UK’s education system

This is a slightly different post from the usual, since I’ll be going through a bit of history and giving you some explanations about the UK’s education system.

First things first, by the way: do we say education system or educational system?

My instinct is that it should be education system, because educational system describes a system that is educational (=pedagogical), but isn’t necessarily the school system. For example, you could perhaps argue that a mentoring system is an educational system (i.e. it teaches the participants something). For me, the school + university system is ‘a system of education’, i.e. the education system.

However, this distinction is a little pedantic, and I began to wonder if there was a British English vs American English difference, so I did a little more digging.

If you look at the two Google ngrams below (showing the frequency of use of the two terms in written sources), you will see that in American English, the two terms are used virtually synonymously, whereas in British English, there was a shift in the 1980s, when education system took over and became the more common term.

‘education system’ (blue) vs ‘educational system’ (red) in American English
‘education system’ (blue) vs ‘educational system’ (red) in British English

This also explains why I haven’t heard educational system used here in the UK: I’m too young (for once!). 🤣

To sum up: if you want to stick to British English, use education system; if you’re speaking American English, use either.

Now to some interesting (and sometimes tricky) questions about terminology.

Public school vs private school

This is a very confusing area.

In American English, ‘public school’ means ‘run by the State’. This is what we would call ‘State school’ in the UK.

In the UK, a ‘public school’ is actually an independent (usually secondary) school, i.e. it isn’t run by the government. Public schools are fee-paying, i.e. they can be equated to ‘private schools’ in other countries.

Why are they called ‘public’? In the 18th century, the reputation of some schools that taught academic subjects such as Latin and Greek spread, and these schools opened their doors to pupils whose parents could afford residential fees. In this way, the schools ceased to be local and therefore became known as public.

The UK has many public schools, some of which are boarding schools as well as accepting day pupils.

A side note: fees at top public schools are exorbitant. I spent a year at Sevenoaks school in Kent, taking A-levels. I’ve just looked up the fees:

Standard Fees

 Per termPer annum
Day Pupil£8,340£25,020
Boarder£13,320£39,960

Compare the annual fee for boarders, at around £40,000, with the median salary in the UK: £25,971.

Grammar school

Now, what I didn’t mention in my explanation above, was that these academic schools teaching Latin and Greek were known (since the 16th century) as grammar schools.

[By the way, don’t confuse this with the term ‘grammar school’ in the US, which apparently is a synonym of ‘elementary school’ (or what we in the UK would call ‘primary school’) – confused yet??]

The modern version of grammar schools has existed since the 1944 Education Act, which made secondary education after the age of 14 free.

Under this Act, secondary education was divided into two types of schools:

  • grammar schools, which were selective and academically rigorous, and to which pupils could be admitted at the age of 11 if they passed an exam called the 11+ (‘eleven plus’) – but only if there were sufficient places at the school. The idea behind these schools was that pupils would go on to higher education.
  • ‘secondary moderns’, which prepared pupils for trades.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Labour politicians and educational egalitarians argued that the grammar school system reinforced class divisions and middle class privilege, and that all pupils should be taught together.

In 1965, the government ordered local education authorities to start phasing out grammar schools and secondary moderns, and replace them with ‘comprehensive schools’, i.e. secondary schools that accept all pupils, regardless of ability or aptitude.

There are no longer any secondary modern schools.

Grammar schools disappeared rapidly between 1968 and 1980, but they stubbornly persist in some parts of England, particularly in counties like Kent, Lincolnshire, and Buckinghamshire, and in some areas around Birmingham.

As it happens, there are a few grammar schools in Yorkshire, where I live, and both of my children are at single-sex (🙁) grammar schools.

There are now 164 grammar schools in England and 69 in Northern Ireland (out of 3,000 State secondaries). There are no State grammar schools in Wales or Scotland.

Grammar schools are selective State schools in England and Northern Ireland to which pupils are admitted on the basis of an exam taken in the last year of primary school called the 11+.

