How Britain is trying to improve student learning in early elementary school

L’an dernier, les résultats du test passé à la fin de la primaire montrent que sur 100 000 élèves en Grande-Bretagne, environ 1 enfant sur 6 ne maîtrise pas les bases de la lecture et 1 enfant sur 4 celles de l’écriture. Cependant un sondage publié en novembre 2012 par l’entreprise Pearson place la Grande-Bretagne au 6e rang des systèmes éducatifs les plus performants du monde. Ce rapport reconnaît notamment à la Grande-Bretagne la qualité de ses enseignants, la performance des élèves en science et littérature ainsi que sa “culture de l’éducation” qui au-delà du budget accordé à l’éducation, montre l’investissement de l’Etat pour le maintien d’un système scolaire de qualité. Grâce à la stabilité de son système et aux différentes réformes et initiatives mises en place, la Grande-Bretagne compte bien montrer que ses mauvais résultats n’ont été qu’une erreur de parcours et que l’éducation reste l’un de ses points forts. 


Two initiatives, in Britain, in favor of literacy among the youth: Get London Reading & McDonald’s Happy Readers:

The first one, Get London Reading, started in 2011, launched by the newspaper London Evening Standard in association with a charity called Volunteer Reading Help. The main reason for this initiative was this observation: “one in three children does not own a book and one million working adults cannot read”. 

It consists in reassembling funds to pay a firm called Beanstalk to recruit and train reading mentors for schoolchildren. These formed volunteers who then gave their time to go into schools for three hours a week. The Mayor’s Fund for London, has funded Get London Reading which raised more than £1 million. This initiative helped more than 3,500 London children to improve their skills and it actually has won the inaugural London First Award for “improvement to Londoners’ quality of life”


This campaign also inspired other campaigns in Britain, like Get Leeds Reading and got the attention of the European Union. Indeed in Europe one in five 15-year-olds and many adults cannot read properly, and EU Education Ministers want to reduce the share of poor readers from 20% to less than 15% by 2020. Only Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Poland already meet the criteria. 

The same observation was made by McDonald’s, which started in January its McDonald’s Happy Readers campaign sponsored by the National Literacy Trust: from now on toys in Happy Meals will be replaced by books and by the end of 2014, McDonald’s is expected to have given away at least 15 million books. Their main idea is to “help shift the balance {relatively to statistics showing that one in three children doesn’t own a book, and that half don’t enjoy reading} and put the fun back into reading.”

Maybe it’s time to learn more about British primary and secondary education system. 

Education in Great Britain:

Schooling is compulsory in Britain for all children between 5 and 16 years of age. The first school year is called Reception. A child is in primary school from the age of 4 until the age of 10. He/she is in secondary school from 11 to 15. And in the sixth form from 16 to 18 (divided into lower sixth and upper sixth). 

The British educational system is divided into 2 categories: state schools and independent schools. State-run schools and colleges are financed through national taxation and take pupils free of charge until they turn 18. Approximately 93% of British schoolchildren attend such schools. A significant minority of state schools are faith schools (which are attached to religious groups as the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church). There is also a small number of state boarding schools for which pupils have to pay the usual charge for board but no tuitions. Nearly 90% of state secondary schools are specialised schools : they receive extra funding to develop one or more subjects in which the school specializes. 

Concerning the secondary education system :

– On the one hand there are state schools. The Tripartite System prevailed between 1944 and the 1970s in England and Wales, and from 1947 to 2009 in Northern Ireland. It was set up by the 1944 Butler Education Act. It divided state secondary schools into three categories: grammar schools (academic studies), modern schools (less academic studies) and technical schools. Pupils were allocated to each type of schools according to their abilities. This policy also made secondary education free for all children and raised the school leaving age to 15 (raised to 16 in 1947) but kept age 11 as the decision point for sending children to higher levels. For the first time, secondary education was to become a right. This was part of the major shake-up of government welfare in the wake of the Beveridge Report. Then Circular 10 / 65 requesting Local Education Authorities to begin converting their secondary schools to the Comprehensive School system. Today grammar schools and comprehensive schools still exist in some counties but the Comprehensive System prevails. For that matter some people think that the survival of grammar schools can be seen as an “educational apartheid” because it divided middle-class into two parts: the brightest pupils are sent to grammar schools which remain elitist and the masses are condemned to go to comprehensive schools. But there is a debate: other people claim that it is fair because it allows bright children from  humble origins to achieve academic excellence. Comprehensive schools are co-educational state schools. they don’t select pupils on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude. There are also Vocational schools which provide vocational qualifications and are focused on science, technology, and the professional world.  

