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United Kingdom - Secondary Education

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


The beginning of a surge in the number of secondary schools in the United Kingdom often is linked to a scheme to provide secondary education to all children, including children of the poor and the working class, in 1902 after the passage of an education act known as the Balfour Act. A statute required the LEAs to provide and pay for places in secondary school for deserving students, and the funding came from tax revenues. The passing of a competitive examination was required for placement in a secondary school. Nonetheless, in spite of fears by middle-class parents that the presence of the poor would weaken the quality of education for their own children, it took until World War I and beyond for many working-class parents to send their children to secondary schools—even though they were tuition free.

At the age of 11, nearly all students in the United Kingdom move up from primary to secondary state schools. The state schools require no testing, but independent secondary schools require a Common Entrance Examination that is taken at age 11 or slightly older. Contemporary secondary schools adhere to the state mandate of a National Curriculum requiring pupils in England and Wales to take examinations called the Standard Assessment Tasks (SATs). This form of testing ranks and assesses students against a national scale of measured abilities at ages 7, 11, and 14. As of 2001, Northern Ireland was also planning similar nationwide assessment tests.

In 1988, a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) was introduced, replacing other types of assessment tests. This is the assessment test taken by secondary school students aged 16 or older in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Pupils at 18 or older take the GCE A-level and AS-level exams.

In 1998, the Education Reform Act was passed, standardizing the curriculum in England and Wales with six main areas of study (English, environment and society, creative and expressive studies, languages, mathematics, and science and technology). In addition, there are six cross-curricular areas.

In Scotland, the Scottish Certificate of Education (SCE) at Standard Grade is taken at the age of 16 or older, while the Higher Grade is taken at the age of 17 or 18. For those who have completed the Higher Grade, there is the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies. Vocational education in Scotland is served by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), which is the national body with responsibility for developing, awarding, and accrediting academic and vocational qualifications.

In Northern Ireland, examinations are conducted by the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations, and Assessment (CCEA) to ensure that its standards are comparable with those of the other examining groups in the United Kingdom.

Secondary schools frequently segregate students. This is done in two ways. One way is through streaming—putting students of similar abilities into all classes. Another practice is to merely limit certain classes, often mathematics and science, to pupils of similar aptitude.

Technology in the Schools: The Department for Education and Skills conducted a 1998 survey on the availability of computers used in the primary and secondary classrooms of England. It also tabulated expenditures for computers, measured Internet usage, and surveyed teachers on their use of computers in the classroom. Based upon a representative sample of 1,211 primary, 1,452 secondary, and 594 English special schools (with responses from 938 primary, 977 secondary and 453 special schools), the survey response rates corresponded to 77 percent, 69 percent, and 76 percent reporting use of computers in the classroom.

In England, the main impetus by the Government for getting computers into all schools was its 1998 "Open for Learning, Open for Business" public relations campaign. The goal is to get computers into all schools in sufficient numbers to promote learning and to provide skills needed to prosper in the twenty-first century. To that end, in Britain, the "National Grid for Learning in the Twenty-first Century" is a gateway for computer excellence by teachers and students.

Compulsory Education: England lagged behind other industrialized countries in the passage of laws to protect children from being thrust at a young age into factories and mines. Reforms took decades to be implemented. Any reader familiar with the works of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) has an acquaintance with the plight of child exploitation in England. The distinguished author himself was born in poverty and made to work as a child in a blacking warehouse. Scholar Leon Litvack cites examples from Dickens' speeches and works to show the writer's support of "universal, non-sectarian education" and reformations in Victorian England schools.

Not until an 1876 education act was a school leaving policy formed. The act put the responsibility for compliance on the shoulders of parents. Much emphasis was put on regular attendance. A child could be compelled by law to remain in school if school attendance committees decreed the pupil's attendance had been spotty.

The age of compulsory attendance was set at 10 in 1880 by another education act passed by Parliament. Children could leave school at 10, but they could also be required to stay if their attendance had been unsatisfactory.

In 1893, a compulsory education law lifted the age bar slightly by making the school-leaving age 11-years-old. In 1899, the school-leaving age was elevated to 12 years, and in 1918, to 14 years. An education act passed by Parliament in 1939 pushed up the school-leaving age to 15 years, but when Germany began bombing England and World War II was declared, the law was suspended for the duration of the emergency.

In 1944, an education act once again restored the school-leaving age to 15. In 1947, the age was raised a final time to 16. In 2001, compulsory education ranges from the ages of 5 to 16 in the United Kingdom, with the exception of the 4 to 16 ranges in Northern Ireland. The school year in the United Kingdom begins in August or September and runs to June or July, as school officials decree. Schools stay open at least 190 days during the academic year and keep a Monday-through-Friday schedule. Schools operate five days a week, and there are recommended numbers of hours per week, which vary depending upon a child's age.

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