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David O. Mckay Lectures

British Schools: An American's Impression

A sabbatical in Great Britain furnished Ross R. Allen with abundant raw material from which to weave the third McKay lecture in 1965. The first lecturer not a member of the original faculty of Church College of Hawaii, Allen joined the College's faculty in 1957, two years after it opened, as Registrar. Five years later in 1962, he completed his Ed.D. at the University of Utah, where he had previously taken both his B.A. and M.A. degrees in 1952 and 1955. The next academic year, 1963-1964, found him teaching in and extensively observing the educational system in England. While Chairman of the Department of Secondary Education at Church College, Allen also served on the Hawaii School Advisory Council and the board of directors of Kiwanis International. His Church callings included bishop and temple worker. Allen and his wife Maurine are the parents of Raquel, Connie, Kim, Ross, Trent, Kam, and Heather.


I would neither be surprised nor dismayed to learn that you were approaching this lecture with as much apprehension as I. Your whole life at this time revolves around schools, and you don't need another hour talking about schools to remind you of this fact.

Though many of you are products of American schools or products of schools from your particular countries, could you state the goals of your country as they are reflected in the schools? Few can sit down and verbalize their country's educational goals unless sometime in the past they were forced to do so, or had for some personal reason given a great deal of thought and study to the matter.

Then as a point of departure for studying British schools, let me quote for you two opposing Americans' attitudes on the value of education in this country.

The late President John F. Kennedy [after] his inaugural address said to the people of America:

No task before our nation is more important than expanding and improving the educational opportunities of all our people. . . . For education is both the foundation and the unifying force of our democratic way of life--it is the mainspring of our economic and social progress--it is the highest expression of achievement in our society, ennobling and enriching human life. In short, it is at the same time the most profitable investment society can make and the richest reward it can offer. [Italics added] (qtd. in O'Hara 133)

Among Americans who seriously question the value and success of our school system and speak in much less glowing terms about it is Admiral Rickover, the "father of the nuclear submarine," and one of American education's foremost critics. He wrote in a book entitled American Education--A National Failure: The Problem of Our Schools and What We Can Learn from England (1963):

[American education's] scholastic achievements are mediocre. Its pace is so slow that our children fall behind young Europeans almost from their first day at school. It does not produce the educated people we must have. . . . (112) They teach simpler things that are easy to teach, easy to learn, and more fun besides--how to be lovable, likeable and datable, how to be a good consumer, etc. . . . (123) The educators claim [wonderful things about American schools]. These are glaring misstatements based on a gamut of illusions about our schools that have been so assiduously promoted . . . for such a long time that many Americans have come to believe them implicitly. (124)

With American's own conflicting opinions of our schools in my mind, and by having had contact with modified British systems by studying the South Pacific schools, I set out on my sabbatical leave to find a more satisfactory basis for forming conclusions of my own. My thought was that the only way really to understand a school system was to become a part of it for a time.

Admittedly, I approached this search with a certain amount of "built-in" prejudice. In my mind, American schools were to British schools as the teenager is to the parent--containing a certain amount of suppressed respect, but regarding the parent as outdated and old-fashioned. I left England still feeling that the offspring is indeed living in a different era with many different problems, but that the parent is on the threshold of a second childhood about to blossom forth with resurrected vigor.

Education in Britain is under a barrage of criticism from the English as American education is from the Americans, but for almost diametrically opposed reasons. Before we can explore these reasons, it is necessary for us to have a common ground of understanding as to what the British school system is. So I will attempt to give a brief description of British education so that we may achieve this common ground.

Description of the British Schools

Though in a sense there is no real "British System" of education as there is no "American System" because of considerable local variations, there are a great number of distinctive patterns from which generalizations may be drawn.

School, not kindergarten, begins at age five and goes for two years in an "infants' school" followed by four years in a "junior school." These two, often housed together, comprise the "primary" (or what we call "elementary") schooling. In the sixth year of primary schooling, a major examination known as the eleven-plus (because of the age of those taking it) is administered. The type of secondary schooling a young person is allowed to receive is dependent upon his score on this examination. An average of 20% of the country's overall population pass it and are thus admitted into the "grammar schools" which are the traditional college preparatory schools. An item to note is that the number admitted into grammar schools depends upon the number of openings available in the particular area. So a person who fails the exam in one part of the country might well have passed it, with the same score, in an area more replete with grammar schools or where the overall scores were lower.

