Education, Secondary

Education, Secondary


Education, Secondary, programme of public education immediately following primary schooling. It generally begins between the ages of 11 and 14 and continues for four to seven years. Secondary schooling involves academic study and, for some, an element of vocational education. Some countries, including England and Wales, follow a national curriculum that sets out the basic programme of study in a number of compulsory subjects.


Today’s UK secondary education system was shaped by the 1944 Education Act, which established a system of full-time, state-funded education for all. Schools owned by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches were brought together with schools run by local authorities to form a single national structure.

The 1960s and early 1970s saw the next decisive change with the introduction of comprehensive schools in most areas of England, Wales, and Scotland. The distinction between grammar schools, which selected the most able students through the 11-plus exam, and secondary modern schools was abolished. Comprehensive schools, in contrast, take pupils of all abilities, mostly from surrounding neighbourhoods. In the state sector, 90 per cent of pupils are taught in comprehensives.


Most public education in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Commonwealth countries is organized into two phases: primary and secondary. In England the secondary programme generally begins at the age of 11 and continues up to the statutory school-leaving age of 16 or later. The main exception to this rule is the small group of schools that follows a tripartite system, under which pupils transfer from middle schools to upper schools at the ages of 12, 13, or 14. Secondary schooling in the smaller private education system (see Independent Schools, United Kingdom) tends to start at the age of 11, although, again, not exclusively.

Many secondary schools also cater for post-compulsory education. Students aged between 16 and 19 belong to the sixth form where they can take advanced qualifications, vocational or academic. School sixth forms are loosely held to be part of secondary education, but for official purposes, including government administration and funding, they are categorized as part of the tertiary education sector, along with sixth form colleges and further education colleges.



Although there are broad similarities in the global understanding of secondary education, the detailed practice varies greatly between nations, and often within nations. In the United States for example, there is no education ministry for the whole country. Instead schools are governed by their individual states. The same is true of Canada. Many countries start secondary education later than in Britain. Thirteen is normal in the United States. In Ghana, “junior” secondary schools offer a basic education for pupils aged 12 to 15.

The secondary systems in Commonwealth countries offer a broad education leading to public examinations. They often have their roots in the UK, but many important differences have also developed. The Australian secondary school system varies from one region to another. Students start between the ages of 11 and 13, and compulsory education runs until the ages of 15 or 16. While most pupils attend schools run from public funds through the country’s system of State and Territory government, a large minority (around 30 per cent) are educated in private schools, often established and controlled by the Roman Catholic Church. These charge fees but also receive federal funds.

In some other Commonwealth countries, pupils start formal secondary education at a slightly older age, having first attended the sort of intermediate or “junior high” institution popular in the United States. New Zealand secondary schools generally have pupils from 13 to 18 years of age, for example. Most of these schools are government-run and are known as secondary schools, high schools, colleges, or area schools. Although most teach in English, a small number of schools teach in the Maori language.

India has the second largest education system in the world. There were 51 million registered secondary students in 1998–1999 in India. Students start secondary school at the age of 14 in theory, although in practice many pupils fail to attend—viewed as a serious national problem. The system is varied, with state-owned and private schools both common. The private establishments are often run by church and missionary societies. Some of them enjoy government grants.

In South Africa the main challenge is to integrate what, before the abolition of apartheid in 1994, was a system fragmented on racial lines, with 17 different administrative structures. Secondary schools cater for pupils aged 14 to 18, although education is only compulsory up to the age of 15.


The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church still own a significant proportion of schools, both secondary and primary, in England. Almost all the running costs are met by the state, and church schools have freedom over the teaching of religious education. But they must teach the national curriculum for other subjects. There are also state-run schools catering for Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim students. See also Religious Schools.


There are several areas in England, including Kent, Berkshire, and the Wirral in Cheshire, where the old academically selective system of grammar schools and secondary moderns remains in place. Northern Ireland had always resisted the introduction of comprehensives until now, but its selection system (where children must meet certain criteria in order to be admitted to a grammar school) is to be abolished by 2008.


Secondary education in England and Wales follows the statutory national curriculum up to the age of 16. This covers lessons in ten subjects: English, mathematics, science, modern languages, history, geography, music, art, physical education, and information technology. Religious education is also compulsory, but the programme of study is locally, rather than nationally, determined. There is also an obligatory act of daily collective worship, although interpretations of this vary. There is no statutory national curriculum in Scotland but the Scottish Executive Education Department sets out guidelines for teachers. The curriculum in Northern Ireland is devised by the Northern Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment.


The secondary curriculum in England and Wales comes in two parts. Key Stage 3 occupying students during the three years up to the age of 14 (year nine) and Key Stage 4 covering the final two years of study. At the end of Key Stage 3, students sit national tests in English, maths, and science.

At the age of 16, the end of Key Stage 4, formal assessment is dominated by the GCSE in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and in some Commonwealth countries. In England the GCSE results are published annually in a form described as “performance tables” and the results are used to judge the performance of both individual schools and the system as a whole. The equivalent in Scotland is the Standard Grade exam but performance tables, sometimes called “league tables” have been abolished there. Tables have also been withdrawn by the authorities in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Examinations taken by 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds include the AS and A level, the International Baccalaureate in a small but growing minority of schools, and the Higher and Advanced Higher in Scotland. Performance at this level is often used to determine university entrance. A levels are an internationally recognized qualification and many English-speaking students from overseas sit the examinations.

There is, at the same time, a gathering emphasis on vocational education in British secondary schools. The GNVQ, an examination that combines theoretical and practical knowledge, is gaining ground with the older age group.

Public examinations for 17- to 19-year-olds in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland underwent fundamental changes in September 2000. The traditional A-level examinations became a two-stage course. The Advanced Subsidiary (AS) level course was devoted to a wider range of subjects (normally five) and was completed by an external examination at the end of one year. Students can combine AS levels with GNVQs or can transfer to GNVQs or other courses rather than continuing with three A level units (known as the A2) in the second year.


Further radical change now seems likely in England. A government inquiry is examining ways of re-fashioning the school curriculum for students aged 14 to 19, in response to widely held concerns. Prominent among them is criticism that students may be taking too many externally assessed exams; that the proliferation of qualifications has made them harder for the outside world to understand; that the range of subjects studied remains too narrow; and that the secondary curriculum is still said to be unfairly weighted towards the more academic students, with too little on offer for the rest. A simpler qualifications structure culminating in a school-leaving certificate, possibly described as a “baccalaureate”, seems likely, and may replace GCCEs and A levels altogether.


Although most of the national education budget in the United Kingdom is provided by central or devolved government, the administration is handled by the local government system of county and metropolitan councils and their Local Education Authorities (LEAs). In Northern Ireland education is handled by five regional Education and Library Boards (ELBs).


In England, the Labour government elected in May 1997 sought to increase the number of schools that develop strengths in certain areas of education through the Specialist Schools Programme. These specialisms include technology, sports, languages, the arts, business and enterprise, engineering, science, mathematics and computing, music, and the humanities (based around history, geography, or English). More than half the secondary schools in England now have specialist status.

Ministers have also devised a new category of school, the Academy, established to help raise the status of education in inner-city locations. Only a handful are open as yet. They receive their funding directly from Whitehall, rather than through local government mechanisms, and have a high degree of autonomy. City Academies are unusual in enjoying substantial sponsorship from a business or another successful institution from the world outside education. Current sponsors include successful private schools and the Church of England.

Reviewed By:
Nicholas Pyke