Policy Description

Educational Policies: United Kingdom (2014)


Until the end of the 19th century, the British educational system reflected class divisions, with most educational institutions serving the upper and the middle classes, while the masses received little schooling. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 was the first attempt to provide elementary education at a national level, although these schools were neither universally free nor compulsory. Two further acts made elementary schooling compulsory (1880) and free (1891) (Gillard, 2011).

By the start of the 20th century, the British national public education system lagged behind the rest of Europe; there were no common secondary schools and the elementary curriculum was limited (Ben & Chitty, 1996). The Balfour Act (1902) provided the basis for national secondary education, and created local educational authorities (LEAs) to integrate free elementary and fee-paying secondary schools.  

As part of the government’s post-war plans for social reconstruction, the  Butler Act of 1944 radically reformed the educational system in England and Wales. The law mandated the provision of universal free secondary education, and established a tripartite system of primary, secondary, and further education. Similar laws were passed in Scotland and Northern Ireland in 1945 and 1947, respectively (Gillard, 2011). In this tripartite state system, secondary modern schools replaced elementary schools, alongside grammar and technical schools. During the 1960s, many LEAs introduced “comprehensive” secondary schools which catered to all children regardless of ability, although many schools remained selective.

The system established by the Butler Act led to increased equality in educational opportunity at state selective schools. Yet even though the number of free selective places (e.g., in grammar schools) expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, the number of places available was outstripped by demand during the post-war baby boom (Blackburn and Marsh, 1991). 

Following a period of recession and budget cuts in the 1970s, the Conservative (Thatcher) administration progressively marketised the school system. This gave more power to parents and progressively reduced the LEAs’ control of curricula, budgets, and school governing bodies. The 1988 Education Reform Act created a unified national curriculum for all compulsory schools, aimed at raising standards “as least as quickly as they are rising in competitor countries” (DES, 1987, p.7).

Following the election of New Labour (1997), the country’s educational policies retained many of the features introduced by the preceding Conservative governments, including parental choice and involvement.  However, the “Excellence in Schools” (1997) white paper criticised the existing comprehensive schools for fostering equality by promoting uniformity, rather than by encouraging excellence (DEE, 1997). The authors therefore argued that secondary schools (ISCED (See: http://migrantict.ning.com/notes/UK_Education_System for an ISCED mapping of the UK system) levels 2 and 3) should be encouraged to become selective specialist schools. At the same time, however, Labour’s educational policies were criticised for exacerbating divisions and inequalities by those who had hoped for a shift away from privatisation and marketisation (Chitty, 1998).
The subsequent Brown (Labour) administration prioritised raising the school-leaving age, improving discipline, and giving more freedom to teachers. The educational policies pursued by the current coalition (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) government include budget cuts; the abolition of some bureaucratic bodies, such as the Qualification and Curriculum Development Agency; and recent (2010) changes to the National Curriculum, such as the abandonment of planned initiatives in personal, social, and health education in the primary school curriculum (Gillard, 2011).

Organisation of the educational system

Local educational authorities were established by the 1902 Education Act to oversee elementary and secondary schools. After completing free elementary education (ages 5-10), children whose families could afford it were able to progress to fee-paying secondary schools, including board schools and voluntary (mainly religious) schools. 

The educational system in England and Wales was reorganised by the Education Act (1944). This made secondary education free of charge for all pupils, and established a tripartite system: primary (ages 5-11), secondary (ages 11-15), and further (ages 16+) education. Based on their aptitude and ability, pupils were selected into grammar schools, modern secondary schools, or technical schools. The law also enabled voluntary schools to access public funding by opting to become maintained schools.

In 1965 (Circular 10/65), Wilson’s Labour government encouraged a shift towards a “comprehensive” system of no selection, yet many grammar schools remained selective (DES, 1965).  Overall, however, the legal framework of the school system remained largely unchanged from 1944 until the 1980s. 

In 1988 the Education Reform Act introduced the national curriculum, and defined four stages of compulsory education based on age groups (5-7, 8-11, 12-14, 15-16). For each stage, the law prescribed which core and foundation subjects would be taught, and set minimum achievement targets. The comprehensive approach to secondary schooling was also progressively dismantled under Conservative and New Labour governments from the 1980s through the 2000s, and secondary schools became increasingly differentiated and selective.