I could spend a long time discussing the pros and cons of grammar schools. On the one hand, they generally provide a very good standard of education, being academically rigorous and focused on high standards of discipline. Proponents argue that they promote social mobility, since they accept pupils based on ability, and not the ‘postcode lottery’ of catchment area (i.e. rich parents being able to buy a house in the catchment area of a good State school). Detractors argue that they perpetuate class divisions, and that rich parents can afford expensive coaching to get their children through the exam (children who then may not even be able to keep up with the demands of the curriculum).

I was certainly quite shocked when I discovered 99% of children attempting the 11+ in my local area were being coached, at a cost of £5,000 per year. I thought the test was a test of ability, not a test of how rich your parents were, and how well your coach had prepared you for the exam…🙁

The name ‘grammar school’

Now, because nothing is ever simple in the UK’s education system, you may recall that I said there were no State grammar schools in Wales or Scotland.

BUT

Some schools retain the name ‘grammar school’, while actually being non-selective, with no special status.

AND

One of the schools near us is Bradford Grammar School, which is in fact an independent (i.e. public, i.e. private 🤣), fee-paying, school.

In other words, some schools calling themselves grammar schools are NOT selective, and others are NOT State schools.

Told you it was confusing.

The moral of the story is: regardless of what a school calls itself, you have to check whether it’s a State school, selective grammar school, or public school.

As far as translating the term ‘grammar school’ is concerned, given the terminological morass in which we find ourselves, I think your best option is to say ‘selective’, or ‘where pupils are admitted based on ability/exam results’.

Plethora

You all know I love Greek words, and plethora (with the syllable stress at the beginning: PLETHora) is one of my favourites.

I thought it might be useful to go through some options for saying ‘many‘ – but in more exciting ways. 🙂

I’ll take you through some possibilities, and try to discuss the terms they collocate with, as well as the register where relevant.

First things first, let’s talk about the meaning of plethora. When I hear it used in meetings, it’s used as a synonym for ‘many, a large amount’, and that’s how I use it too. But it can actually mean an overabundance (i.e. too much of something) as well.

Options for ‘many, a large number’

Apart from plethora, you could use:

  • a host of (for example, a host of reasons)
  • a raft of (usually something like a raft of measures, proposals, ideas, although I have seen it in the singular as well, which sounds odd to me).
  • a range of (used for a set, or things of a similar nature, for example a range of facial expressions, a range of mortgages, a range of proposals, a range of resources, a range of options, a range of opinions). The word range is often used with ‘large’ or ‘wide’.
  • an array of (referring to things that are positioned in a certain way, or that generally elicit admiration: an array of food on the table, an array of cameras displayed in the shop). The word array is often used with ‘large’ or ‘wide’.
  • a wealth of. This could be positive or negative; you might have a wealth of complaints, a wealth of comments on social media. It’s also often used with singular nouns such as a wealth of experience, a wealth of knowledge, a wealth of potential.
  • a myriad of (originally, this meant 10,000, but the meaning has changed over the centuries, and now it just mean ‘a very large amount’).
  • in a relatively high register, you could use abundance, profusion, or multitude. These tend to mean a very large number of people or things (e.g. a multitude of questions, a multitude of problems, a profusion of books on this subject, a profusion of articles in the press).

In a completely different register, you could use ‘a ton’ to mean ‘a lot’. This is too informal for many meeting situations.

Options for ‘too many’

If you’re explicitly trying to say there is too much of something, try the following words:

  • an excess of
  • a surfeit of
  • a flood of
  • a deluge of

You could have a flood or deluge of something positive (e.g. a flood of compliments), but in the vast majority of cases, the implication is that it’s too many to deal with comfortably.

For example, theguardian.com ran an article titled “How a deluge of money nearly broke the Premier League: It’s the world’s most lucrative football league. But a civil war over all that money came close to toppling it.”