Contrary to France, parents can choose the school they prefer even if they live outside the catchment area. This concept of “school choice” allows the idea of competition between state schools, which is fundamentally different from the original “neighborhood comprehensive” model. Indeed it shows which schools are perceived to be inferior and forces them either to improve or,  if hardly anyone wants to go there, to close down. This logic has underpinned the controversial league tables of school performance. 

– On the other hand there are independent schools. Most of them have remained single-sex institutions. They don’t depend on national or local government for funding and are operated by tuition fees. They are characterized by tutorials and they lay the emphasis on traditional academic subjects and individual achievement. They can be highly selective, the most prestigious ones are called public schools. For instance, the Act followed the report of the Clarendon Commission (a Royal Commission on public schools which sat from 1861 to 1864 and investigated conditions and abuses which increased over the centuries) recognized the prestige of  9 schools: Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Taylor’s, Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Paul’s, Westminster and Winchester. The cost is so important (Eton charges £ 8,830 per term) that only upper model class and the aristocracy can afford it, even if scholarships exist. 

Former pupils are very proud of their prestigious education and the values they think they embody. Besides “old schools ties” are very important in business and in political circles: for example both Boris Johnson and David Cameron come from Eton.  


(1) Sebastian Grigg, (2) David Cameron, (3) Ralph Perry-Robinson, (4) Ewen Fergusson, (5) Matthew Benson, (6) Sebastian James, (7) Jonathan Ford, (8) Boris Johnson, (9) Harry Eastwood

Regarding examinations, at the end of each “Key stage” of the National Curriculum pupils are assessed through Standard Attainment Tests (SATs): they have to sit the first at 7, the second at 11 and the third at 14.  At 16, they sit the GSCE (General certificate of compulsory school). Finally they have to pass the AS level and A level at 17 and 18 to apply to university. The number of tests can be criticized. In 2009, Rowan Williams the archbishop of Canterbury condemned the “oppressive” education system because “children are over tested in government’s pursuit of making schools accountable”. For him the system is too results-driven, it isn’t focused on children’s happiness. 

Blair’s reforms : 

In 1997, when Tony Blair came into office in 10 Downing Street, he had one major thing in mind : “Education, education, education”. He and his government rapidly multiplied ambitious, major, centralized education reforms with efforts to improve the level of failing schools for example, but also teacher training and pay reform. These reforms seems to have been crowned with success: by 2000, the lowest performing school districts in reading were outperforming the average schools of 1997.  However in 2006, one fifth of students didn’t master English at the end of primary school, and one fourth didn’t have the requested mathematics level.

Blair also passed more controversial reforms : in 2006, Tony Blair passed a bill which authorized public schools to become more independent from local authorities, to be sponsored by private firms, charities of religious groups. Many Labour members of Parliament refused to vote for this bill which only passed because it received the support of Tories (and among them David Cameron). Some saw in this reform the beginning of the privatization of Education. 

It may be too soon to take stock of Blair’s reform in Education, but like almost all European countries, England suffers illiteracy rates which have to be fought. The strengths of the British education system consist both in its structures linked to a traditional heritage and its capacities to improve. The system will continue to be reformed (next reforms can for instance change the exam system, increase focus on learning …). Britain will not accept to leave its illiteracy rates at this level, the country is determined to make progress.

Julie FEOLA et Aurélien BOYER


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