Schools in Britain
Almost every textbook or activity book which we use for teaching English has some section dedicated to school life. Obviously, with younger or teenage students, it is something they have experience of and, usually, some opinion about. However, very often, the books do not go into great detail about these things and many teachers simply do not have the background knowledge to take the subject deeper. In the case of something like education, particularly the British school system(s), there are many areas which contain vocabulary and practices well-known to Britons but which can be totally alien to those people who haven’t lived in Britain or attended a British school. Obviously, this cuts both ways; for example, the practice of studniówka and high-school proms are not part of British school culture. Probably, the nearest thing would be a school disco.
School culture is widely represented in British society through books, fi lms, TV, and comic strips. Even performers like Monty Python and Rowan Atkinson have sketches based on aspects of British school life which foreigners may fi nd a little baffl ing. So, school is something which refl ects many aspects of British culture, which can be useful for the learners but also confusing if they are confronted with it in literature, fi lm, TV.. For example, one of the main characteristics of school stories in Britain is that they are often based in single-sex boarding schools and often have main characters of one gender. Even for many British kids, these are unfamiliar aspects of education. As such, looking at schools and their representation can be a good starting point for an exploration of vocabulary, culture and discussion.
This point was brought home to me when I fi rst read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Having been caught riding a broomstick unsupervised, Harry is led away, wondering if he will get the cane. To readers of my generation, this is quite understandable… but HP was published 10 years after corporal punishment had been banned in UK state schools (in private schools, it was a little later); so to many readers, it would be a historical reference. I found myself explaining the discipline system of British schools to my students, to their astonishment and bewilderment. So, let us start our trip around the school… Now, YOU, BOY!… I saw that… Pay attention… There’ll be a test at the end!
Types of Schools
The school system diff ers across the regions of the UK, but the basic types are dealt with below. One of the things which confuse many people is that in Britain, Public Schools are not public; they are often private. While in countries like Poland, a “public school” refers to a state school, Public Schools in UK are independent of the state and make up about 10% of the school system. Originally, the term meant the schools were independent of the church-run education system and later came to refer to some of the more prestigious Grammar Schools. These schools are fee-paid, often very expensive (a couple of years ago, one school charged around 25,000 pounds a school year) but sometimes off er scholarships for less well-off students. They are also considered rather prestigious. They generally have boarding facilities and strong traditions. Grammar Schools originally taught languages (hence “grammar”) but later became part of the state system, being selective in their intake of students. During the 1970’s, the state system adopted the non-selective, “Comprehensive” system and some grammar schools became mixed-sex comprehensive schools, whilst others went fully private. In parts of Britain, the term “High School” denotes an all-girls grammar school. Some of these grammar schools have boarding facilities.
Comprehensive schools are general state secondary schools. They are mixed-sex, whereas some public schools are still single gender. There are still church/ religious schools in UK, although they may also take students of other faiths. Britain does not have a Liceum or High School system as many European and American countries do.
The ages of education diff er slightly across UK but can be generally seen as:
- Primary (Infant) 5-7 years old,
- Primary (Junior) 7-11 (some schools have both age groups),
- Secondary 11-16,
- Sixth Form 16-18. Some schools incorporate a 6th-form curriculum into their syllabus whereas there also exist 6th-form colleges specifi cally for over 16’s (and often off ering further education for adults as well). (Wikipedia has a lot more on this!)
Schools in UK generally run to a 3-term system (not semesters) of around 12 weeks a term (split by a one week “half-term” holiday). The timetable diff ers across UK, but English schools can start in September and fi nish in late July. State schools teach for 190 days whereas private schools can off er as few as 175.
Some aspects of British school life can diff er from schools in other countries. Generally, students would call a teacher “Sir,” “Miss” or “Ma’am,” or, for example, “Mr Smith,” “Miss Jones.” This was a recent cause for discussion at the school where I work in Poland. We were teaching Saudi Arabian students, who frequently called us “Teacher,” and we debated whether this could be an acceptable form of address. Assembly: These are meetings of the whole school in the main hall, either in the morning or after dinner. The head teacher or another teacher addresses the school with news or a particular subject he or she might wish to talk about.
Dinner time: All British schools have a school canteen. Students usually bring money to school and, with younger students, give it to the teacher to show they have paid for their meals (students can also bring sandwiches or go home for lunch). In some schools, the students buy dinner tickets. During the dinner period, there are adult monitors who supervise the students in the playground; these are usually known as “Dinner Ladies” (although there may be some men doing it now, it is the ladies most people remember>.
Prefects are secondary students, usually in the final year, who are given the duty of supervising younger students and helping them find their way around the school or giving advice. Each form in secondary school also elects a “Form Captain”, who represents the class in student/teacher meetings, does minor admin for the teacher (like taking names of other students).
Classes are known as forms. In public and grammar schools, students may belong to a House. In some schools with a long history, certain families have become connected to specifi c houses and it is expected that each new member of the family will join the house when he or she attends the school (just like Gryfi ndor in HP).
All schools will have a nurse, to whom the students go if they feel unwell. In public schools, the nurse for each house is known as the matron. Every year, if not every term, students are given a report card to take home for their parents to sign (if they dare show it to them). It gives comments about the student’s behavior and his or her grades. Grading in British schools is usually A (excellent) to E (hide it from your parents!). Another form of marking is to award coloured stars for good work, such as a gold star, or marks out of ten (for example). There are also the timeless and evergreen comments at the bottom of the work: “Could do better!,” “Neatness!,” “(S)he has the ability but lacks eff ort,” and something unreadable which says, when you ask, “You must improve your handwriting.”