Legacy, heritage, inheritance

Let’s talk a little bit about money, assets, or other things that are passed on to individuals or through the generations.

First things first: an important principle to remember is that heritage is what comes to you, whereas a legacy is something that you pass on. This doe/hesn’t mean that you can never use legacy to refer to the recipient (see below for examples), but if the sentence doesn’t specify, you follow the principle I’ve just outlined.

It’s his legacy. [This means ‘what he is leaving behind.]

It’s his heritage. [This means what is being passed down to him.]

Legacy

Legacy has three main meanings:

A bequest or gift

A legacy is money or property that someone leaves you when they die:

Her uncle left her a small legacy.

He used his grandfather’s legacy to buy his first house.

You get or receive a legacy FROM someone; for obvious reasons, relatives often appear in sentences with the word legacy (aunts, uncles, parents, godparents, etc.).

From the point of view of person passing on their assets, we say that they leave a legacy to someone, or (more formally) they bequeath it.

Something that is left behind from the past

In this sense, legacy is used to refer to more abstract things that are left behind by events or people’s actions, in which case the meaning is usually negative; or to refer to a person’s contribution to the world, in which case the meaning is usually positive.

The civil war has left a bitter legacy of hatred.

The legacy is the low interest, consumerist era is a mountain of consumer debt.

This extraordinary novel is his legacy.

The legacy of these Olympic Games is a greater culture of diversity.

From the Press:

Costa winner Hannah Lowe on the legacy of lockdown: my students write about feeling isolated and missing out.

Germany agonises over Merkel’s legacy: did she hand too much power to Putin?

London’s Olympic legacy three years on: is the city really getting what it needed?

Upon my death, delete: how to plan your digital legacy

An outdated version of a product

This third meaning is particularly common in IT, where older versions of software, for example, are called ‘legacy products’. They’re no longer to buy, or no longer available to new customers, but are still used by some people who prefer them to the newer version.

For example, the graphics software I use to create logos gives me the option to stick to the legacy version when I create a new design, or to use the new version.

Legacy is also used to described relatives of alumni of certain universities in the US:

“Many US colleges admit “legacies”, or students with a family connection to the university, at dramatically higher rates than other applicants.”

Heritage

As I mentioned above, the focus of the word heritage is on what comes to you from the past. It often refers to features that are part of the culture of a society, such as language, buildings, traditions, or skills with historical importance.

Based on this definition, the adjectives that go well with heritage refer either to the type of features that are passed on, or to the culture from which they’re inherited:

  • genetic heritage
  • scientific heritage
  • ethnic heritage
  • intellectual heritage
  • natural heritage
  • cultural heritage
  • a region’s heritage
  • a town’s heritage
  • a country’s heritage (there’s actually an organisation in the UK called English Heritage, which looks after historic buildings)
  • national heritage
  • the world’s heritage (think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites)

A useful verb to go with heritage is to preserve.

Examples from the Press:

We trash our modernist heritage on a whim: why is Britain so in thrall to the wrecking ball?

Guernsey language leader vows to promote “proud heritage“.

Restoring England’s Heritage: a look at England’s endangered historic buildings.

Inheritance

Now it gets a little tricky!

Inheritance overlaps with both legacy and heritage.

  1. Inheritance can mean the particular characteristics that you receive from your parents, i.e. ‘heritage’: genetic inheritance.
  2. It can also mean money or objects that you receive from someone when they die, i.e. ‘legacy’:

He spent his inheritance on fast cars.

A large inheritance from her aunt meant she was able to buy her first house at the age of 25.

I’ve tried to tease out the difference between inheritance and legacy, and it seems to me that we use the word legacy for gifts of money etc. when somebody wouldn’t normally be expected to inherit (under UK law). For example, if my aunt or my godmother left me some money in her Will, that would be called a legacy. If my parents left me all their money, on the other hand, I would probably call that my inheritance.