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The curious history of the UK school education: how it changed


Although we tend to look at the UK education system through the prism of tradition and continuity, the truth is that it has seen some dramatic changes throughout its long history. In his book A History of 20th Century Britain British journalist Andrew Marr tells the story of a country going through a significant transformation after World War II, which swept over schools and universities as well. So how the modern UK education system came to be, and who deserves the credit for these reforms?


Golden children, silver children and iron children


Andrew Marr points out that in the forties and fifties public schools and Oxbridge still dominated the governing landscape, with elite schools like Eton, Harrow and Winchester which educated only 5 per cent of the population providing the majority of political leaders, for example. The need for reforms was evident, and the Tory education secretary R.A. Butler even contemplated abolishing public schools and integrating them into a single state school system. However, these ambitious plans, which could have had enormous consequences for the country, had strong opponents, including none other than Winston Churchill. As a result, public schools survived the wave of reform. In contrast, state-funded grammar schools were considered to be enough for the upward mobility of bright working-class and middle-class children, providing them with the only means to get to elite universities.


Between 1944 and the 1970s, state-funded secondary education included three types of schools: grammar school, secondary technical school and secondary modern school.

Pupils were often allocated to their respective types of school based on their performance in the 11-plus or the 13-plus examination during their final year at primary school, which tested their mathematical ability, essay writing skills and general reasoning. These exams were based on an IQ test supposed to scientifically measure intelligence but had biases of their own. One civil servant of that period put it this way: 'It was sort of Platonic. There were golden children, silver children and iron children.'


Most children went to secondary moderns, which didn't have a good reputation, being associated with significantly lower academic standards than grammar schools. In 1964 alone, only about 300 candidates from the secondary moderns (72 % of all British children) sat at A-level, while the respective number for public schools was about 9,900. 11-plus exams divided families, separating people into those who passed and those who failed.


The great schooling revolution


A British Labour Party politician and a prominent socialist intellectual Anthony Crosland deserves credit for hastening the modernisation of the UK education system, which allowed comprehensive schools (schools that don't select on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude) based on the Swedish model to gradually overtake grammar schools. The famous Circular 10/66 issued in 1965 made sure that government money was provided to finance the opening of a new school only in the case when it was comprehensive. By 1970 comprehensive schools already had a third of all pupils.


Thanks to Crosland, the UK also saw the development of higher education, with the appearance of thirty polytechnics in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which later became new universities.


Nowadays, the UK has a wide range of state schools, including academies and free schools, funded through the Department for Education, and independent schools (public and private). Interestingly enough, grammar schools exist to this very day, and they still select learners based on an exam or exam result. Although some research shows that selectiveness doesn't necessarily mean better education: it suggests that differences between individual schools matter more.

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