On the next level, some countries have technical schools which take a small percentage just below grammar school acceptance. The bulk of the young people, however, attend what are know as secondary modern schools. These schools are a creation of the Education Act of 1944 which exploded in Britain about the time America was considering the frightening decision of using the Atomic bomb to hasten the end of World War II, and which generated heat and shock waves which might be compared with a bomb explosion, the repercussions of which are still being felt and argued in England. It was this Act which finally made secondary education for all in England a reality.

These three distinct types of secondary schools, then, the grammar schools, the technical schools, and the secondary modern schools, comprise the secondary level of state education. There are of course, in addition, the expensive, exclusive, private, prestige schools like Eton and Harrow. In secondary modern schools the "school leaving age" (the age to which there is compulsory attendance) is 15 but in 1970 is to be changed to 16. Most grammar school pupils now attend to age 16, but some stay on two or three years for certain examinations.

Higher education is entered on the basis of achievement in further examinations called the "General Certificate of Education" (GCE). They are almost exclusively available only to those in grammar schools. In England about 8% of the persons that age receive higher education of some type contrasted with almost 50% in the United States. Obviously, standards for admission and purposes for higher education are much more exacting there than here.

On the primary level, boys and girls now often attend the same school, but a large majority of the secondary age pupils still attend sexually segregated schools.

Guidance is rarely considered a part of the function of the schools so counselors are not found. In the classroom, the atmosphere is considerably more austere than in America, and discipline is stern--at times harsh. It is not uncommon to see a schoolmaster in the classroom wearing his academic robes. This not only helps maintain the gulf between him and his pupils, but helps keep him warm. Usually as he enters, the class members all arise from their chairs and stand until told that they may be seated.

In certain phases of the school program, there is a considerable amount of local autonomy. Headmasters have authority in hiring and firing of staff members and in determining the exact curriculum of their schools. School districts raise much of their school money through local taxes. This results in considerable difference in spending for schools in different districts. The Ministry of Education in London, though, maintains broad controls over the districts. Some of their controls are in certification of teachers, establishment of country-wide salary schedules, inspection of teachers in the classroom, and composing and correcting of national examinations.

Another distinctive characteristic of the British Schools is strict homogeneous grouping by ability within schools (called "streaming") from the earliest years of schooling. Mobility between streams is very limited.

Considering school buildings and facilities, a recent government report stated that 71% of the primary schools were built before the first World War--1914; 80% of them have no libraries; 60% have no dining room (cafeteria); 50% have no playing field; 43% have the lavatories in separate outside buildings; and 17% have no hot water. Most of the classes in primary schools have well over thirty pupils ("Teachers'" 17). There is a shortage of about 100,000 qualified teachers and only half enough are being trained. It is fairly common to have in school teachers who have completed grammar school and are awaiting appointment to a training college or university. These 18-year-olds may teach a year or more as regular teachers.

Before many judgments are drawn regarding these standards for buildings and facilities it must be remembered that resources, manpower, and finances were taxed to the limit in England during the Second World War and only through the resilience and determination of the people is there a country remaining. A great deal of emphasis is now being given to educational problems since the country is beginning to regain a limited economic footing. Secondary education for all, expensive in any country, has been a reality since World War II.

This, then, is in brief a description of the British system of education. I will now present my reactions to certain phases of the system, especially the emphasis upon examinations, the small percentage in higher education, the stern disciplinary measures, the tri-partite system of secondary education, and the ability "streaming."

The Interpretation of the Schools

The perennial combination of limited resources and rigorous climate of England had always been reflected in a resourcefulness and frugality of the people. Education is one of the commodities which has never been taken for granted.

