The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

The British education system needs fundamental change

The reintroduction of grammar schools is another step in the wrong direction. Britain needs to update its education system to truly suit the needs of students and teachers


Perhaps Britain’s Dickensian education system may have worked in a time when children were seen as vermin, and ‘learning disabilities’ were probably seen as the work of the devil, but the success of Finland’s education system should make us strongly consider that it is Britain’s turn to adapt to the times.

First of all, and possibly most importantly, education in Great Britain is vastly elitist and discriminatory. With a system that is entirely state-funded, such as Finland’s, you eradicate the system of private and state schools. Presently, this can be both divisive and restrictive, and adds to the social inequalities that this country suffers from. Those lucky enough to have been educated in a private school are put at a substantial advantage over other young people who are usually less fortunate, and may be just as, if not more, capable.

The UK’s education system is characterised by standardised exams and a fiercely competitive nature. Each year, GCSE and A-level students complete their exams, and each year they are rewarded harder exams and higher grade boundaries—not to mention £40,000-plus worth of debt awaiting them in the not-so-distant future should they choose to attend university. God help you if you have learning difficulties, because 25 per cent extra time might help with the exam itself, but it does not make up for the years of lost information in class, and snide comments from tired, scathing teachers.

One in ten young people aged between five and 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder, and many thousands of children and young people suffer from severe depression. Depression in young people, particularly teenagers, is a serious problem here in the United Kingdom, with many young people attributing their struggles to a sense of inadequacy.

By no means is the education system entirely to blame for this—a significant part of the problem is hormonal. However, why is it that school becomes considerably more intense and difficult for students during adolescence, at a time in which young people are experiencing a hormonal rollercoaster?

Furthermore, it is shocking that children as young as five are prone to severe depression, and it is not particularly outrageous to suggest that perhaps children are in need of a few more years playing in the sandpits and on the monkey bars, enjoying their fleeting childhood. In the Finnish education system, by contrast, children do not begin school until they are seven years old, and are not formally examined in a standardised test until they are aged 16.

Children are also given longer breaks during the day, and are hardly ever given homework. The concept of homework is a strange one. I’m sure every British young person has been in the situation in which the teacher has no valid homework to assign, so instead instructs the children to do some ‘extra reading’, or sends them on their way with a fruitless colouring sheet.

How strange a notion, that teachers are so restricted and controlled in their own field or work that they feel compelled to assign extra work that is of no obvious benefit to the child’s learning, instead of simply giving them the night off. This indicates another one of the main issues with our education system: How teachers become teachers, and how they are allowed, or not allowed, to teach.

We have all been taught by that English teacher who wanted to work for the BBC, that Drama teacher who wanted to be the next Marlon Brando, or that Maths teacher who peaked as the school bully, and simply returns to education to continue doing what they are good at.

To make matters worse, teachers are forced to stick to a tight, repetitive curriculum. Even the most fresh-faced, passionate teachers, who adore their subject and are determined to introduce the next generation to it, will wither in their ambitions under their harsh, repetitive timetable of marking the same essay questions they have been marking for years. On top of this, the country’s lack of respect for the arts filters through to the education system, and many humanities teachers will be forced to teach subjects they are not qualified in. This system is reasonable neither for the children, nor the teachers.

In Finland, teachers are chosen from the top ten per cent of graduates, and are encouraged to experiment in the way in which they teach. The curriculum is a flexible guideline, helping to keep teachers engaged and in love with their ‘topics’—as they are called. This system works, too. Almost every high school student graduates, and a significant proportion of them attend university.

It is probably not realistic to exactly replicate the Finnish education system here in the United Kingdom. We are separate countries with different values and cultures. However, I do not believe it to be preposterous to say that the main problems with the British education system could be resolved by introducing elements of Finland’s system. Right now, Theresa May’s bid to bring back grammar schools is a perfect metaphor for the education system as a whole: Outdated, backward-thinking, and soon-to-be obsolete.

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  • Anon

    How do you explain the fact that prior to the closure of grammar schools (Thatcher onwards) that most grammar school children (some 60%) were from working class families?

    Furthermore, do you not see how state schools are far more wealth-selective than grammars? If you can afford live in a wealthy area, chances are the schools will be better, while lesser-off families are stuck in lower income areas with worse schools.

    And if grammars are so ‘obsolete’, why do grammar pupils outperform state pupils quite regularly? Surely that’s a sign state schools are in need of reform, not grammars.

    Also the idea that grammar schools are full of ‘elite’ people is tripe. I attended a grammar school from 2007-2015 and my family have relied on state benefits up until the last year. The 11+ is an easy test that can easily be learnt online for free – the ‘only middle-class people can attend grammars because they rely on private tutors’ is widely a myth.

    • helots

      I do not know where you get this figure from about working class children in grammar schools. There are more middle class children in grammar schools than working class children. I have worked in both secondary modern and grammar schools. And state schools are not wealth selective, the local population determines the ‘wealth’ of the catchment area by moving into catchments because they can afford to choose where they live. Grammar schools are mostly attended by middle class children who were mostly crammed for the 11+ and coached from age dot. I have lived alongside this system for 20 years and witnessed the fierce competition for grammar school places, leaving the less confident and less educated families who often lack self belief, standing on the sidelines and accepting their place in this ‘divided society’ as the previous article suggests. I was educated in a grammar school but would not see the system reinstated for all the money in the world because they are socially divisive and simply do not provide equal opportunities for our young population. Note that the only people clammering for grammar schools are people who were educated at private or grammar schools and who can afford to put their children through intensive tutoring programmes, it saves them one hell of a bill for school fees too.