British educational terminology: the cheater’s guide

APROMPTreply asked what A-Levels and Sixth Form are, and Diane Clement wanted me to “explain all the education jargon in the U.K., especially this new stuff that sounds like American charter schools.”

Let’s start with Sixth Form, because it’s damn near manageable. The phrase is left over from an earlier way of organizing education—or at least of talking about how it’s organized. What I (being American) call grades and are called years here but were once called forms. The First Form was the first year of secondary school.

Lanhydrock House, Cornwall, rhododendron, azaleas

Irrelevant photo: rhododendrons and azaleas in bloom at Lanhydrock House

Students who stayed in school to study for A-Levels (those are tests, and if I live through this part of the explanation I’ll get to them) went into the Sixth Form, which took two years and was divided into the Upper and Lower Sixths, because it would all be too simple otherwise. To ward off the danger of simplicity even further, some schools called the Upper Sixth the Middle Sixth because students who were trying to get into Oxford or Cambridge would do a third year of Sixth Form and that was the Upper Sixth. But some schools called that the Seventh Form or the Third-Year Sixth.

And you thought English spelling was complicated. The urge to complexify runs deep in the culture.

But move along, folks, nothing to see here, as they say on British cop shows when there’s been an accident and parts of the language lie strewn and bleeding all over the road.

Now that you’ve memorized all that, you should know that it was swept away in 1990—except in public schools, by which, of course, I mean private schools. Do keep up (as they say here). Being private, public schools get to do whatever they want and—well, let’s put it this way: Have you looked at the uniforms those kids wear at the fanciest public schools? I know not many people feel sorry for the rich and ridiculous, but good lord. Somebody should intervene on their behalf. Anyway, the uniforms don’t lead me to think these schools set a tradition aside just because it no longer makes sense.

Or because it never did.

But back to state schools. They now count from Year 1 up to Year 13, which is simple enough, but lots of people still call the last two years the Sixth Form because they used to and who’s to stop them? And in case it all sounds worryingly simple, you should know that Year 1 starts after Reception, so Reception is really the first year except that it isn’t. As an American, I’m used to the idea that first grade comes after kindergarten, therefore this almost makes sense to me, except for that business about calling it Reception, which sounds like a desk near the entrance of a building.

Typically, Sixth Form students don’t have to wear uniforms, which is a big deal, since the poor creatures  have been stuffed into one uniform or another since they first entered the school door. But at least most state schools (emphasis on most) choose something that borders on sensible—sweat shirts, polo shirts, trousers that I’d call pants except that means underwear here so let’s call them trousers. I so want to believe the kids can choose their own underwear.

The littlest girls get stuck wearing dowdy little checkered dresses in some schools. On their behalf, I wish to register an objection–to the dowdiness (I know I said I was post fashion, but there is a limit) but far more so to making them wear dresses. I mean, what year is this, anyway? Are they supposed to sit at their desks and do samplers while the boys go out and play?

Some Sixth Form students go to Sixth Form colleges, which may offer a wider range of courses than schools that combine Sixth Form with the rest of secondary school. In rural Cornwall, this may mean either traveling long distances or rooming near the school during the week, which not everyone can manage, so access is divided by a combination of money and geography..

And in Scotland and Northern Ireland? Every bit of this is called something different. What I wrote applies only to England and Wales.

Isn’t this fun?

And now, undaunted, we stagger on to A-Levels, which are the high-stakes tests at the end of Sixth Form. AS-Levels are the first half of A-Levels. Admit it: You don’t really want details here. O-Levels were replaced by GCSEs, but both are high-stakes tests that come before Sixth Form. All of them can be spelled without the hyphen, although you might lose points for it on the exam.

I’ve been following the education system here long enough to offer the following authoritative report on all these tests: If the average scores go down one year, the press and politicians fret and agitate about why the younger generation is failing to learn and society is failing to stress the importance of education and the schools are failing to teach, and in general there’s hell to pay. If the average scores go up, the press (and some politicians, depending on whether their party’s in power or out) fret and agitate about the tests having been dumbed down. And there’s hell to pay.

How many ways to win can you spot here? I can’t find a single one.

One problem—here and elsewhere—with high-stakes testing is that schools are judged by their students’ test scores (and students’ futures, ever so incidentally, are determined by them) and so they teach frantically to the tests. The tendency, then, is for broad and imaginative teaching to go out the window. For flexibility to go out the window, along with the cultivation of creativity and independent thinking. Because tests can test only those things that can be standardized and measured and marked. They push the schools to become factories. I’d weep, but it’s not likely to make any of us laugh, so I’ll move along, leaving a trail of damp tissues for you to follow.