As of 2014, the educational system in England and Wales is divided into early years (non-compulsory, ages 3-4: ISCED-0)), primary (ages 4-11: ISCED-1), secondary (ages 11-18: ISCED 2, 3, 4), and tertiary (non-compulsory, ages 18+: ISCED 4, 5, 6) (DE, 2014). Primary and secondary state-funded schools coexist with independent (private) schools, which charge fees and do not have to follow the national curriculum. Tertiary education includes further and vocational qualifications as well as higher education in universities.

The most common types of state-funded schools are as follows: community schools, which are run by local authorities and are not influenced by business or religious groups; foundation schools, which have more control over their organisation and curriculum; academies, which are run by independent governing bodies and can follow a different curriculum; and grammar schools, which select their pupils through entry examinations and are run by councils, foundations, or trusts. 

Two further types of state-funded schools are faith schools and free schools. Faith schools, which are associated with a particular religion, can be of different types, such as academies or voluntary-aided schools. They must follow the national curriculum except in the area of religious studies. Under the coalition government, the number of faith schools has increased, and the coverage of government funding for these schools has risen to 90% (Accord, 2013). 

Free schools are government-funded, but they are not run by the local council, and have a degree of autonomy. For example, these schools do not have to follow the national curriculum, they can set their own pay and conditions for staff, and they can alter the length of the school day and term time. They are run on a non-profit basis, and can be set up by charities, universities, businesses, parents, teachers, and community and faith groups.

Compulsory Education

Since education was made compulsory in the United Kingdom for all pupils until the age of 10 in 1880 (Elementary Education Act 1880), the school-leaving age has been progressively raised. For example, the Education Act of 1918 increased the school-leaving age to 14, in addition to establishing the principle of “no exemption” from school. The Education Act of 1944 then set the school-leaving age at 15 and made further provisions for raising it to 16; these provisions were later implemented in 1973. 

Most recently, the Education and Skills Act of 2008 requires pupils to remain in some form of education or training until the age of 18, even though the statutory leaving age of 16 (ISCED-3) has been maintained. This means that as of 2014, pupils are allowed to finish school on the last Friday in June as long as they reach the age of 16 by the end of that year’s summer holidays. All pupils born on or after 1 September 1997 must stay in some form of education or training until their 18th birthday.

The basis for the national curriculum was set out under Thatcher’s government by the Education (No.2) Act of 1988. The law defined three core subjects (English, mathematics, and science) to which at least 30% to 40% of classroom time was to be devoted up to secondary school. The core subjects were complemented by foundation subjects (technology, history, geography, art, music, physical education, and a modern foreign language), as well as religious education and other subjects such as home economics (DES, 1987). New Labour made some changes to this law: while schools were still required to have a broad curriculum, following this reform the only mandatory subjects in the national curriculum for primary schools were English, mathematics, science, information technology, and swimming (Gillard, 2011). 

As of 2014, the national curriculum for all state-funded schools is organised on the basis of four key stages (ages 5-16) and 12 subjects, classified as core and foundation subjects. The relevant age groups for each stage are as follows: key stage one (KS 1), ages 5-7 (ISCED-1); key stage two (KS 2), ages 7-11 (ISCED-1); key stage three (KS 3), ages 11-14 (ISCED-2); and key stage four (KS 4), ages 14-16 (ISCED-3). The core subjects (English, mathematics, and science) have to be taught at all of the key stages, while the following foundation subjects must be taught in at least two of the stages, as indicated by the numbers in parentheses: art and design (KS 1-3), citizenship (KS 3-4), computing (KS 1-4), design and technology (KS 1-3), languages (KS 2-3), geography (KS 1-3), history (KS 1-3), music (KS 1-3), and physical education (KS 1-4). In addition, primary and secondary schools must provide religious education, and secondary schools must provide sex and relationship education. The Secretary of State for Education publishes programmes of study for each national curriculum subject which outline the topics, skills, and processes to be taught at each key stage (DE 2014). Schools are free to choose how they organise their school day.



Ernestina Coast
London School of Economics and Political Science

Ginevra Floridi
London School of Economics and Political Science

Wendy Sigle
London School of Economics and Political Science

Data collected in the framework of the Population Europe Research Finder and Archive (PERFAR) in 2014.

Please cite as:
SPLASH-db.eu (2014): Policy: "Educational Policies: United Kingdom" (Information provided by Ernestina Coast, Ginevra Floridi & Wendy Sigle). Available at: https://splash-db.eu [Date of access].