Education reform in England

An overview of changes to education in England’s state schools, to help families on a UK relocation to understand their options.

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Just before the Brexit bombshell nudged all other events off the news agenda, government plans for education reform were dominating the headlines. The waters have been choppy since then with a snap general election leading to loss of a Conservative majority. But education still remains firmly on the policy agenda to ensure that all children in the UK, no matter their background, have access to a world-class education.The government’s central aim in its programme of education reform is to drive up standards in England’s schools to match those of schools in other high-performing countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) international education league tables.GIESF-in-text-banner

What are academy schools?

At the heart of the changes is the government’s desire to allow schools to become independent of local authorities, giving head teachers and senior leadership teams, the freedom to undertake day-to-day management, funded directly by the Department for Education.The academy school programme, initiated by the Labour government, began with ‘sponsored academies’ – schools that were deemed by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) to be underperforming and were required to convert to academy status, with a government-approved sponsor taking over leadership. Later, the programme was expanded to allow top-performing schools to convert to academy status.The present government believes that the academy programme is driving up standards in England’s schools, and the programme remains firmly on its agenda for poorly performing schools. There are currently around 3,400 state-funded secondary schools in England, just over 2,200 of which are already academies. Of the approximately 16,800 primary schools, over 3,000 have converted to academy status.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Grammar schools

Not long after she entered Number 10, the former Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a speech in which she revealed a radical set of proposals for education reform, including lifting the restrictions on grammar-school expansion.However, following the Conservative government’s loss of majority in the June 2017 election, plans to expand selective schools were scrapped and restrictions on expansion still remain in place. The re-written plans now call for “every child to go to a good or outstanding school”.The government also wants to see independent schools offer more support for increasing the quality of provision in state schools. Independent schools are currently required to demonstrate a benefit to the public in order to maintain their charitable status. Mrs May would like them to work harder for this privilege. She suggested a raft of options that would range from undertaking full sponsorship of a local state school to providing direct school-to-school support. This could include supporting teaching in minority subjects, such as further maths or classics, which state schools often struggle to make viable.TASIS-education-webinar-in-text-banner-playback

New curriculum and assessment

Over the past three academic years, the government has introduced a new, “more ambitious” National Curriculum and reformed qualifications and assessment at GCSE and A Level. The curriculum has been slimmed down significantly so that teachers can focus on the “essential knowledge and skills every child should have”. The bar has been raised considerably for children’s learning in the areas of maths, English, computing and science. For example, children are now expected to know their 12 times table by the age of nine.Assessment of the primary National Curriculum takes place at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Key Stage 1 pupils take externally set but internally marked tests in spelling and grammar (SPaG), maths and reading. Key Stage 2 pupils take externally set and marked tests in the same subjects. The tests result in a scaled score, which produces a precise number for each test. The government’s ‘floor target’ is that 85 per cent of all children should achieve the expected level of 100.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

GCSE and A Level reform

From September 2015, schools in England began teaching new, revised GCSE and A Level programmes. Students sat the first set of examinations under the new system in summer 2017. Assessment for the new-style GCSEs has moved away from coursework assessment and is mostly by exam. A new grading scale of 9–1 has now been implemented, with 9 being the highest grade. This permits greater differentiation, particularly at the top, where the new grade 9 is higher than an A*. English language, English literature and maths were the first of the new GCSE subjects to be taught in schools in England with results using the new grading scale being issued in summer 2017. Further subjects were gradually introduced and from summer 2019, all subjects will be taught under the new system. Exam resits will only be available in November, and only in English language and maths.New AS and A Levels have also been taught in schools in England since September 2015. The first results for the new AS Levels were announced in 2016, and those for the new A Levels in 2017. As with the GCSEs, the main changes are that assessment is now mainly by exam. AS and A Levels have been ‘decoupled’, meaning that AS results will no longer count towards an A Level in the way they do now.Although no longer Prime Minister, Theresa May’s comments in her speech on education reform are still relevant, “We are facing a moment of great change as a nation. As we leave the European Union, we must define an ambitious new role for ourselves in the world. That involves asking ourselves what kind of country we want to be: a confident, global trading nation that continues to play its full part on the world stage.”It is clear that the government is placing a strong emphasis on education as part of its vision for a post-Brexit UK, with plans to offer a range of education provision that, in the words of Mrs May, “caters to the individual needs and abilities of every pupil”. For globally mobile families seeking school places, the continued assistance of leading British independent schools and the promise of an increase of quality school provision can only be a good thing.This article was refreshed on 25 July 2019.

The Guide to Education & Schools in the UK is designed to help relocating parents make informed education choices.
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