Review Body on Post Primary Education under the supervision of the Minister for Education, following the publication on September 28, 2000, of a research report that was critical of the selective system of secondary education in Northern Ireland. The Review Body has 10 members with a support staff of 5 education advisers from Scotland, England, and the Republic of Ireland.

The following were identified as some of the key issues facing the review body: 1) reforming the postprimary and primary systems; 2) improving academic standards; 3) restoring and cherishing the ethos, culture, and identity of Northern Ireland schools; 4) dealing with identity problems of the young who do poorly on national testing or are placed in other than the schools of their first choice; 5) recognizing that there are different types of intelligences and refraining from pigeonholing those children who do not test well or experience test anxiety; 6) a need to identify and institute curricula and schools that produce the best citizens with character, strong personal standards, and maximized abilities; and 7) the need to deal with socioeconomic classes whose backgrounds leave them at a testing disadvantage.

One of the great concerns in Northern Ireland was the categorization of students in eleventh grade that made students not selected for a college-bound track feel that they were less worthy than fellow students. The Review Board said reports indicated that students who were passed over demonstrated low self-esteem.

Grammar Schools: As United Kingdom countries advanced during the Middle Ages, but before universities found their place, the English grammar school provided a means for potential scholars to master rhetoric, grammar, and occasionally other subjects if the teachers were prepared, willing, and educated themselves. As the universities at Oxford and Cambridge prospered in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, respectively, the grammar schools increasingly became the preparatory institutions that pupils relied upon for a solid learning foundation before going to a university in England or abroad. Most, if not all these schools were connected with a parish, cathedral, or other religious institution. Perhaps the first school to claim independence and self-governance, according to scholar A.F. Leach, was "Seint Marie College of Wynchester in Oxenford," founded by a local bishop in 1382. The school was a boarding school and accepted pupils from distant outposts in England; it was considered exemplary as an educational institution and was imitated by Eton College's founder, Henry VI, in 1440. Nonetheless, it attracted more sons of the poor and those climbing for status in the Middle Ages in England than those already wealthy who could hire traveling tutors or send their sons to established craftsmen as apprentices.

Education for females then was also done for a few women at home, if their fathers were wealthy and liberal-minded, or at a lesser school known as a "pettie" school and in some convents.

Whether girls or boys, through the twelfth century it was the Catholic Church, out of a sense of duty, that mainly provided whatever educational opportunities existed for younger boys and girls. After the reformation, the greatest surge in the foundation of grammar schools was in the first half of the seventeenth century. W.K. Johnson estimated that the number of schools in the seventeenth century served more citizens percentage-wise in England until the explosion of schools in the twentieth century.

As of 1995, some 158 grammar schools remained in operation in England, and their supporters and detractors were vocal. Admission to English grammar schools is based on ability.

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