And it is in this unhygienic way that we come to the educational jargon Diane asked about, and for the most part I haven’t managed to be funny about this, so you’ve been warned. It’s also complicated enough to make Sixth Form look simple, so I’ll narrow it down as tightly as if we were clutching it to our chests and squeezing with it through the eye of an A-Level.

State schools have historically been the responsibility of local councils—or to translate that, of local governments. There’s always a but, though, isn’t there? The money comes from the national government, so you can guess where the power lies, and the last government became obsessed with a Swedish experiment with free schools—schools that weren’t under local government control and that, in theory, would be free to innovate. Parents would be free to choose their children’s school, schools would offer a range of educational approaches and compete for students, and that would force them to improve, and everything would get better and better in this best of all possible worlds.

A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recommended that Sweden abandon its experiment because it’s led to a steep decline in educational standards, but never mind. What do they know?

So a good chunk of money has been pumped into free schools and academies. I’m not going to get into the difference between academies and free schools because, hey, I’m simplifying here, and it won’t be on the test anyway. Besides, I don’t understand it and, as folks say here, I can’t be arsed to look it up.

Academies and free schools have been started, variously, by concerned parents who have the free time (which usually also means the money) and expertise to do that, by teachers, by for-profit chains, by nonprofits, by religious groups, and inevitably by the occasional scamster. A few state schools have been forced, over parent and staff objections, to become academies on the theory that this will improve them. Under the new government, we can expect more schools to go down that road. The new government just loves free schools and academies.

Unlike state schools, free schools and academies don’t have to worry about responding to a region’s needs. They can and often do open where there are already enough places, meaning government money goes to set up schools where they’re not needed. Also unlike state schools, they don’t have to hire qualified teachers. They don’t have to pay teachers the going rate, because they’re starting from scratch and their teachers have no union. They are, in theory, free of political interference, but they seem to be directly, and heavily, beholden to the central government rather than to the local one, so all this diversification may (emphasis on may; I’ve read about this but didn’t save the articles and I’m not a good researcher, so I can’t find any sources on it right now, which means I’m working from memory and impressions) be centralizing the control of education rather than loosening it.

One argument for these schools is that they’ll provide an alternative to failing schools. I read that so often that a person could begin to think all state schools are failing. They’re not; some have serious problems and others are doing well. From what I’ve read, the academic record of the new schools is mixed. Some do better than the comparable state schools and some do worse. Some aren’t well planned and close without warning, leaving the parents scrambling to find their children other ways to finish out the academic year. Some are in areas where they’re not needed. Opponents argue that they take up a disproportionate amount of the education budget, starving the state schools of funds. Proponents argue that they encourage diversification, excellence, and choice. Do I sound biased? I am, especially about the way the deck’s been stacked against the state schools.

So, to return to Diane’s question, they’re somewhat like the charter school movement in the U.S., but with the added, and I think toxic, element that state schools can, in some situations, be forced to become academies even if they and the parents involved don’t want to.

57 thoughts on “British educational terminology: the cheater’s guide

  1. When you put it like that, our education system seems to be vastly over-complicated. It’s been a good few years since I was involved in such things (long before academies and free schools) and for that I am glad! It’s a wonder anyone gets an education of any description, ever. (Excellent use of ‘do keep up’ and ‘can’t be arsed’ – just like a native!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m just absurdly happy to have used them right. You’d be surprised how easy it is to grab hold of a new phrase and make a fool of yourself. And I confess, I the complications of the system tickle the hell out of me. Did I exaggerate them? Not really, but I did kind of ask them to rub up against each other in the most ridiculous possible way.


      • I have a similar problem when I visit friends in Nashville – I have to be quite careful when I am using the local vernacular to ensure I get it just right.
        The UK certainly has a habit of making things far more complicated than needs be. It’s all that history and tradition tangling things up.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I should probably write a post about adopting the local vernacular and getting it wrong, because the stories are great. I have to give some thought to which ones I can tell without hurting any feelings, though.


          • One of my erstwhile Nashvillians was visiting me last year and we were discussing ‘bangs’ which in the UK is called a ‘fringe’. He thought he would show off his new-found language skills and complimented a friend on her hair… but he replaced the ‘fr’ with an ‘m’, creating an altogether different word that is far too rude to be repeated here. Chuckles all round ensued.

