I'm taking you through the education of a little English boy by the name of Charlie. He is an ordinary little boy whose parents have decided to put him through the state system, which will be free until the age of 18/19.
He will very probably have gone to play school, nursery school or kindergarten before starting at a "real" school. There is provision for 12.5 hours free early learning for 3 and 4 year olds but this is optional. It isn't compulsory that he attends any school at all as long as he receives "education otherwise". The local authority has the responsibility to ensure that other appropriate provision is being made.
Charlie has to wear a uniform of a grey or white shirt, grey shorts or trousers, black shoes and a school jumper. He chose to have a grey jumper but he could have chosen red. Although he worries that he has the same as all the other children he will find that people interpret the uniform in all sorts of ways, to the head teacher's despair.
The legal age to start formal education is the term after Charlie reaches his fifth birthday. In practice though, most schools will take rising fives, so off Charlie goes to the local primary school the term after his fourth birthday. The school, although it goes right up to the age of eleven, is divided into infant (4-7) and junior (7-11) sections.
Charlie will start off in the reception class where he will stay until the following September when he will transfer to year 1, ages 5-6. Depending on when children's birthdays fall, they will have one, two or three terms in the reception class. Generally children who have had three full terms find the transition easier.
I should explain at this point there are generally speaking three terms a year, September to December, January to whenever Easter falls, Easter to July, with half-term breaks of about a week each term. The Christmas (we still tend to use the word although not always) and Easter holidays last two weeks. The summer holiday lasts six weeks.
Each year Charlie's teacher will change, but the same teacher with or without a teaching assistant will stay with the class for the whole of that year. In this primary school the teacher will almost always be a woman in spite of efforts to encourage men into teaching. There may be more than one class per year group, depending on the size of the school. On the other hand, in a very small, usually rural, schools, there could be more than one year group per class. The average class size is roughly 27.
The National Curriculum determines the subjects taught:
English, maths, science, design and technology, information and communication technology, history, geography, art and design, music, physical education. Schools must also teach religious education but parents have the right to withdraw their children from this subject. Personal, social and health education, citizenship and a foreign language are advised.
At the age of seven, at the end of infant school, Charlie will start being tested using Standard Assessment Tests. Emphasis at this stage is on teacher assessment but there are tests for reading, writing and maths.
The school day generally lasts from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon, and that is every day from Monday to Friday. There is a morning and afternoon playtime with a break at midday for lunch. Charlie can choose whether to have a cooked lunch at school, or to take a packed lunch, or go home. If Charlie's parents don't earn very much, he can have free school meals. Many schools also run Breakfast Clubs and after school groups to help parents who work.
Now Charlie enters Junior School. This may be physically separate from the infant school he has been attending, either a separate building on the same site, or on a different site. In some schools there is no noticeable differentiation. He is now in Key Stage 2 and year 3. He will be tested again at the end of this key stage, in year 6, but there will be less teacher assessment and more national testing. He will, as last time, be tested on English and maths, with the addition of science. These tests are not pass/fail tests. They are used for national statistics and to assess the child's progress.
The results of these tests will usually determine which stream Charlie will be entering at his new secondary school. Charlie's parents will have chosen which school they would like him to attend, but schools can reject an application if they are full. In practice, most children go to the school in their catchment area. Charlie's time at secondary school until the end of compulsory education will be covered in a future post. This year students starting secondary education will be the first to be legally required to stay until the age of 17. The change will not mean that pupils have to stay in the classroom, but they will have to continue to receive training.
The UK has one of the earliest school starting ages in Europe, along with Malta and the Netherlands. Northern Ireland has four as the age to start compulsory schooling, and in practice, this is the same in the rest of the UK. It was first determined in 1870 merely to enable an early leaving age. There has been a lot of debate on the subject, but no firm evidence to support either early or late starts.