This British attitude of educating the élite was transplanted to most overseas colonies and is still strong in many areas of the world. A reflection of it is even manifest right here in Hawaii where many people send their children to public elementary and secondary schools only if the children cannot qualify or the parents cannot afford private schooling. In many South Pacific areas where financial resources are limited and school systems have their antecedents in England, education, particularly beyond the elementary level, is a privilege not many can even hope for.

In England since 1944 the amount of money spent per pupil in a grammar school in some areas reaches three times that spent for a pupil in the secondary modern school of the same area. This money differential is manifest in more and better facilities, smaller classes, and generally better qualified teachers in grammar schools.

Though there is a persistent struggle to make schooling more "democratic," or perhaps more "socialistic," people are bound by the system they must live with. According to the London Times Magazine Section:

One of the most agonizing sights this life can afford is an English middle-class intellectual deciding where to send his son to school. Only England could offer the preposterous spectacle of radical parents fighting to get their children into schools they are working hard to overthrow1.

An example of this concern is the new Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, elected from the Labour Party in October. The education plank of the Labour Party was as follows: (1) to abolish eleven-plus examinations, (2) to make secondary schools "comprehensive," (3) to raise the school leaving age to 16, (4) to reduce class size to 30, (5) to integrate private schools into the State system, (6) to inaugurate a new salary structure for teachers, and (7) to expand higher education. In short, the Labour Party proposed to change almost every aspect of British education that was distinctively British. What is more, they were elected--but by so small a majority that their revolutionary proposals will not promote revolutionary changes.

At any rate, Prime Minister Wilson, the first English Prime Minister to be a product of a grammar school education rather than an exclusive private school, nevertheless sent his own sons to private schools.

Though change is slow in a country with such deeply ingrained tradition, it is coming in England. The "divine right of Kings" apparently no longer applies in relation to schools because expressed concerns and criticisms are common. School policies and practices long regarded as sacrosanct outside the Ministry are being openly derided.

Government Reports

Attesting to the general feeling of unrest apparent in English schools is the publication of two major government-sponsored reports which both appeared last year. The "Newsom Report," giving future direction to secondary education, laid major stress on developing curriculum for average and below-average pupils--at least for those other than the top 20% (Ministry xvi).

The other publication—the "Robbins Report"—was concerned with higher education, and, in the face of criticism over the lowering of standards, nevertheless recommended that higher education should be appreciably extended to greater numbers (Committee 277). It also recommended among other things, that at the completion of the course in Teacher Training Colleges requiring four years including professional education work, a student be awarded a degree instead of a diploma with equivalent status to a degree from a university (Committee 279).

As suggested by the recent Air Force Academy scandal, in America we often place too much emphasis on grades received and not enough on what is learned. 2 In England, tough grades per se are very insignificant, achievement on one or two major examinations is the ultimate measure of success, and often extreme measures are taken to get through the ordeal of an examination. In Oxford University, for one example, students go eight successive terms before taking any examinations. Attempts to inaugurate annual examinations there have thus far been unsuccessful. Of course the number and caliber of students accepted there are both highly restrictive and the faculty-student ratio is kept at [one] to [eight]. Nevertheless, an almost arbitrary one out of seven flunks out of universities. It seems almost traditional for the student body president at Cambridge to fail his examinations, so this is not a position especially sought after.


Concerning the eleven-plus examinations, statements like the following are commonly found in newspapers. Under the heading of "Nightmare Test" in the Guardian was the following item:

When the news came that the eleven-plus was to be abolished, or at any rate greatly modified in London, Manchester, and other areas, a great sigh of relief went up in hundreds of British households.3

That quote expresses the feelings of parents, but what about the teachers, particularly those in primary schools who are preparing pupils for the eleven-plus? In the Summer issue of the news report of the National Union of Teachers, we find the teachers' point of view:

In some conditions, the teacher feels the almost unbearable responsibility of having to determine the entire future career prospects of the child in his trust by the decision he makes in respect to the kind of pre-test preparation he gives his pupils.4

Test "modifications" are usually minor, sometimes involving only a change in name to avoid the stigma.

