This essay explores the following cultural aspects of Great Britain: the political system and government, the economy, education, transportation, policing and crime. Under the first sub-heading “Political System and Government the essay explains that the fundamental principle of the government of Great Britain is that of a parliamentary democracy, but with Queen Elizabeth II ruling overall as the titular Head of State, then continues to summarize the make-up of the government, the roles of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and more. The second section discusses Britain’s economy, its global ranking, its relationship with the European Union and Britain’s retention of the Pound Sterling as its currency. That section also describes how Britain’s economy has evolved from a predominantly manufacturing base into one where services are the major sector by percentage. Next comes the Education system in Britain, which is summarized from pre-school facilities through to university, placing some emphasis on U.S. / UK differences and on a small number of regional differences within the UK. Then comes Transportation – a section covering all Britain’s transport networks, including road, rail, air and sea – the latter including the undersea tunnel linking England with France. The final section is about the Police and crime. That covers the structure of the various UK police forces, which included dedicated British Transport Police (for the rail network) and covers some regional differences.
Great Britain comprises three principal regions or parts on its mainland: England, Wales and Scotland. It is the major part of the United Kingdom, which also includes Northern Ireland. The rest (southern part) of Ireland is a separate country called Eire – the Republic of Ireland (“What is the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England?”, n.d.). This essay explores the following cultural aspects of Great Britain: the political system and government, the economy, education, transportation, policing and crime.
Political System and Government
“How government works” (n.d.) explains that the fundamental principle of the government of Great Britain is that of a parliamentary democracy, but with Queen Elizabeth II ruling overall as the titular Head of State. In the British parliamentary system the government is headed by a Prime Minister who has ultimate responsibility for the government’s policies and decisions. He has the power to appoint other members of the government as well as overseeing the running of Britain’s Civil Service and the various government agencies. He is based at a well-known London address: Number 10 Downing Street. Currently, as described in the article, Britain’s coalition government since May 2010 is made up of members of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party – two of the three main political parties, the third being the Labour Party. It has a Deputy Prime Minister (from the Liberal Party), who assists the Prime Minister, is consulted on policy decisions, and has his own specific areas of responsibility.
The same article also describes how senior members of the government form the Cabinet, who meet weekly while Parliament is in session, to discuss the major issues. In addition to the Prime Minister, there are 21 ministers in the Cabinet, plus a further 99 ministers who work outside of that body. Administratively, the government comprises 24 ministerial departments, a further 20 departments that are not designated as ministerial, plus over 300 peripheral government agencies and related public bodies.
The British Parliament comprises the House of Commons – which has 650 elected representatives called Members of Parliament (MPs) – and the House of Lords. As described in “How Parliament works” (n.d.), the House of Commons is “the supreme legal authority in the UK” which the article states “is the most important part of the UK constitution.” The separate and independent House of Lords functions as a check on the House of Commons, and can challenge actions of the government. All new laws have to pass through both of these institutions.
“The Economy of the UK, GB, British Isles” (2010) describes the UK economy as between the world’s sixth or eighth largest, depending on the criteria used. Noting that it encompasses the economies of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the article also mentioned that though the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are included in the British Isles, they have their own statuses as offshore banking centers.
Because the United Kingdom is a European Union (EU) member state, it is part of a system known as a single market, which allows free movement between member states of its peoples, goods (trade), services and – importantly – finance (capital). However, as the article reports, the UK controls and maintains independence of its economy and continues to use as its currency the Pound (Sterling), whereas the remainder of the EU uses the Euro.
The article notes that although the UK was “the birthplace of the first industrial revolution”, other countries have since caught up and Britain has been affected negatively by two World Wars in the last century, so that it is unlikely to return to the once-held position of the world’s number one economic power. The present economic climate is one of austerity and slow or zero economic growth, with a very large trade deficit, second only to the U.S.
Interestingly, for a country that was once a major center of manufacturing industry, the article reports that by far the largest sector now is that of services, representing some 77 percent, most importantly in finance and banking, where London is one of the three world centers of finance, along with New York and Tokyo. Services are followed by manufacturing at just 22 percent, with agriculture trailing way behind at between one and two percent, although it still produces circa 60 percent of the country’s food requirements. Although UK agriculture is “highly mechanised and efficient”, it does benefit from considerable subsidies – both from the British government and from the European Union.
Similarly, although manufacturing as a sector has shrunk dramatically from former times, the article reports that based on output values, the UK is still “the sixth-largest manufacturer of goods in the world.” The manufacturing industries include aerospace, which the article reports as “the second largest in the world.”
