The truth about British schools lies somewhere in between the magical fairy tale world of Harry Potter films, the memorably dark and biting portrayal of British classrooms in Alan Parker’s The Wall and the grittiness of the iconic TV series Skins. Although the reality is definitely more mundane and nuanced, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any intriguing and sometimes even slightly shocking facts to be found in the long history of one of the world's most famous and mythologized school systems.
1. Secondary education in the UK was not free until 1944
Although during Queen Victoria’s reign elementary education became compulsory for both sexes regardless of their background, secondary education in England and Wales had remained out of reach for many poorer children right up until the passing of The Education Act of 1944. Scotland followed suit with a similar Act in 1945.
2. Corporal punishment at English schools was banned later than you might think
England is infamous for its historical use of corporal punishment in schools. However, many would be surprised to learn that this harsh measure, so piercingly written about by Dickens, was banned in the country as late as… 1986. More than that, the ban didn’t apply to the independent sector right up until 1999. To give a little bit of context, Poland outlawed corporal punishment for schoolchildren as far back as 1783.
3. The UK is home to the oldest continuously operating school in the world
The King's School, English boarding and day school for 13 to 18-year-old pupils in Canterbury is said to have been founded right before AD 600, just a century after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.
4. "Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”
Although Margaret Thatcher is known by many as "the Iron Lady", she was also infamously nicknamed "Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” for ending the provision of free school milk for students over the age of seven in 1971 against the backdrop of the economic crisis. The program was first introduced to prevent malnutrition that might be caused by wartime shortages.
5. British children start school at the age of 5
Unlike many of their European counterparts, children in the UK start school at the age of 5 or even earlier. Although it doesn’t mean that they need to follow any strict and formal curriculum, some argue that such an early introduction to the classroom could be harmful and that it’s better to start school at a later age.