One attempted modification in this exam was used in a district in which I taught. All teachers who had the top streams in our modern school were asked to submit the names of 12-year-olds who might be considered for possible transfer to a grammar school a year late. These are the ones who missed getting into grammar school originally by a few points on the eleven-plus. I submitted the names of those I considered my two best boys and two best girls, and when the teachers met to discuss the names I submitted, I found I was the only teacher who had submitted any names at all. The teachers, all grammar school products themselves, seemed to consider that there was a big gap and distinct difference between those who got into grammar school and those who barely missed

getting there. I sensed a feeling among several teachers that it was an imposition to ask them to meet for such a senseless purpose.

"Comprehensive" High Schools

Because of distrust of the eleven-plus, and because of the lack of success in finding a suitable substitute, a major change has been proposed and is being attempted in some areas to a limited extent. That is to do away with separate types of secondary schools and so eliminate the need for a selective examination. Secondary schools would then be housed in one building in a "comprehensive" high school more like the American high schools.

The underlying assumption of the Education Act of 1944 was that by skimming off the "top 20%" of eleven-year-olds all who would ever desire or who could benefit from higher education would be included. Recently, though, pupils in the so-called non-academic and practical modern schools have been passing the GCE examinations in greater numbers and so the pressure on headmasters of these schools is to change the emphasis from practical to college preparatory curriculums. Thus the whole purpose of having secondary modern schools was being defeated.

To cope with this dilemma, since it will be generations before comprehensive schools become widespread, there is a move throughout the country at the present time to give a modern school student more status, so that he won't take the GCE examination to gain status. At the present time a pupil who completes secondary modern school leaves with nothing to show for it--no diploma, no transcript of credits, just his school muffler and tie. In order for this student to have some verification that he has accomplished something in those four years, he is soon to be given a certificate of his completion of a course of study. How will this be determined? A new examination is now being devised.

G.C.E. Exam

There seems to be no getting away from the concept that all progress must be measured by a formal examination. The GCE examination which controls higher education admittance is being criticized just as harshly as the eleven-plus. I concluded that teaching for exams, so widespread, suppressed any attempt at creative, experimental teaching. Mine was not an isolated opinion, either. An official report of the "Secondary Schools Examination Council" of the Ministry of Education said,

'O' Level GCE has become a burden and a misfortune; it encourages bad and lazy teaching and is the major cause of boredom in the classroom. It is the greatest single obstacle in the way of curriculum reform.5

Last June 24, the editor of the Guardian stated this opinion in much stronger terms.

At this time of year thousands of 16-year-olds are undergoing ordeal by examination. Parents, employers, schools, and even the victims themselves are united in thinking that GCE 'O' Level is of earthshaking importance. The initiation ceremonies of primitive tribes have indeed evolved into something rich and strange. What is the purpose of this mass slaughter of the innocents. . . . It cries out to heaven that the complete work of many schools is almost completely dominated by 'O' Level syllabuses and preparation for them: here examination replaces education. The schools teach what they know will be examined, the assumption being that those who lay down examination syllabuses are the final repositories of educational wisdom. . . . A 'good' teacher will predigest the required information and reproduce it in easily assimilated capsules: all the pupil has to do is regurgitate these in the appropriate place on the examination paper.6

These statements reminded me of a New Zealand educator working in Tonga who stated to me, "Our exam rooms in New Zealand are like a Nazi Concentration Camp."

Even a school inspector, one of a group of the strongest

traditionalists, speaking to a gathering of teachers, stated: "We all know how often we turn away from valuable discussions of important topics that the pupils are clambering for because we must get through a syllabus imposed from without."


Moving from examinations to the realms of discipline, I concluded after working with several groups, that young people are much the same everywhere. Likes and dislikes are similar, they respond in the same ways to various approaches and methods. But in the classroom when given some freedom of choice and opportunity to express themselves for the first time they have difficulty in adjusting to it. It is at first considered license for misbehavior, but after an adjustment period, their response is gratifying.

Disciplinary measures are also being vociferously argued at the present time. The cane has not disappeared from English schools, nor has the "tawse" (a three-tailed leather strap) disappeared from Scottish schools. They are not for display or for museum pieces, either, but are used frequently. A note from my headmaster one day about a 12-year-old pupil of mine read in part, "I have caned Barber for slack work. . . . I will repeat the dose every week until his work is done well in all subjects." Barber, by the way, had been abandoned by his parents two years earlier and was being raised in a foundling home.

