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Pre-higher education is the first major step in a child's educational development. It includes the stages which should prepare pupils for higher education, so it is given great importance both in the United States and Great Britain. On one hand, America shows a great respect for education from its earliest times.
Most historians agree that a great deal of the economic, political, scientific, and cultural progress America has made in its relatively short history is due to its commitment to the ideal of equal opportunity. This is the ideal of educating as many Americans as possible, to the best of their abilities. From the early times on, especially in the northern and western states, the public policy was to produce an educated people. In these states, the large majority of adults were literate at a time when education was still denied to most Europeans.
The public sector in the US is both the one providing education for most of the children and the one chosen by them as well. Every state has an educational administration, not subject to federal control, and the state authorities set general principles concerning the organization of schools and such matters as the ages of compulsory education. Elementary education usually begins at the age of six, even though this may vary sometimes according to the state. As children are still little the atmosphere in schools is very friendly and teachers have accepted the idea that the important thing is to make the children happy and interested. The most common age at which compulsory education ends varies between sixteen and eighteen. The term used by the Americans which refers to the years of school is "grade". There is a clear uniformity in the arrangement of classes. Everybody in the US knows what is meant by first grade, second grade and so on. The age of six begins with the first grade and continues through to the 12th grade, with one grade for each year. No certificate or recognition is received by those children who leave school when compulsory education ends and who do not have a secondary diploma. From nursery school to higher education, parents have the option of sending their children either to free public schools or to pay for private ones. Around 88% of American children attend public schools at the elementary and secondary levels and another 12% attend private schools throughout the country.
The structure of American pre-higher education is divided as follows:
Pre-Primary-The types of schools providing this education include Kindergarten which by the 1980s had moved away from child-centered education to academic preparation for first grade, Nursery Schools which provide education for the children usually between three and five years old and who are not old enough to attend kindergarten, Preschool programs and Child Care Centres. The length of these programs usually consists of two years and the age level varies from three to six.
This early childhood education has become a very important issue for many Americans who want the best education for their children. There have been a lot of changes and one of them was related to the growth in size and stature of the field in the past 20 years.
Whereas, for example, less than half of the five-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in educational programs in 1964, almost 80 percent of the five-year-olds were enrolled in programs during 1974. That year it was estimated that about 4,700,000 three to five-year-old children were enrolled in pre-primary educational programs, almost 47 percent of that age population. (Spodek 149)
Primary-Elementary School is the one providing this education. It generally includes grades 1-4 and the age level is from six to ten years old.
Middle-Grades 4-6, 5-7 or 6-8 are included in Middle Schools. The program is extended to three years and the age level is from ten to fourteen.
Secondary-High Schools are the ones providing this type of education and they include grades 7-12 or 8-12. The program lasts for six years and the age level varies generally from thirteen to eighteen. After graduating high school, students are given a High School Diploma.
Junior Secondary - Junior High Schools generally include the seventh, eighth and sometimes ninth grades and the age level is from thirteen to fifteen years old.
Upper Secondary - the types of school which provide this education are High Schools and Senior High Schools and include grades 9-12 or 10-12.
As every state has an educational administration, no national structure, curriculum or governing law have been laid down. The 50 state governments and the over 14,000 local school districts enforce all laws and policies.
All states and school districts set that the graduation of the secondary school must coincide with the completion of all grades till the 12th one, High School Diploma being the common name for this graduation qualification. High school students are usually required to take a wide variety of courses in English, mathematics, science and social science. There are different kinds of high school in the United States: comprehensive, academic, vocational and technical, each of them having somehow different goals. The vocational and technical high schools usually provide for a large area of occupations and vocations, even though some may specialize in a single one such as electronics, aviation etc.
For many foreigners, the educational system in the United States seems large and varied, sometimes even disorganized. But in its complexity, it reflects the history and culture of the changing country itself and also the possibilities offered to anybody. There are almost 96,000 public elementary and secondary schools throughout the country. Many of these types of schools, as the society itself, experienced waves of immigration throughout their history and today they are more ethnically diverse than ever. The new immigrants keep on changing the ethnic composition of student populations, although the largest numbers now arrive from Latin America and Asia. Even though the American schools have students from various places in the world, they are properly structured and it can be said that there is still a sense of unity in this "pot" of diversity.
The Americans have always aimed for equal opportunity in education, regardless of social class, national origin, or racial or ethnic group. A high general level of education has always been as a necessity in this democratic society. Education in America has also traditionally served the goal of bringing people together, that is, of "Americanization". Schools in the US served (and still serve) to bring together the hundreds of various cultural and linguistic groups, religions, and social and political backgrounds represented by the millions and millions of immigrants.
Howard Cincotta and Rosalie Targonski, editors at the "Bureau of International Information Programs" wrote in a brochure about the United States educational system that:
The American classroom of the 21st century scarcely resembles that of a few decades ago, much less the one room schoolhouse of a past century. Yet the role of American education in binding together a growing and diverse nation endures, transmitting the lasting values of freedom and human dignity from one generation to the next.
