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What Is a British Education?

By John Frame
What Is a British Education?

On September 9 last year, during a faculty meeting, there was a minute of silence marking the death of the queen of England.[1] I walked out of the room, unwilling to participate in another enforced quasi-feudal tug of the forelock that has persisted in my life through royal weddings, births, and jubilees.[2] My protest may seem disrespectful, but I view this aspect of the British system of government as outdated and undemocratic. As the United Kingdom (UK) experiences the expensive pomp and fanfare of the coronation of the new monarch, my thoughts concentrate on what it means to be a British international teacher.[3]

The simple answer to the above question is that there is no such thing as a British education any more than there is a British legal system, a British association football league, or an established church of Britain. The term is loaded with hegemonic gunpowder crammed down its neo-colonial musket barrel. There is confusion in the international school world regarding Britishness. Often, when I meet people who work in British international schools and I ask about curriculum, they mention General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSEs) exams and A-Levels. They talk about the British national curriculum and about students preparing to enter the university system in the UK, where they will undertake three-year degrees. The magazine, Independent School Parent, summed up the remit of British international schools in the following manner, “International schools teach the UK national curriculum, often in combination with the local curriculum or other international curricula…Schools use a range of assessments at the primary level (e.g. UK national curriculum tests) and at the secondary level, schools may offer GCSEs, IGCSEs, A-Levels…”[4]

The Council of British International Schools (COBIS), established in 1989, oversees over 450 educational institutions which offer variations of the “British” curriculum. Its website states that it works closely with the British government’s Department for Education.[5] It should be noted that education is a devolved matter in the UK. The Department for Education covers schools, education policy, and child services in England. Welsh Schools are governed by local authorities, there is a separate Department of Education in Northern Ireland, and an executive agency (Education Scotland) within the Scottish government oversees and inspects schools.

There is no UK national curriculum. There is a curriculum that is followed in England and Wales, a Northern Ireland Curriculum, and a Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland. Scottish pupils do not usually sit for GCSE or A-Level examinations at the secondary level. Attending university in different parts of the UK also throws up some obvious differences. A few years ago, when a representative at a college fair at my school in China declared that higher education in the UK required a three-year commitment, I was compelled to point out that this is not true in Scotland, where most undergraduate degrees take four years.

Scotland’s education system has always been separate from England’s as codified by the terms of the Act of Union, 1707. This disconnect between the national systems may not seem important from the outside and yet, alongside law, religion, and football, it helps explain divergences in culture and national consciousness. Aspects of culture that are overshadowed, subsumed, or snuffed out over time by heftier elements emanating from the dominant hegemonic strain can often be consigned to the ash heap of historical footnotes and this is the hazard I wish to highlight.

Cultural imperialism, which dismantled the clan system in the Scottish Highlands and eroded the use of Gaelic to its current position as an endangered language, can be seen as a phase that is replicated by successive advances of capitalism during its imperial and neo-colonial eras.[6] Such is the thrall of cultural hegemony that the Cape Verdean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral stated the following, "We should work…to extinguish the colonial culture in our heads…our task should be to remove what isn’t useful and to leave what is good.”[7]

In the contemporary world, this dichotomy between retaining what is rich in one’s cultural traditions and accepting the trinkets of modernity is a struggle akin to tap-dancing on a minefield. In the face of the immense embrace of globalized capitalism, the struggle to make sure your culture is not homogenized, manipulated, marketed, and flattened beyond recognition is a long, slow, last dance.

Of course, while the lack of clear distinction when using the terms English and British is not traumatizing, it points to deeper wounds. One has only to pay attention to China’s relationships with Hong Kong and Taiwan over the next few years to realize the nature of the dynamic as smaller, less powerful entities are drowned out when they attempt to assert themselves. The UK has reached a stage in its history where the union of equals that tied Scotland and England together in the pursuit of financial wealth, often through the enslavement and colonization of others, is unraveling.[8] As we observe a waning of support for the monarchy in Scotland it is clear that the drive for modernity demanded by capitalism is one of the causes of the slow process of defeudalization. In this regard, the British upper classes continue to be the gravediggers of their own system. [9]

The term British, imbricated with a sentimental nostalgia, may not have enough structural integrity to carry the weight of the post-colonial reckoning that looms ever closer. The relationship of Scotland within this is a complicated element that has wider implications. Someone seeing my passport and assuming I am English, while not devastating, is quite irritating.[10] Understanding my privileged position in the world, I am aware that the phenomenon of marginalization is much worse for members of most other groups of people. However, my experiences provide an insight into the machinations of hegemony. This process reveals itself repeatedly as a flashpoint for needed change at international schools as events, such as the coronation of a monarch, take on new meanings and introduce fresh challenges for discussion.

Ultimately, it would be reasonable to request that international educators reflect on how they employ the term British education. I am fully aware that its use will not cease altogether but hope that readers of this article who work in a “British” international school might ask questions about whether their institution embraces all aspects of what that phrase means. Britishness, from London to Cardiff to Belfast to Edinburgh cannot be a shorthand for one culture, one system, one way of speaking, one set of values, and one way of identifying.

*I would like to thank Sundiata Vassel Spencer for his constructive feedback on this article.


[1] Officially queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of other realms and territories and head of the Commonwealth.

[2] There is plenty of evidence that the queen was not the steadfastly benign presence that people assume. See: Pegg, David, et al. “Royals Vetted More Than 1,000 Laws via Queen’s Consent.” The Guardian, 9 Feb. 2021,

Carrell, Severin, et al. “Revealed: Queen Vetted 67 Laws Before Scottish Parliament Could Pass Them.” The Guardian, 29 July 2021,

More and more evidence is also being amassed about the royal family’s role in slavery. See: Newman, Brooke. “It’s Time for the British Royal Family To Make Amends for Centuries Of Profiting From Slavery.” Slate Magazine, 28 July 2020,

[3] The coronation took place during a cost of living crisis encompassing inflation at a forty-year high, average wages stagnating, fuel prices rocketing, and the National Health Service suffering from years of underfunding, all at the tail end of a decade-long government program of austerity.

[4] What You Need to Know About British International Schools.

[5] About Us - Council of British International Schools. See also: International Schools - Understanding the Differences | the International Educator (TIE Online).

[6] There are so many examples of this in history, it is difficult to choose one, but the universalism of the Code Napoléon, which dialed back progress achieved during the French Revolution and was adapted in many places outside France, continues to be influential.

[7] Cabral, Amilcar. Resistance and Decolonization. London, Rowan and Littlefield, 2016.

[8] Simpson, Ludi, et al. The Dynamics of Diversity: Evidence From the 2011 Census., According to the census, 83% of Scotland’s residents feel Scottish.

[9] Rayner, Gordon. “‘The Monarchy Is a Weakened Institution… if We Keep Pushing, It Will Sink.’” The Telegraph, 15 Mar. 2023,

[10] The official residency card allowing me to live and work in Senegal states my nationality as English (which will make my ancestors birl in their graves).

John Frame was brought up in Wick, Scotland. Between 1989 and 1998, he earned a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in history from the University of Aberdeen. He spent a year engaged in historical research for Macallan Distillery before emigrating to the United States of America where he worked as a teacher in New York City and Columbus, Ohio. In 2018, he and his wife, Rama Ndiaye, left the U.S.A. to work in the international teaching world. He currently teaches at the International School of Dakar in Senegal.

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