Many reputable sources are lamenting the relaxation of disciplinary standards. In the London Times Educational Supplement last January, the feature editorial stated:

If we err we err on the side of leniency. Many of those progressive ideas about punishment could be very amusing if they were not so pernicious in their implication. They are the foundation stones of crime and delinquency. It is the presence of this comparatively small but well-disseminated and very voluble body of opinion that enables a criminal minority to be a continuing and increasing menace to the remainder of society.7

In a morning devotional assembly, one day my deputy headmistress made a comment which I consider a classic statement of British disciplinary logic. She said, "If some of you boys persist in behaving like uncivilized savages and fighting in the schoolyard, you will be caned."

Some teachers take an opposite point of view in this matter, however, as exemplified by a headmaster who wrote a letter to the editor of the Times Educational Supplement:

When I was much younger, I taught in a school where the cane lay across the desk of every master, and the cane was used in every lesson. But--this is the point--not only was the discipline bad, most of the masters could not even keep decent order in their classrooms.8

Discipline emanates from the top of the system, however, and teachers themselves are subjected to stern control by the headmaster and both are controlled by Her Majesty's Inspectors. The American concept of cooperative supervision for improved instruction (not always realized here, to be sure) has not been considered in England. The Inspector's infallibility, long quietly muttered about, is openly challenged nowadays. In last February's issue of the Secondary School Forum, I was interested by this comment:

The inspector has an aura of the stranger from strange parts. He comes verily from on high. . . . [S]ome inspectors take advantage of this relationship. They come trailing their aura about them as if it were a special kind of academic gown. They never seem to lose the awareness of their own specialness and they expect everyone to have the same awe for it as they have themselves.9

In the whole area of respect for others which is openly displayed in England's schools, pupils for teachers, teachers for headmasters, and both for inspectors--I felt that it was more out of fear than of esteem. From former East London teachers I even learned of incidents which compared, shall I say, admirably, with our "blackboard jungle" image of some American schools.


The well-established policy of streaming is one of the few areas which I felt grave personal concern for, and about which I did note some discontent, but not nearly as much controversy as in other areas. I personally felt that the streaming was begun too early to be accurate and was too rigid to facilitate later adjustment. Pupils become strictly labeled in their early years of schooling.

An interesting study was reported last year in a Paris UNESCO publication, International Review of Education, which compared results on achievement examinations of 13-year-olds from twelve countries (Postlethwaite 356-369). In America we often hear the complaint that we educate for mediocrity and overlook those at the extremes, particularly those at the top. The results on this comparative examination proved that just the opposite was true of England. Of all countries tested, England's results showed the widest range for scores. This phenomenon was attributed, rightly so I believe, to their system of streaming. Whereas those at the top did very well since much was expected of them, those at the bottom were expected to do poorly and did to an even greater extent. Apparently streaming, with its labeling connotations, tends to exaggerate differences in ability.


To summarize my impressions, I believe that it would be unfortunate if any country attempted to adopt a school system from another because with different goals there must needs be different methods. All countries have strengths in their systems of education. It is propositional that all systems have weaknesses, too. If studying another educational system doesn't give us a more profound understanding and appreciation of our own, it must certainly give us some ideas as to how to improve upon it. I have acquired a respect for the English desire to improve their schools, but even more, an appreciation of many aspects of American schools I previously took for granted. Criticism of schools, a new innovation in England, often leads to improvements and is healthy. No one should want to perpetuate practices which cannot hold up under criticism.

I think that we must ultimately conclude that whatever our educational goals, the basis for evaluation must be in terms of effects on individual pupils. This may well be in terms of what we want to happen, but still our concern should be what the school is doing to and for those it serves.

My greatest apprehension about British schools comes back to a scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants which I thought of many times while there: "Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God" (18: 10).