In Great Britain the role of education is as important as it is in the United States. There are basically two systems: one available for England, Wales and Northern Ireland and another one covering Scotland. Even if this structure may seem a less complicated one, the British educational system is also complex in its contents. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there is practically no general entitlement concerning the early childhood education and care for children who are under the age of three, but parents can choose to pay privately for childcare. Nevertheless, before going to school, most of the children attend pre-schools, day nurseries, nursery school or nursery classes connected to primary or infant schools.
Compulsory education in Britain starts most of the times at the age of five, except for Northern Ireland where children must begin at the age of four and ends when children are sixteen, as the American system requires as well. The two educational systems mentioned above put emphasis on different aspects. Traditionally the English, Welsh and Northern Irish system has emphasized depth of education while the Scottish one has emphasized broadness. Full time education is compulsory for all children between five and sixteen years old across England, while in Northern Ireland children must begin at the age of four. About 94 percent of pupils in Britain receive free education from public funds and only the rest of 6 percent go to independent fee paying schools or home schooling. In England and Wales the subjects which are being taught in schools are implied by the National Curriculum, introduced in 1988 and it underlines the subjects that children should study and the levels of achievement they should reach by the ages when they are tested. This National Curriculum does not apply in Scotland, where each and every school decides which are the subjects to be taught. All over Britain, the major goals of primary education are the achieving of reading, writing and calculating amongst all the pupils, as well as establishing general knowledge in science, geography, history and other social sciences.
The most important document in regard to education in England and Wales is the Education Act 1996, a consolidating act which includes both 1944 Education Act and later legislation. The structure of pre-higher educational system in England and Wales is divided as follows:
Primary Education-divided itself into Infant School and Junior or Primary School. Children attend the so called "reception" classes, which are for those who are under five years old. From five to seven years old, children go to infant school. From seven to eleven years old, children move to junior school. When a child is eleven, he starts to go to secondary school.
Secondary Education-divided into Secondary and Upper Secondary Schools and Sixth Form College.
Secondary schools are attended by children between eleven and fourteen years old and include two types of school, grammar and comprehensive. Most of the pupils go to the comprehensive schools. These are "intended to provide all the secondary education of all children in a given area without an organization in three sides and their purpose is to democratize education, do away with early selection procedures and provide equal opportunity for all children" (Encyclopedia Britannica). Before comprehensive schools were introduced, the state system of in England was tripartite and it was composed of Grammar Schools, Secondary Modern Schools and Secondary Technical schools. Edward VI (1547-1553) was the one who reorganized the grammar schools so that a national system of "free grammar schools" to be created. This system could be open to all and also able to offer free tuition to those who could not afford to pay fees. Grammar Schools provided an academic education for pupils whose ages were between twelve and nineteen.
Secondary Modern Schools were not influenced by academic achievement, but they were more practical and child centered. Secondary Technical Schools were specifically aimed to prepare pupils for their business after leaving schools but they were at the same time the less popular alternative.
Upper Secondary schools are attended by children with the age between fourteen and sixteen. Sixth Form College is open for students aged sixteen to nineteen and here they study for advanced school-level qualifications, such as A-levels or "The General Certificate of Secondary Education".
Compulsory education in England has been divided into four key stages: key stage 1 which includes ages five to seven, key stage 2 - seven to eleven, key stage 3 - eleven to fourteen and least but not last key stage 4 - fourteen to sixteen. The compulsory curriculum for stages 1, 2 and 3 consider English, mathematics, science, design and technology, history, geography, art and design, music, physical education. At stage 3, pupils are also required to study a foreign language. Stage 4 includes fewer compulsory subjects such as English, mathematics, science, physical education, information and communication technology. Besides the subjects included in the four stages, there are also some statutory subjects, referred to as "curriculum entitlement areas": the arts, design and technology, the humanities and modern foreign languages. Schools have to provide at least one course in each of the four entitlement areas. The compulsory curriculum in Wales does not differ too much from the one implemented in England. Stages 2 and 3 include, besides the subjects available for England and mentioned above, Welsh too and at stage 4 pupils are required to study English, Welsh, mathematics, science and physical education. All pupils in Wales have to follow a course of study in Welsh, either as a first or second language throughout the years of compulsory education.
When it comes to Northern Ireland, according to statistics, in 2009 approximately 60 per cent of the population in aged between five and sixteen were in full and part-time compulsory education. The Education Order 1998 in Northern Ireland defines pre-primary education as "education provided for children between the ages of two and four". Nevertheless pre-primary education is not compulsory, the age when children must enter compulsory education being most of the times four or five. School years are divided as follows:
Primary Education-required for children aged between four and eleven.
Secondary Education-attended by children who are between eleven and sixteen years old.
