State schools in the UK
Education reforms, standards and types of schools
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UK - Education
The term ‘state’ is used here in preference to ‘public’ and refers to non fee-paying schools controlled by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) and funded from state taxes and local council tax revenue (officially called maintained schools).
This is to prevent confusion with the term ‘public school’, used in the US (and Scotland) to refer to a state school, but which in England and Wales usually means a private fee-paying school. Private schools are officially referred to as independent schools in England and Wales.
If you live in a rural area, your LEA is one of the 39 English or eight Welsh county councils. In large cities, your LEA is the local borough council.
All state schools have a governing body usually made up of a number of parent representatives and governors (appointed by the LEA), the headteacher and other serving teachers. In Scotland, education authorities must establish school boards (consisting of elected parents and staff members) to participate in the management and administration of schools. Most state schools have a Parents and Teachers Association (PTA).
Education Reforms in the UK
The state education system in England and Wales has been changing at a frenetic pace in the last few decades, which has led to a generation of curriculum chaos. Changes include the virtual abolition of the 11-plus examination (which was previously used to decide admission to higher secondary schools and which still exists in a few counties such as Buckinghamshire and Kent) and the introduction of non-selective comprehensive schools, where admission is irrespective of ability or aptitude.
It’s generally recognised that the introduction of comprehensive schools has raised the standard for the worst schools, while lowering the standards of some schools. Most state education is co-educational. In 1989 a new ‘national curriculum’ was introduced, which was revised in 1993.
The state school system in England and Wales has been going through a crisis for many years caused by a lack of funding, crumbling infrastructure (the school repair bill runs into many billions), and shortages of books (around a quarter of secondary schools are short of textbooks) and other equipment.
Low teacher morale
Teacher morale is low, a result of low salaries (that have failed to keep pace with inflation), poor working conditions, a lack of professional recognition, stress, government interference and lack of consultation, cuts in education funding, and classroom disruption.
Not surprisingly, this has led to a shortage of teachers (the state school system has some 10,000 teaching vacancies), particularly in maths and science, and the situation is deteriorating. There are also around 35,000 vacancies a day due to sickness, training or maternity leave, that are temporarily filled by private supply teachers at an estimated cost of £300 million a year.
In recent years, many schools have been forced to cut their teaching budgets, at a time when they should have been increasing them. Some schools have insufficient funds to buy books for the revised national curriculum and other essentials. (The UK spends less on books per pupil than most other EU countries).
Some state schools, particularly primaries, rely on parents and charity fund raising to provide essential equipment (e.g. computers), books and stationery, carry out building repairs and in some cases even pay teachers’ salaries. Parents may be asked to make donations (some schools ask parents for monthly ‘fees’) of £100 a year or more per child and business sponsorship also raises millions of pounds a year.
Most schools have a ‘school fund’ to purchase equipment that schools cannot afford to buy out of their budgets. However, parents cannot be forced to pay for anything and all contributions are voluntary (many are for activities that take place wholly or mainly within school hours, e.g. school trips). It isn’t always the best-funded schools or those with the best facilities that achieve the best exam results.
One of the most heated debates in the last few years has been over large class sizes, although this problem is being addressed by the government: class sizes are falling (and classes tend to become smaller as pupils get older). The UK’s state schools have nearly twice as many pupils per teacher as many other European countries.
Private schools are quick to point out that their small classes lead to more individual instruction and better results, which is supported by studies in other countries. There’s often a huge variation between educational achievement in the same class and the UK doesn’t have a system of holding back slow learners (e.g. for a year), as is widely employed in other European countries.
However, many schools have reintroduced streaming, where pupils are taught in groups, according to their ability. There’s no stigma attached to streaming, which simply recognises that children learn at different rates and some are brighter than others.
Education standards in the UK
Illiteracy is a problem in the UK (where some two million people have no ability to read and write functionally) and the decline in reading, writing and arithmetic among children is causing increasing concern. The standard of reading and writing is often weak at primary level, especially in deprived urban areas where social problems are rife. In recent years, the gulf between the good and bad schools has widened (in state and private schools).
In the worst schools, pupils have low expectations, lack ambition and aren’t pushed to do their best. There can be a huge difference in examination results between schools, even those in the same area. Good schools are said to be getting better, while bad schools are getting worse (in recent years failing schools have been threatened with take-over ‘hit’ squads).
Types of school in the UK
There are two kinds of state school in the UK: county schools, and voluntary-aided and voluntary controlled schools, which are described below.
At Foundation Schools, the governing body employ the school’s staff and have primary responsibility for admission arrangements. The school’s land and buildings are owned by the governing body or a charitable foundation. Many of these schools were formerly grant-maintained schools which were phased out in 1999.
Voluntary-aided & Voluntary Controlled Schools
Voluntary-aided and voluntary controlled schools provide primary and secondary education, and are financially maintained by LEAs. The difference is that voluntary-aided school buildings are, in many cases, the responsibility of voluntary bodies (e.g. a church or a foundation).
Schools with C of E (Church of England) or Catholic in their name may be aided schools. County schools are owned by LEAs and wholly funded by them. They’re non-denominational (not church aided or supported) and provide primary and secondary education. LEAs also provide schools for children with special educational needs. State schools in England and Wales are usually classified as follows.
In some parts of England and Wales, the transfer age from First to Middle school and from Middle to Secondary school is one year later than shown above (i.e. 8 and 12 respectively instead of 7 and 11). This is under review by some LEAs (although controversial), in order to come into line with the key stages of the national curriculum and make it easier for children to move to a school in another region (where applicable, information is published by county councils). In Scotland, the transfer to secondary schools is made at age 12.
Further Information: www.ace-ed.org.uk The Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) Ltd, 1C Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2DQ (020-7704 3370, ), provides information on all matters relating to state education and operates a telephone advice line from 2pm to 5pm Mondays to Fridays (0808-800 5793 in the UK, 020-7704 3397 from abroad). All county councils publish information and booklets for parents, as do most state schools.
Once you’ve made the decision to send your child to a state school, most experts advise that you stick to it for at least a year to give it a fair trial. It may take your child this long to adapt to the change of environment and the different curriculum, particularly if English isn’t his mother tongue.
This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.
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