Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Reeling in the school years

School years. Who makes those up? This week I've been preaching comics in schools in Ireland where the high schools have. 1st year, a 2nd year and a third year then skip straight to 5th year. There is no 4th year and nobody could successfully explain to me why. They said that some schools had a 'transition' year called the 4th year and that they'd tried that but it didn't work. This left me more confused. 

I'm used to school years being different around the UK. In Scotland the high school years are numbered like it was in my childhood, starting with 1st year and progressing in order until you got to Sixth form which was then divided, slightly inexplicably, into Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth. In England, since the 1980s, secondary schools have started with Year 7 and gone through to year 11 (the former 5th year) before perversely sticking with the name 6th Form for what should be called years 12 and 13. 

Of course thus English numbering makes a lot of sense because it continues the numbering from Primary School. Except that, in England but not in Scotland, the numbering of Primary school years is just plain wrong.  You see in Scotland, the first year of a child's education is called Primary 1. Then you progress through Primary 2 etc until the last year of primary school which is Primary 7. Eminently sensible, seven years numbered one to seven. But in England someone clearly decided that would be too simple. So they called the first year of primary school 'Reception'. I ask you. Not only does that make the numbering unnecessarily out of whack, your second year at school being called Year One, but it is an added complication for a visiting artist like myself. Arriving at a strange school and trying to find the front door (& don't get me started on the design of some school buildings) I'll regularly ask a pupil "where's reception?" only to be shown not to the school office but to a room full of toddlers.

Recently in Birmingham I found the most perverse numbering yet, though I am told this is the oldest system of school year numbering. It was at a private school, where they get to make up whatever rules they please, and being private (or as they call it, public, but don't let's go there) it's high school doesn't start until what the normal English (they might say common or chav, I'd have to ask) call year 8 (Prep schools running for one year longer than state primary schools for a reason that, again, I've yet to fathom).  But once private high school does start, at least in this school's case, they don't have a 1st year and they don't have a 2nd year. Instead they have a Lower Third and an Upper Third, so it takes two years to get through third year, then a Lower Fourth and an Upper Fourth. And to cap all that the 5th year is missing altogether and you go straight to Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth. An ancient system it. May well be, but I fail to see at what point it ever made any actual logical sense. 

How come the Americans can have a system of school years (or god bless them 'grades') that are so universal and so constant that not only have they stuck with it since their schools began 150 years ago, not only is it used across their whole country whether you're in a state school or a private one, but it's so taken for granted that they drop it into their films and TV shows willy nilly just assuming the rest of the world will get it. 

I guess I should cherish and celebrate the diversity of our schools. Of course Ireland, Scotland and England should be different as should state and independent schools. And godammit all independent schools should be different from each other, that's what the name means. All I'm saying is, don't be upset if I don't arrive at school knowing what year I'm teaching , even after the third, or even upper third, explanation. 

NB: Felicity Harper writes:
Kings School Worcester has this:
7 Lower Fourth (L4)
8 Upper Fourth (U4)
9 Lower Remove (LR) The start of the house system.
10 Upper Remove (UR) The start of the GCSE course.
...11 Fifth Form (FF) GCSE exams taken.
12 Lower Sixth (L6) AS-level exams taken.
13 Upper Sixth (U6) A2-level exams taken.
I think the Remove between fourth and fifth is a bit like the Hogwarts railway platform... Spooky!

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