Education is compulsory till children reach the age of sixteen. Most pupils move from a primary school to secondary one at the age of eleven, but many secondary schools also provide education for post-compulsory students ages sixteen to eighteen and this is referred to as Sixth Form College, the same as in England and Wales, divided into Lower Sixth, age sixteen to seventeen and Upper Sixth, age seventeen to eighteen. Concerning the curriculum, all schools are required to provide a balanced and broadly-based one and they also have "freedom" to develop it in order to reflect their particular needs. The stages of education are different as well from the ones in England and Wales. Stages 1 and 2 include six areas of learning: language, mathematics, the arts, the world around us, personal development and physical education. At the next stage, the areas of learning include also modern languages, science and technology and religious education. In contrast to the ones developed in the rest of United Kingdom, here students must also study "Learning for life and work" and "Developing skills and capabilities" which help them to develop and improve the skills valued by employers. At stage 4, schools are required to provide access to all spheres of the adjusted curriculum. The language of teaching is English, except for the small but still growing number of Irish-medium schools.
If there is not a considerable distinction in the structure of pre-higher education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Scotland has a proud tradition of a distinctive education system. The first thing to be pointed out is that Scotland has been a leader in the way of education since the early part of the fifteenth century. The education system of the United States mirrors to certain extent the one that was initiated by the Scots. The approach focuses on the needs of the students and is designed to create time and space for individual development. One of the greatest features that stay at the basis of the Scottish educational system is flexibility. Students enrolled in this system are encouraged to create a programme that best fulfills their needs. According to Margaret Macdonald Clark in her book entitled Education in Scotland: policy and practice from pre-school to secondary, the Commission on Scottish Education "considered Scotland better placed than other parts of the United Kingdom to achieve a number of the goals it set". Among the advantages, some of the following are mentioned:
greater public confidence in the changing education system
a greater link between academic and vocational qualifications
national testing confined to language and mathematics
a General Teaching Council to help ensure quality in teaching (Clark 13)
The school years in Scotland are divided as follows:
Nursery Schools-attended by children between three and five years old.
Primary Schools-run from the age of five to the age of twelve.
As well as in the other parts of Great Britain, education is compulsory till the age of sixteen. Pupils can leave school when they are sixteen and attend Scottish universities when they are seventeen. Therefore, there are two sets of examinations. The first one, the Standard Grade examinations take place when the age of children ranges fourteen to sixteen and show basic education level. The second one, the higher examinations are held in the fifth and sixth years of secondary schools, which means that the age range is fifteen-eighteen.
All in all, the structure of pre-higher education both in the United States and United Kingdom provides compulsory education till the age sixteen. In both cases, schooling before the age of five is not compulsory but most of the children receive also pre-primary education before attending primary schools as parents consider important for their children to learn from a very young age to be part of a team and adjust to different groups, but also improve communicative skills. Every community in the US has a public school system which is responsible for educating children at elementary and secondary levels. Public schools are supported mainly by property taxes and even though the federal government has no power to make laws in the field of education, it can offer an additional financial help. Federal and state agencies can set standards for local public schools but the local community school boards are the ones actually administering the schools. The Local Education Authority is the medium through which the education departments in England, Wales and Scotland provide funding for schools. In Northern Ireland, schools are largely financed from public funds. I have listed above the two structures of pre-higher education in the United States and Great Britain, from which the main differences between them can be dragged, but before dealing with the next subchapter I would also like to shortly illustrate some final terminology dissimilarities that have not been mentioned yet.
The US equivalent of a high school is referred to in UK as a secondary school. Secondary education in the United States includes middle schools, schools which last two or three years and which are also called transitional schools because they include the period between elementary schools and high schools. In the United Kingdom, middle schools are sometimes used as synonym for junior schools, covering the second half of the primary education. A preparatory school in the United States is an independent school funded by tuition fees, whereas the same term (preparatory school) in Great Britain is used for private schools for children under thirteen. The word college has also different usage. In the United States is referred to as a post-high school institution that usually provides a bachelor degree, while the British usage refers to an institution between secondary school and university (normally referred to as a Sixth Form College).
In the US anyone who has finished studying at any educational institution and who has passed certain examinations, is said to be a graduate, while in UK only degree and above level students are said to be graduates. The term student is also different used, as in the United States it refers to any person of any age who studies at an educational institution, while in Britain the same term tends to be used for those studying at a post-secondary level. The term pupil is used instead for young persons at a secondary school. The British use the term professor to refer to the highest academic rank, while the Americans use it to talk about the academic staff of all ranks, with Full Professor (usually the equivalent of the British meaning), followed by Associate Professor and Assistant Professor. Examinations are supervised by invigilators in the UK and proctors (or (exam) supervisors) in the US (a proctor in the UK is an official responsible for student discipline at the University of Oxford or Cambridge). In the UK, a teacher sets an exam, while in the US, a teacher writes (prepares) and then gives (administers) an exam.
These are the main differences in terminology between the two countries and they are of great importance especially for those intending to move from one school in Britain to another one in the US.