School systems across the UK

By Dr Linda Croxford

Centre for Educational Sociology

University of Edinburgh

May 2011

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School children in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland experience schooling that is framed by broadly-similar UK-wide laws, standards and expectations, but increasingly different as political devolution since 1999 allows each country to develop its own priorities.

The nature and extent of devolution differs across the UK, creating an anomalous position for England. Responsibility for the school system in England lies with the Secretary of State for Education within the UK Parliament, and is administered by the Department for Education (DfE) of the UK government. Since 1999 responsibility for education in Scotland and Northern Ireland has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and (subject to periods of suspension) the Northern Ireland Assembly. The National Assembly for Wales has had powers to make secondary legislation since 1999.

Key points

Education policy for England is made by the UK government, and is undergoing change following the change of government in May 2010. Education is one of the policy areas devolved to governments in Northern Ireland and Scotland since 1999. Wales was devolved limited powers at that time, with further changes since.

Commitment to community-based comprehensive schools is strongest in Wales and Scotland but varies in England. The school system in Northern Ireland continues to be dominated by academic selection at age 11.

The focus on quasi-markets, school specialisation and league tables has been greater in England than elsewhere in the UK.

Each of the four systems has its own “national” curriculum, assessment and qualifications, but these are currently in the process of review, development and change.

The accountability framework in England has been more focused on testing, performance measurement and high-profile inspection than elsewhere. School self-evaluation has been a major focus of accountability in Scotland, and inspection systems in the other countries are also beginning to adopt this model.

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