Back to School Words (or: What the hell is a GCSE?)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

It’s back to school time for most of these days, so I’m taking the opportunity to review a few words and phrases related to schooling over here. I’ll admit right now that I find the English school system mostly baffling with its A-levels and GCSEs and league tables and such, but it’s about time I got to grips with it so here we go, starting at the beginning.

Primary School: Starts as early as age 3-4 with a year of Nursery School, which is followed by a year of Reception, then Year 1 (starting in the year a child turns 5), Year 2, Year 3 etc., up to Year 6 and lasting until age 10 or 11. For ease of understanding, this would be all the schooling you’d do BEFORE getting a letter inviting you to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At the end of primary school students will take SAT exams - the Standard Assessment Test, or an Eleven-Plus exam.

Prince George
The media was abuzz this week with pictures of Prince William taking Prince George to his first day of school. Here they are, meeting the Headmistress of Thomas’s Battersea School, where the facilities include a ballet room, science labs, a pottery room, two libraries and a one-acre playground. The young prince, who will be known as George Cambridge, will get morning snacks of organic milk and freshly baked pain aux raisins, which is, with the addition of a shot of espresso, a lot like my morning snack.

Eleven-Plus: An exam taken at the end of primary school used to determine admission to Grammar School. The exam was introduced in the 1940s as a tool for streaming children into one of three levels of secondary school (known as the tripartite system). Grammar schools were the most academically oriented stream, and, despite being re-tooled in the 1960s it was far more common for children from middle class backgrounds to pass their Eleven-Plus exams than for working class children. The Eleven-Plus exams are now less common. Most kids do a different standardised test that’s more geared towards assessing progress than determining if little Electra and Hugo will make it into a grammar school like St. Custard’s.

Grammar School: A secondary school that selects students based on academic performance. So named because the original medieval grammar schools were developed to teach Latin. Grammar schools are academically-oriented state funded secondary schools, as distinct from:

Comprehensive School: A secondary school that accepts all students*, and is also state-funded. (* I say they accept all students but admission is based on the student living in the school’s local catchment area, which, when the school is particularly high in the League Tables, can fuel a run on housing as parents attempt to secure a place for their child buy moving into the area.)

League Tables: A system of ranking schools according to performance, partly based on students’ test scores in national standardised tests. Competition for rankings in the league tables can be fierce. This summer several grammar schools were accused of ejecting students for not achieving high enough grades, thus possible affecting the school’s all-important rank.

Secondary School: Also variously called Upper School, College, High School blah blah blah. Covering ages 11-18, these are the Hogwarts years. You can spend them at a grammar school or a comprehensive, but odds are that wherever you end up you’ll be in some kind of school uniform.

Tragically, almost no schools in the UK look like this.

School Uniform: Most schools in the UK require students to wear a school uniform. For the most part, schools have pretty simple uniforms, usually with black or grey trousers, plain white or light coloured collared shirts or polo shorts and plain black shoes, all without obvious school “branding”. (This is to keep the cost of uniforms as low as possible because often these standard items can be bought at many different stores, not just from the school.) The basic uniform is normally supplemented with a jumper and/or blazer in school colours, often with a crest, and a school tie.

There’s actually a sort of competition among bargain high street shops to see who can offer the lowest price for a complete set of basic uniform items. In 2014 Aldi offered one jumper, one pair of trousers or skirt and two polo shirts for £4. In total. Not £4 for each item. £4 for four items of clothing. (Which makes me wonder if perhaps you’re meant to just throw the whole lot out at the end of the week and buy a new one?)

Younger boys usually wear shorts, and girls usually wear skirts instead of trousers, or sometimes something called a gymslip, which is a sort of pleated sleeves tunic dress. (Actually, at one school boys also have the option of skirts, as illustrated this summer. Temperatures got so hot that boys at one school, whose uniform did not offer shorts, instead borrowed skirts from sisters or friends in protest and wore them to school.)

Boys in skirts
Nicely done boys.

Some schools have particularly notable uniforms. There was one near the happy house in Brixton where the little girls wore blue gingham dresses and straw boater hats. Eton famously makes its boys wear a black tailcoat, waistcoat and pin-striped trousers, though they usually eschew the tophat these days. The prize, though, goes to Christ’s Hospital school, whose students wear a uniform first in fashion in Tudor times.

Christ’s Hospital students. Rockin' the 16th century's hottest fashions.

Jumper: The generic term for what in North America is called a sweater. You’d also call a fleece a jumper. Basically, any warm knit long-sleeved top is a jumper.