The Education System
The education system in England is usefully and quite comprehensively described in an article by Dunn & Collyer (2011) entitled “Understanding the British School System.” It was produced and published under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force 422nd Air Base Group, for the information of U.S. military personnel or civilian support personnel who might need to place children in the schools system (free for families based in the UK). For that reason it included mention of some UK / U.S. differences, which are noted where applicable in the following paragraphs. Note that there are also detail differences from the “England and Wales” system, especially in Scotland, but also in Northern Ireland. Those differences – as summarized in a British Council article entitled “The Education Systems of England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” (n.d.) – are covered where appropriate in the text.
Dunn & Collyer reported that in England all children between the ages of five and 16 attend free but compulsory schooling. (Also available to qualifying U.S. personnel and families). There are also pre-schools available for younger children, though most of those are fee-paying. The school year begins in September and ends in the following July and comprises three terms (or semesters). Autumn (Fall) term begins in September and ends at the Christmas break. The Spring Term is January through to the Easter holiday, then the Summer Term follows into July. There are short holidays (about a week) in the middle of each 12-week term. The Christmas and Easter breaks last approximately two weeks, and the Summer holiday is the longest – usually extending to around six weeks.
As explained by Dunn & Collyer, the schooling is divided into Primary and Secondary education. Primary schools educate children between the ages of four and 11, moving each child up to the next class each year. The article noted that ages four to seven equate to Key Stage 1, and ages seven to 11 equate to Key Stage 2. Subjects taught at Primary Schools are determined by and in accordance with the National Curriculum. Secondary schools teach children between the ages of 11 and 16, in most cases in schools called Comprehensive schools, which cater for children of all abilities. Again the National Curriculum is followed, and the children are assessed at ages 14 (Key Stage 3) and at 16 (Key Stage 4). At that stage children sit the General Certificate of Education (GCSE) exams, which may be supplemented by course work assessments in various subjects.
As further described by Dunn & Collyer, many children stay on at school for a further two years after the age of 16, enrolling in what is referred to as the Sixth Form. In this period they study for Advanced Level exams (“A” levels) in a smaller number of subjects, often as the principal route to qualify for university.
Dunn & Collyer reported that there are fee-paying schools available in Britain for those parents who prefer that option for their children. Those can be either day schools or boarding establishments. All schools tend to follow a similar daily timetable, running from approximately 8:45 in the morning to 3:00 or later in the afternoon with a midday lunch break of about one hour. Religious education is compulsory for the schools, though parents may opt out for their children if they wish. Many schools in Britain have a mandatory school uniform policy, which is distinctive school-to-school. Assessments of the child’s performance and progress are made regularly in the form of school reports. At Primary school level these are usually once each year, but at Secondary school are more likely to be at the end of each term.
In Secondary schools, children at the age of 13-14 (end year 9) select about 10 of the subjects for continuing, and drop the remainder. Dunn & Collyer noted that this is earlier then the practice in the U.S. At the age of 16 children are permitted to leave school, or can stay on to study for a further two years to qualify for university entrance, which – if attended – is usually a four year course.
Dunn & Collyer provided – especially for American parents – the following information regarding differences between the UK and U.S. systems. The first and quite important difference is that transport to/from school is not an automatically available facility in the UK. Though there may be a service for some Secondary schools, it is the individual’s responsibility. British schools will not recognize U.S. holidays such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving, so U.S. parents need to obtain special permission if planning family celebrations on those days.
Regarding differences between the school systems in different parts of the British Isles, the article by the British Council noted that in Scotland the curriculum is slightly different, and that Scottish Secondary educations begins at age 12. It also noted that the exams have different names in Scotland. The school year in Scotland begins in mid-August and ends in June, whereas in Northern Ireland the corresponding dates are begin-September and end-June. In Scotland the teaching of a foreign language begins in Primary school. In Northern Ireland religion is a more sensitive issue and many schools indicate their religious allegiance by part of the name of the school, e.g. RC for Roman Catholic.