One thing which often surprises and puzzles students in Poland (at least until a few years ago with the disastrous attempt at introducing them) is the British school uniform. There are several reasons given in favour of the school uniform: it creates a pride in one’s appearance and a form of identity, it means all students look equal and economic backgrounds are less obvious, and it teaches students the value of looking smart. There is also a number of counter arguments.
Almost all secondary schools (and a large number of primaries) in UK use school uniform. This can range from a simple style, such as black/grey trousers and a coloured polo shirt, to blazers, badges, and ties. Uniforms are generally colour coded to a specifi c school and can include characteristics unique to a particular school (such as a style of coat or hat). The uniform can also extend to the colour and style of the sportswear for PE lessons. In past times, the uniforms for girls might have included sleeveless tunic dresses known as “pinafore dresses” (“jumper dresses” US Eng). These are also known as “gymslips” (when used for sport) and have become part of phrases such as “gymslip pregnancy.” for describing young teenage mothers.
In recent years, girls have gained the right to wear trousers or long shorts as part of their uniform, and some schools have implemented restrictions on the length of dresses and skirts. In a funny case in England, one boy began wearing his sister’s skirt in protest to the rule that boys could not wear shorts in summer (although girls could), but there was nothing against boys wearing skirts.
http://uk.news.yahoo.com/boy-defi es-uniform-rulewearing- skirt-092406564.htm
Boys generally have to wear ties (at my school, several boys burned theirs on the last day!). In primary schools which have uniforms, younger boys may wear shorts as part of their dress. There have also been several cases of schools having to address issues of religious clothing, such as Muslim girls wearing headscarves.
In some schools in the past, and a few today, teachers also had a kind of uniform. Many wore long gowns and sometimes mortar board hats (the kind of fl at hats we see in graduations). In most schools, these are gone but are still instantly recognisable as a teacher’s apparel, even by many who have never seen them for real. The long running children’s comic The Beano has a strip called “The Bash Street Kids,” which has probably the last teacher (called “Teacher”) in Britain who wears such a hat.
One of the areas where British schools diff er greatly from Polish ones is the matter of discipline. This was of great interest and surprise to my Liceum students. Some punishments have gone but still remain in the minds of many Britons.
Lines: “Take a hundred lines!” was the feared call of the annoyed teacher. If you ever watch The Simpsons, you’ll see Bart writing “I must not…” on the blackboard. In British schools, this was usually a kind of take-home punishment and could be up to several hundred lines. It is not considered an appropriate form of punishment these days in many schools. Detention: My Polish students were amazed by this, and British kids I told couldn’t believe Polish schools don’t have detention. Basically, the punished student stays behind after school. He or she might clean up the classroom or help the teacher do something or do some boring exercises, like copying out pages of the dictionary by hand! Mind you, if you think that’s bad, NEVER get yourself a PE detention! In boarding schools, the student might be forbidden to leave the school at the weekend (known as being “gated” in some schools). In some American schools, weekend detentions exist in non-boarding schools (as in the film The Breakfast Club).
Isolation: This is when a student is either misbehaving or not working in class. The student is taken out of the classroom and put in a room on his or her own (or possibly with other students also in isolation) and brought work from the class and made to work, in silence, on his or her own (with a teacher present). He or she is escorted to dinner but not allowed to mix with other students.
Exclusion: This is usually for serious breaches of discipline, including things like haircuts and piercings. The student is either suspended from school for a short period (sometimes up to several weeks) or, in more serious cases, expelled from the school altogether.
Corporal Punishment: This is something most Polish students fi nd unbelievable about British schools. Until 1987, state schools allowed the beating of students up to 16 years old. In private schools, it lasted into the 1990’s. This punishment used to be widely shown in children’s books and comics and treated as something funny (see Bash Street Kids, Teacher’s Pet, Billy Bunter)! It could involve a slipper or a cane and could be applied on the hand or the bottom. In Scotland, the tawse (a leather strap) was widely used. A phrase connected with the cane is “to receive six of the best” (no idea what “six of the worst” would be like!). In the past, corporal punishment, especially the cane, was widely used; but in later years, the cane was more often reserved for serious off ences, like fi ghting, bullying, smoking, and rudeness to teachers. There is still a number of people in UK who would welcome the return of corporal punishment in schools, and it is occasionally debated in the media. However, it is unlikely it will return.
School life has been portrayed in many diff erent forms throughout the years, particularly in literature, fi lm, and TV. In the second of my articles on this subject, I shall examine some of the language and cultural references which our students may encounter, as well as give some suggestions on how we might use these in our own classrooms.
Now, a quick test to see how well you were paying attention: A hat a teacher might wear: _____________________ A punishment where the student stays behind after school: ___________________________________ A kind of dress which was part of a girl’s uniform: _________________________________________
DISCIPLINE A student who supervises younger students: _______ _________________________________________ A woman who supervises students during dinner break: _________________________________________ A private school: _____________________________ Annual comments about the student’s work and behavior: _________________________________ The nurse in a boarding school: ________________ _________________________________________ School year for students over 16: ________________ _________________________________________ A girls’ grammar school: ____________________ ___________ ______________________________
Now, go back and check your work:
10/10 GOLD STAR!
6-9/10 Could do better.
2-5/10 Take a hundred lines.
0-1/10 Six of the best for you!!!!!
References: CBBC (Children’s BBC) websites.
And the amazing Woodlands Junior School: http:// www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/