I could sense too little interest in and concern for individuals. Two incidents which help to illustrate this feeling are as follows:

In one school a senior master while conducting the morning assembly of only boys stated that the notices which had been posted to return all library books by a certain date had gone unheeded. It seems that out of about 400 boys, six still had their library books and thus all were being chastised. Among other things they were told, "You all think that you are so clever, well let me tell you this--you are nothing." I believe he meant it, as did another teacher giving a farewell talk in a special assembly before his retirement. He began his talk like this, "Mr. Chairman, Mr. Watkins, fellow staff members, and, last but not least, pupils." Then he added, without a trace of humor, "I say you pupils are not least because without you, these people on the stand would be unemployed." Therein is the worth of pupils.

One final generalization appeared inescapable as I involved myself in British education. It is that many powerful factions in America are proposing changes (some of which are being adopted) which would, in effect, make our system more like the British one. Meanwhile, almost all the agitation for change in England is moving their schools toward a more American-type system of education.

It is traditional in America for the people to have the prominent voice in shaping the policies of their schools. This will be your lot.

This is a unique privilege and not to be taken lightly. Make no excuses for your schools--study them, criticize them, make recommendations for change, but do not sell them short.

And do not promote change just because England (or any other country) has something different.


1Ed. Note. Since Allen provides no date for this passage from the London Times, locating it has proven impossible. Back to Top

2Ed. Note. Major news magazines began reporting the Air Force Academy cheating scandal in late January and early February 1965. The first story appeared in Time, "Code of Honor: Air Force Cadets accused of Stealing Examination Papers," on 29 January, while "Fall from Honor: Exam Cheating Scandal at Air Force Academy" followed in Newsweek on 1 February. These and subsequent articles in both magazines, as well as in Life chronicled the systematic thievery of examinations by cadets. Back to Top

3Ed. Note. Unfortunately, the Manchester Guardian is not indexed, thereby preventing a ready location of an article for which only the title is known. Back to Top

4Ed. Note: The National Union of Teachers apparently sponsored a newsletter issued periodically. What its title was is not known at this point. The Union did issue a report of some sort to the Central Advisory Council for Education on 5 June 1964; this, however, does not seem to be the "report" in question. Back to Top

5Ed. Note: Bill Wilcocks of the Document Supply Center of the British Library noted that he would "find no trace of this report," official or not (Wilcocks to Jesse S. Crisler, FAX, 8 January 1993); Allen could perhaps be alluding to a report by the Secondary.

School Examination Council for the Department of Education, dated 14 April 1964, but Wilcocks, as noted above, was unable to locate this document. Back to Top

6Ed. Note. Few libraries in the United States include the Guardian in their collections, and none were willing to lend their microform holdings through Interlibrary Loan. Back to Top

7Ed. Note. No editorial in any of the weekly issues of the London Times Educational Supplement for January, 1964, contained this quotation. Allen possibly refers here to an editorial which appeared in one of the daily issues of the Times during January. Back to Top

8Ed. Note. That the London Times issues its Educational Supplement only weekly narrows the parameters of a search for the particular letter which Allen quotes here, but tracking it down without more information would mean reading every week's issue for over a year, the entire duration of Allen's English sabbatical. Back to Top

9Ed. Note: Bill Wilcocks of the British Library reports, "I can find no trace of a journal with this [i.e., Secondary School Forum] title" (Wilcocks to Crisler, FAX, 8 January 1993). Back to Top

Works Cited

"Code of Honor: Air Force Cadets Accused of Stealing Examination Papers." Time 29 January 1965: 20.

Committee on Higher Education. Higher Education: Report of the Committee Appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins, 1961-63. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1963.

"Fall from Honor: Exam Cheating Scandal at Air Force Academy." Newsweek 1 February 1965: 46.

Ministry of Education. Half our Future: A Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England). London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1963.

O'Hara, William T., ed. John F. Kennedy on Education. New York: Columbia U Teachers College P, 1966.

Postlethwaite, Neville. "International Project for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (I. E. A.)." International Review of Education 12.3 (1966): 356-369.

Rickover, H. G. American Education--A National Failure: The Problem of Our Schools and What We Can Learn from England. New York: Dutton, 1963.

"Teachers' View on Selection." London Times 5 June 1964: 17.