            Liked by 2 people

  2. And this is why I have left the education system and left many of my friends with instructions to beat me with sticks if I ever talk about wanting to go back to teaching!!

    and if you saw the video I posted about Morris dancing you will know that a lot of my friends have big sticks with which to do just that!

    the terminology is not so complicated really…the third year sixth form is so rare that as I teacher I have never actually come across it.

    it is the public/private schools thing that always used to confuse me as a child!! I just couldn’t get my head around why they were private if they were public!

    I was raised by teachers with a strong belief in a comprehensive free education for all, and I would love to say that this is available in this country but all the governments planning and general interference has made me doubt this!

    Maybe I should set up my own free school…or maybe I will get beaten with sticks…and then beaten again by the parents and the government and probably the children…

    ok sorry…that turned into a diatribe…it wasn’t meant to!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did watch the video and will do my best not to make your friends mad. Or to be in a different county if I do. And diatribes are justified on this topic. I did try to be funny in those final paragraphs and was just too disgusted to manage it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is awful! For a country that used to have an enviable education system we have messed about and brought it down to a lower level than I thought possible!
        Teaching to the tests is the only thing to do to keep your school from getting skated in the league tables and being branded as failing but it really does a disservice to the children!
        We are a country of jaded overworked teachers and parents and governments who all think they know best!
        No wonder so many teachers are leaving or breaking (or both…)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I read the whole post and still don’t much understand, except that part about underwear. I also hope students get to choose their own underwear.

    My older daughter just survived another round of standardized testing here in the US and she came home bitching about–I mean, advocating against testing in schools. As a student I would probably have bitched about advocated against it as well. As a taxpaying parent, my feelings are mixed. I don’t like the fact that great big chunks of class time are devoted to prepping for the tests and then taking the tests, but I do like the accountability. I’m not sure how that’s achieved otherwise.

    In related news, a whole mess of educators in Atlanta just got sentenced to jail (to jail!) for falsifying test results in that school district.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The New Yorker had a great article about the Atlanta scandal. It’s worth looking up. That was some time ago–well before anyone got sentenced.
      The thing about testing is that it gives the impression of accountability, but I’m not convinced it gives the substance of it. In fact, I’m quite convinced it doesn’t. I don’t know how to measure real education, but somebody who works in the field probably does and maybe we’d be smart to ask the question. And then listen to the answers we get.


      • I think there are educators who support testing–it’s a tool that’s used in just about every classroom every where in the US, so why is it suddenly a bad thing when we standardize? I’ll answer my own question: a lot of the objections to standardized testing today (as opposed to when I took them as a student) come from educators who don’t believe performance on the tests should be tied to teacher evaluations, i.e. Why should I get a lousy evaluation because the parents of a child in my class never read a book to the kid? The concerns with standardized testing aren’t so much about “wasting class time” and “teaching to a test” but are motivated by self-interest.

        I married the son of a public school principal and it’s absolute heresy in my family to suggest that teaching isn’t one of the most difficult and noble professions out there, but I went to public school, so I’ll speak to the experience as a student: some of my teachers were terrific, most of them were average, a few of them were awful.

        Anyway, I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s quote about democracy, and think it applies here to standardized testing: it’s the worst, except for everything else that has been tried.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting. The objections I’ve read have to do less with teachers who are handed difficult assignments, then judged by a standard their students aren’t likely to meet (although I’ve read that objection as well), and more to do with schools becoming so test based that nothing goes on but test preparation. I’ve only ever taught adults, and I haven’t a clue what should be done about improving the schools, although I do believe many of them need improvement, but my best guess is that we need to look at something other than testing.


    • As an American parent and product of the American educational system, I have no issue with standardized testing. We had our share, growing up. I am in a PARCC state, and my concern is the amount of time spent on testing, and the fact that we don’t even see the results until the next school year, which makes the whole process irrelevant to the students anyway. I don’t understand the point of this system.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The test scores are used to evaluate the performance of schools/teachers/school administrators. There are consequences for school districts that perform poorly, and incentives for them to perform well. That’s the point of the system (I sound like I’m against it all, but I’m mostly not).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, that is what the tests are trying to measure and evaluate, but how accurate are they truly when so much time is spent teaching the children to pass the tests rather than actually providing the education they need? What it tells me is the “good” schools know how to teach children to pass the tests, at least as far as PARCC is concerned.

          My daughter went through two batteries of PARCC testing this year…one week last fall, one week this spring. I can imagine how much classroom time went into prepping the children for these exams.

          Like I said, I am not against standardized tests, but do we need as many measures as the districts are administering?

          Liked by 1 person

          • I guess the tests measure what we teach in schools. Whether or not what we teach in schools is what kids “need” is (I think) a separate discussion. If you’re asking about the frequency of testing, that’s mandated by federal law.