British Transportation Systems
Barrow (2012) published an article on a school’s website, entitled “Types of Transport in Britain”, that provided a good overview of British transportation systems, and cited the nation’s road and motorway system as the primary component of the routes for domestic transport. Barrow claimed that there are circa 225,000 miles of roads/motorways in total, accounting for around 85 percent of all passenger miles travelled in Britain. Most of the roads are free to use, although there are a few roads that charge toll fees, including the central area of London, which calls the fees “congestion charges”. Barrow listed the average miles travelled by individuals within Britain by various means per year (averaged over 1999 to 2001) as follows: Walking – 189; By bicycle – 39; On the bus – 342; By train – 368, In the car – 5354. Not only did car travel account for by far the greatest distance travelled, but all the methods other than the car showed shorter distances than a similar analysis undertaken some 15 years earlier, showing that Britain had become much more car-orientated in that time. Barrow also noted that about three quarters of all households own at least one car. Motorcycles are also a popular means of private transport, totalling circa one million on Britain’s roads. Mopeds (engine size up to 50cc) are especially popular with young people as they can be ridden at age 16 using a “provisional” licence. Full licences for driving cars or motorcycles can be obtained from the age of 17 after passing an official Driving Test.
Barrow noted that whereas most of Britain’s freight was formerly transported around the country by either train or canal barge, about two thirds of it is now carried by lorries (trucks). There is also an extensive network of public bus services throughout Britain, including the world-famous “double-decker” red buses used throughout London. In just a few towns, perhaps most famously in the Northern seaside resort of Blackpool, there are also tram systems – electric vehicles running in rail tracks embedded in the street, and powered from overhead wires.
Britain’s train network is extensive – one of Europe’s largest – with in excess of 11,000 miles of track, carrying about 1,500 trains daily through as many as 2,500 stations. Britain boasted the first ever of the world’s public railways, when the Stockton and Darlington line opened in 1825. The so-called “main line” trains terminate on the outskirts of the capital, London, at a series of major stations. From those stations, passengers are able to travel anywhere in London on the London Underground or “Tube” network, which started in 1890 – another world first. That network has over 250 miles of track and encompasses a greater area than any other comparable system. Britain has direct rail links with continental Europe via trains running through tunnels bored between England and France 50 metres below the seabed of the English Channel.
Britain’s air transport system includes no less than 470 airports, with five major airports serving London. Figures for 2004 showed that London’s airports jointly handled more than 120 million passengers, with London Heathrow – the busiest in the world – handling 67 million of them. In terms of international cargo transport, Barrow reported that although the Channel Tunnel also carries a certain amount of freight, shipping carries most freight, with Dover being the busiest of Britain’s ports.
Policing and Crime
“Policing in the UK: A Brief Guide” (2012), published by the Association of Chief Police Officers, states there are 44 separate police forces distributed throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each is headed by a Chief Constable who reports to the Home Secretary, a government minister. Beginning in November 2012, most of those police forces – other than the City of London force and the police in Northern Ireland – have an elected Police and Crime Commissioner providing local direction and other functions. In addition to those “regular” police forces, there is also a separate force called the British Transport police that polices Britain’s railway systems, and other specialist police such as those associated with the Ministry of Defence and nuclear establishments. Scotland has its own police forces (presently integrating into one unified force), although the British Transport Police also cover the rail network in Scotland.
Regarding crime in the UK, Burn-Murdoch & Chalabi (January 2013) published an article in the Guardian newspaper, summarizing current statistics and trends. Essentially, the article showed that crime in general had fallen in the period (Sept 2011-Sept 2012), and total numbers of crimes were 29 percent fewer than 10 years earlier. Only two individual crime categories showed increases over the 12-month period. They were thefts of bicycles and other household items, although the increases were very small. Homicide – a major crime category – has shown a drop to half of the figures for 2001-2002.
Barrow, M. “Types of Transport in Britain.” (2012). Project Britain: British Life & Culture. Retrieved from http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/questions/transport.html
Burn-Murdoch, J., & Chalabi, M. “Crime statistics for England & Wales: what's happening to each offence?” (January 2013). The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jul/14/crime-statistics-england-wales
Dunn, L. & Collyer, J. “Understanding the British School System. (2011). U.S. Air Force 422nd Air Base Group. Retrieved from http://www.422abs.com/rafc/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=Rw8YrHUPTTw%3D&tabid=82&mid=467
“How government works.” (n.d.). GOV.UK. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/how-government-works
“How Parliament works.” (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/
“Policing in the UK: A Brief Guide.” (2012). The Association of Chief Police Officers. Retrieved from http://www.acpo.police.uk/documents/reports/2012/201210PolicingintheUKFinal.pdf
“The Economy of the UK, GB, British Isles.” (2010). Economy Watch. Retrieved from http://www.economywatch.com/world_economy/united-kingdom/?page=full
“The Education Systems of England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” (n.d.). The British Council. Retrieved from http://www.britishcouncil.org/flasonline-uk-education-system.pdf
“What is the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England?” (n.d.). About.com Geography. Retrieved from http://geography.about.com/library/faq/blqzuk.htm