Eton: (pronounced EE-tun, but please tell me I didn’t have to tell you that…) The oldest and most famous of England’s traditional boarding secondary schools, founded by Henry VI in 1441. Eton is a public school, which means it’s a private school. Go figure. Admission is selective and fees per year are in the neighbourhood of £36,000. Eton is one of only four remaining public boys’ boarding schools. (The others are Harrow, Radley and Winchester.) The school has educated 19 British prime ministers and has been referred to as the chief nurse of England's statesmen. The Duke of Wellington is often mis-quoted as having said "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Students are referred to as boys and on graduating become Old Boys, and, more specifically, Old Etonians.

Eton College, which definitely has more than a faint whiff of Hogwartiness about it.

Old Boy: The generic name for a former pupil of a primary or secondary school, and the literal basis of the Old Boys Club and Old Boys Network. Different schools have different names for their graduates, usually based on the name of the school, hence the Old Etonians, Old Harrovians (from Harrow), etc. To graduate and become an Old Boy (or just a plain old normal person who finished school) you’ve first got to contend with the GCSEs.

GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education): Equivalent to the Hogwarts OWLS (Ordinary Wizarding Levels), GCSEs are the last stage of compulsory education, taken in Year 11, at age 15 or 16. Every student is required to take the 5 compulsory subjects (Usually English Language, English Literature, Math, Science and a second language of their choosing). In addition, students choose five more subjects from a laundry list ranging from Astronomy to Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies to Divination. At the end of the school year students will sit an exam in each subject (and note that here in the UK you “sit" exams, not “take” them.) If they pass, they will earn a GCSE in that subject, so you’ll often hear people say things like, “I took a GCSE in Punjabi but I can’t remember a thing now.” GCSEs replaced the old O-Levels system, eliminated in 1988. Attaining a certain number of GCSEs at a certain level is a requirement for further study, which comes as A-Levels.

A-levels: A Levels are subject-specific courses taken in the last two (optional) years of secondary school (Years 12 and 13, Age 16-18) commonly known as 6th Form. To complete our Hogwarts analogy, A-levels are like NEWTs (The Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests). Students choose how many A-Level subject to take. Most will choose three or sometimes four. I think my old housemate took six but we have already established that she is a clever clogs. The UK record is, I think, 11.

The A-levels system means that students study their chosen subjects (and nothing else) intensively for two years. I suppose it's assumed you’ll take subjects that you’ll go on to pursue at university and as a career. Like taking an A-Level in Defense Against the Dark Arts if you want to become an Auror, obviously. A-levels are required for entrance to university, and your A-Level results will often determine whether or not you get into your university of choice, since students often have a conditional offer of acceptance from a university that will be contingent on them attaining certain grades in certain A-Level subjects, based on the course they’ve applied for.

Clever Clogs: A person who is ostentatiously and irritatingly knowledgeable. A clever clogs will probably spend a lot of time revising.

Revising: Studying, as in the thing you do when you’re getting ready for an exam, not they general practice of learning something. I find this a particularly odd phrase but it is universal. I’ve never heard someone here say “I’m busy studying for my A-levels.” It’s revising, in order to sit an exam, and then wait for Results Day.

Results Day: The results for all GCSE and A-Level exams for all schools across the country are announced on the same day. (This year it was A-levels on August 17 and GCSEs on August 24.) Results Day generates a lot of sturm and drang and media attention and many photos of kids smiling or cheering or crying or all of the above because GCSE results determine whether you can go on to study A-Levels, and A-Level results determine whether you get into your university and programme of choice. If things don’t go as planned though, all is not lost. You can always try your luck at Clearing.

Bad Haircut Guy: Uh Oh. This is not good. I needed an A in Modern Sanskrit and all it says here is "Must try harder". Or I think that's what it says. It's in Sanskrit.
Blue Hoodie Guy: You’re screwed mate. It’s Clearing for you.

Clearing: The Clearing process lets students apply for university courses that still have places available. This is for those who have not received any offers from a university, or (foolishly) rejected all their offers, or missed the conditions of their offers by sleeping through their A-level exams. Just like Results Day, Clearing is a huge topic in the media, with all kinds of guides to how to access the system and how lots of people have to go through clearing and still go on to lead fulfilled lives and how you should not panic because you’ve screwed up every chance you ever had of becoming a success and should probably just move to the Outer Hebrides except that you failed your A-levels in Salmon Husbandry, Peat-cutting, and Lard Cookery.

I could get into the university level stuff here too - the Russell Group and Oxbridge and the Colleges system and such, but that feels like a different blog. Also I've just an enormous bowl of incandescently good bread pudding so what I really need now is a nap.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Pam, for explaining all this!!! Now it sorta makes sense. Keep the commentaries coming, please! Cheers, ck

Piran said...

You missed out Sixth Form.

And to understand the British private school system, you should watch this:

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