            And I think the failure of schools on these tests is more than the teachers not knowing how to “teach to the test”–like a lot of things in this world, rich kids do better than poor kids. Personally, I believe that free public education can do a lot to address economic inequality, but it can’t do everything. Standardized testing is one way to make sure kids in less affluent schools receive the same education as kids in rich school districts, and it’s designed to uncover the deficiencies and make public schools address those areas. I currently live in an affluent school district, but, as a public school student, I attended schools that would be labeled today as “challenging.” My kids are winding their way through elementary school right now and there’s not one parent-teacher conference where I am not blown away by the equipment, facilities, material and opportunities my kids have attending these public schools.

            Standardized testing, as it’s being implemented in the US today, is designed to get all schools up to snuff. It’s not so much to benefit my kids (and I suspect yours). If there is a better way to figure out what’s being taught in American public schools, I don’t know what it is.

            I’m going to shut up now. ;)

            Liked by 1 person

            • I don’t have kids, and the kids who’ve mattered in my life have gone to a wide range of schools, from inner city public (what, as you say, they call “challenging” these days) to charter to suburban to private. (Hey, it’s been an interesting life.) I’m struck by your comment about the facilities etc. available in your kids’ schools and wonder what would happen if schools weren’t locally funded, which magnifies the advantages of affluent kids, but centrally funded in some way that evened out the opportunities. Living in the U.K., where the funding does seem to be centralized, I see the disadvantages of that (power follows the money, and when the power’s used badly that’s a problem) but also the advantages.


            • In the spirit of respect and friendship, I am just going to agree to disagree to with you with certain aspects, although we do have common ground here. After all, we are just parents who want what is best for our kids, and this is not the place to hash this out.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Agreeing to disagree is absolutely the spirit of the blog. The issues people have been raising are serious, and we can all get passionate about them–which is where it’s easy to slip right on over to angry. Credit to everyone who isn’t doing that.

                Liked by 1 person

  4. This was interesting. After decades of studying the situation here, at least, I have come to the conclusion that there are only two system of education that work to produce a literate, happy individual, free to maximize his/her talents: The Finnish system and Waldorf Education. What is going on here in the US in our public schools is a travesty born of ignorance of child development, imho. I did enjoy your laying out the setup in Britain.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Ellen,
    The British have one great advantage in their educational system over the Americans and the Germans: at least they mess up their system centrally, whereas in the US and Germany every single federal state does their part, thus making the mess even greater. ;)
    Have a great weekend,

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “Isn’t this fun?” you ask. Well, yes. I did enjoy this. Especially from my seat, quite removed from the public/state school system. Been there, done that, many moons ago. No kids in the system. It is fun to read about the folly, but it’s also very, very, scary to know that all of it is tied to funding and profits. Something, that in my opinion, should never have happened.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh Gosh.
    I have too many thoughts. This testing crap really gets to me, from every standpoint. And people wonder why I don’t want to teach! Psh.
    My older kids went to a Charter school for two years. It was fine. We liked it. We lived where they would’ve gone to public-public school, which my husband attended, and he didn’t want them to go there. Really excellent principal. My daughter loved it, but my son complained that the only blonde girls were his relatives and he had to make googly eyes over a brunette. My only complaint was that the school couldn’t afford buses, so I had to drive them and carpool. WITH BABIES.

    The terms for class ranges and all that, it does seem like complicated vocabulary for an American. I’ve read it, but I still don’t really GET it. Good of you to learn it all for us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The funny thing about writing that post was that I’ve been hearing people talk about Sixth Form, Third Year, etc., since I got here and had only the faintest idea what they were talking about. It was beginning to make sense, but having written about it I now have the illusion that I understand it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I took A level Literature as a ‘mature’ student at the grand old age of 19, via the local college, and it was home study with a tutorial once a month. I managed it in a year because I had nowt much else to do at the time. There were 3 exams. Two were 3 hours long, and one was 2 and a half hours long. We were not allowed to take anything but pens and pencils into the exams with us. I was absolutely mortified when I attended college a mere 6 years later to discover that the A level had changed – 2 exams of 2 hours each, and students were allowed to take their books in with them, complete with notes!! They also studied less books with the new A level.
    How is that right ??
    Also, when I was teaching Adult Literacy we had a group of students from the local university come to my place of work as part of research. They sat an assessment for the Adult Literacy qualification, and none of them scored at Level 1, which is GCSE Grade D equivalent. Yet they were Uni students.
    These things definitely come into the category of “Things that make you go hmmmmm”, methinks.
    I am just very glad that both my daughters finished compulsory education before the worst of the changes came in.
    But don’t get me started on an educational psychologist who didnt recognise dyspraxia, or a teacher who did her dissertaion in dyslexia and didn’t spot it in my daughter!! Nor on a child who ended up in one of my classes yet could do trigonometry. Turns out she had a significant degree of deafness, and that accounted for both her quietness in class and her poor spelling. Yet she had gone through to the age of 16 with no one noticing !! Grrrrr!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh good shrieking lord. They couldn’t spot deafness?

