Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Charlie starts primary school

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.


  1. I had only 1 male teacher in my elementary school career, for 5th grade, but he was the only male teacher in that elementary school (which housed grades 3 through 6 in my small town.) The principal was female as well. Later, when my own daughter was in elementary school, there were several male teachers, and the principal was male. Times change.

  2. I never was taught by a man at all until I was about 14. Mr Taylor. Chemistry. Remind me to tell you sometime about having to take physics lessons at the nearby all boys school. I don't feel strong enough right now.

  3. I've been staying quiet, because, to be honest, I've no idea what happens in british schools these days besides an inordinate amount of interference by government, and continual testing.
    My teacher friends say they have to concentrate on teaching children how to jump through the next hoop in the chain of testing hoops, to the detriment of, or exclusion of, education as i would recognise it.
    As a result, our government crows that exam results are improving, year upon year.... Of course, in a world where spelling is not to be marked, children may pass an exam by ticking boxes, but be unable to communicate anything of worth by writing.
    Yesterday a tenant at the complex where I work was bemoaning to me the difficulties he has in recruiting office staff. His latest recruit showed up for work looking every inch the model of a young office worker, smartly turned out, she sat at her desk and awaited instruction.
    The job given was, according to her application form and interview, well within her capabilities. Put on the earphones, and transcribe a few letters.
    She had no contextual awareness that there, their, and they're are actually different.
    Yes, her fingers tippytapped away at impressive speed, but the resultant document was worthless until her boss attacked it with a highlighter pen and corrected it. The problem was, this well qualified young girl looked blankly at him, and seemed hurt that he did not praise her for misspelling the majority of words.
    In fact, she thought it petty of him to insist that there and their were not interchangeable.
    Still, she'd passed "A" level English.
    I have for a while, a young university student as my assistant, he's studying mathematics, and is in some ways undoubtedly intelligent.
    Yet to him, words are not precision instruments, he uses a limited vocabulary, and thinks there is no difference between "less" and "fewer",
    I suggested that perhaps if we defined pi as 3.2, well, it would be close enough... and everybody will know what we really mean.... He looked doubtful, but I think he missed the point.
    Meanwhile of course, I'm learning a new (to me) language...
    I have suggested to him that when he gets in the car, rather than turning the radio on very loudly, he might perhaps just get a hearing aid. Loud sigh from teenager. I think I may have officially been defined as an old fart... Or whatever the current language may be.

  4. LEST HERE IN CASE YOU DON"T FOLLOW UP AT MY PLACE: Ah Max - I've actually done the Bud tour in St. Louis myself. You may be surprised to learn that I'm a big brewery tour fan. Don't worry about voting for mayors in this city - all the candidates are losers. Lastly, it was 'Bill' - if that's what you're calling yourself now. CHEERS!

  5. Following up on Soubriquet's comment, it's all sadly true. Exams are without a doubt becoming easier as pass rates rise, and it's been happening for many years. When GCSEs were first introduced a teacher friend from an academic school told me he was expected to "grade" his students into an order that would reflect the grades they were expected to obtain in the exam. He was expecting them all to get grade A, so how could he possibly do it?

    Similarly, teachers continue to try to tell students that a degree is a degree is a degree, while I know from personal experience that employers are very clear in their minds which universities they value. This is partly at least the result of schools wanting to look good - the more students going on to university the better, so steer them to the easy options.

    I wanted to enrol on an A level psychology course a few years ago, already part way through the year. It wasn't until I said I didn't want to take the exam, just the course, that I was allowed in. They said I'd missed too much to catch up and they didn't want the exam pass rates to fall.



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