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.
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.