      I used to work as a copy editor for a hunting and fishing magazine (not a very good one, I should add), and an amazing number of their writers were on the verge of incoherence. I learned to edit with a machete. And given their ages, they were from the era when we like to think education educated everyone better than it does today, but it didn’t work for them. This was in the U.S., so I don’t know how much use the observation is over here, but the experience did leave me wondering whether we overestimate the old systems.

      A young friend who was studying for English A-Levels recently said they weren’t allowed to take any books in with them. He was busily memorizing quotations to throw in because it would gain him points, although he had no idea what the questions would be, so he had to build up a stack of all-purpose quotations. What insanity.


      • Well thank the starry skies they’ve changed the system back again! The point with having to memorise quotes is that you use them in your essay to demonstrate understanding of the point. Plus it shows you read the book. And memory skills are good to have.
        Yep, they failed to spot deafness even though the spelling mistakes she made were obviously due to her mis-hearing words spoken.
        I know teachers are pushed for time but even so….

        Liked by 1 person

        • Second thoughts: It may not have been the English A-Levels but philosophy or something else, because it really did have an all-purpose feel about it–as in, they might ask about this, so I’ll memorize that, but they might ask about that, so I’ll memorize this. It struck me as a system that encouraged detail and memorization but not thought and depth. My own feeling about bringing books into an exam is that if the subject isn’t heavily factual, they’ll only help if you’ve read them well enough to know what you’re looking for. If I haven’t read Paradise Lost, having it in front of me won’t help me write a convincing essay about it.

          By way of full disclosure, I haven’t read Paradise Lost. They changed the reading list just as I was graduating and I skedaddled with my degree and my ignorance.


  9. O M G! I so appreciate this post, but Oh, my freaking God. It’s quite obvious that there is no way to actually understand this system except by being in it or seeing it up close. Even then, I’m wondering if anyone actually does understand it or just follows the pack. I appreciate the time you’ve taken and I’m feeling much better that I at least have a place I can go back to for specifics when the need arises, but that is way too freaking complicated to even try on. You did an admirable job. I understand more than I did, but good heavens. I was almost hanging on till you got to Diane’s question and then I totally lost the thread. Bleh!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. You deserve an A Level for having been able to process and assimilate all of this jargon and bonkers educational system stuff. I am glad you mentioned that the Scottish system is different from the English one. Having taught High School in both systems I can testify to how very different they are in more than just a jargon level.

    One of the craziest elements for me to wrap my head around when I crossed the border was that there are multiple exam boards in England and Wales meaning that students obtain the same qualifications despite sitting different exams. It also means that a child who switches schools during the relevant years might be hobbled in sitting the exams because they might have been working towards an exam constructed by a different board and, therefore, requiring a different curriculum.

    Now I am having to wrap my head around the American educational system which has its own bizarre qualities – and that is as a parent rather than as a teacher this time.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Very interesting but this will require concentration and some note taking. I’m sitting in IKEA in Palo Alto with a 200 mile journey home ahead of me after a wonderful exploration of the Oregon coast. Both body and brain need a rest after my first camping adventure in 40 years and 2000 miles of getting to know a new car. I’m really eager to understand this since I will be listening to PM Cameron talking education for what will probably be five more years. So thank you very much. Now back to my new four-wheel steed.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. And for extra fun credit…try bringing an American child in last year of US public (“free”) highschool over to England and applying to University here. Actually, that worked out pretty well. Nobody on either side could make heads or tails of her academic record, so all the schools she applied to said “sure, why not.” (And I’m sure that the astronomical non-EU-resident fees we paid had absolutely nothing to do with that. Really.)

    The best part? She’s about to graduate, and we’ll never have to think about the education system on either side of the Atlantic again. Oh wait…she just texted me. WTF? Grad school?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m prepared to believe no one could make sense of her academic record. Why should people inside the systems understand them any better than anyone else does? And if she goes back to the U.S., people will look at a British degree and swoon. Right after she finishes (argh) grad school, of course.

      Liked by 1 person

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